I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter lately about work-life balance. The image in my head for “balance” is my standing on a fence post, spinning plates on tall poles. If I let one area of my life get too big, everyone goes crashing to the ground in a pile of porcelain shards. I’d like to propose an alternate expression: work-life tension.
Not the bad kind of tension that makes knots in your muscles, but the kind of tension that makes music. The tension in a piano string. Each string has its own sweet spot of how much tension it can handle. In our house, we have six people who all resonate at different frequencies. One of my children puts himself to bed every night a good hour before anyone else, because he knows that without his ten hours of sleep, he won’t be any good in the morning. Another one of my children has to eat every two hours, or she can’t function. I run on two hours less sleep per night than my husband, while he can run six miles in the time it takes me to run four. These are the ideal conditions for each of us to function well. When we’re all tuned properly, our lives hum along and we’re all generally content.
Add an extra hospital shift into my week, and the cooking suffers. We eat a lot more snacks and fewer vegetables. When we keep the kids up too late for extra swim meets and dance recitals, no one has the energy the next day to pull their weight around the house. The tension on the string is too great, and we become sharp with one another. We say things we regret and are slow to ask forgiveness.
On the flip side as summer ended, I noticed my children chafing with inactivity. Swim team and ballet had ended; friends and babysitting jobs had gone on vacation. The kids were bored and had stopped setting goals for themselves, or had stopped trying to meet the goals they’d set at the beginning of the summer. They sat around picking at each other until someone would blow up. There are only so many times your brother can blast you in a video game before you yell at him. This to me was a sign that their strings were slack. My expectations of them were too low. There wasn’t enough tension on those strings.
We had our piano tuned a few months ago. The tuner played each one of the strings individually, listening carefully to its pitch, adjusting each a fraction of a turn this way or that. He never made a sudden move, and he was quick to notice if he’d turned a flat string too far and made it sharp.
A long, thick string like bass E makes a rich, deep sound that is distinct and different from the sound of a high C. If you try to tighten that bass E until it sounds like a high C, it will snap. You get no music from a broken string. That’s what happens when I start comparing my life to the perfect Pinterest project or Instagram post, or to my medical school classmates who are changing the world with their research: I start increasing the tension on both ends of my string until one of the pins pops out and has to be replaced.
The only cure is to put the pin back in and start over, gradually increasing the tension- a little here, a little there- until the music is beautiful again.
Seeing myself precariously balanced on one foot while spinning multiple plates magnifies the pressure I feel. It makes me feel alone, and imagines me as critically important. If the plates all crash to the ground, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t my life together again.
Visualizing my life instead as a well-tuned string gives me freedom. I’m not the only one making music. If I snap, I can almost always sit down with a tuner and find my way back to healthy tension. Instead of being alone, I’m part of an instrument, or better yet an orchestra, and my one clear note is just a part of the symphony.