Balancing Act

Getting past the clouds of doubt and seizing joy

 Chicago Tribune reporter and columnist Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune reporter and columnist Heidi Stevens (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / March 20, 2013)

Today we debut Balancing Act, a weekly column from the Tribune's Heidi Stevens that will explore the challenges — big, small, tragic, comic or all of the above — of juggling life and work in a not-always obliging world.

An overwhelming fear in so much of parenting is that you've forever crushed the spirits of your children.

The root of the fear can be deep and impenetrable or flimsy and weak: You travel for work. You can't afford theater camp. You won't buy Lunchables.

The emotional weight of the fear is the significant part: It has no solution and no expiration date and no viable distraction, so it's as likely to shake you awake at 3 a.m. as it is to silently interrupt an otherwise benign reading of "Green Eggs and Ham."

The root of my fear is a divorce already a year in the past. The moving boxes are long unpacked, and the happiness that seemed forever buried under a mountain of bills and court orders and uncertainty has been unearthed and hangs comfortably in the air of our cozy, newish confines.

Still. Maybe it's our culture, or maybe it's my conscience — or maybe the two are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable — but a nagging voice is forever reminding me that I've taken something my children knew and cherished and relied on, and I've wrecked it. And, probably, I've wrecked them too.

It's hogwash, of course. Most of our fears are. But you don't know that at first, and you forget it a lot, so you scour, constantly, your children's landscapes for signs of joy.

And you find them — I find them — everywhere. My kids are 3 and 7, so they find joy in moments and rituals that the rest of us stopped delighting in decades ago. Bathing, for example.

And when you make a point of tracking joy, this lovely thing starts to happen.

Joy starts to feel like a victory. It starts to feel like the one thing, of all things, that you need to make room for and create and protect.

It starts to feel like the whole point.

So when my little guy, post-bath, bounces naked on the bed and squeals with laughter as the just-folded laundry takes flight, I feel my mood lift instead of sink.

When I ask my daughter to put on her shoes and she launches into a handstand followed by an Irish jig followed by an elaborate twirling routine en route to the closet, I realize I'd rather be 5 minutes late (we're always 5 minutes late) than miss a sign that her spirit is alive and well.

When the third, fourth, fifth round of knock-knock jokes is nipping at the heels of homework time, which pushes back bedtime, which invariably screws up the next morning, I no longer feel as if I'm doing every single thing wrong. I feel as if I'm doing one thing — the big thing — a little right. They're happy.

We're all obsessed by balance right now, whether we're dissecting Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's edict against working from home or deciding how many extracurriculars is too many extracurriculars or weighing the need to plow through a to-do list against the need for sleep.

I obsess about it myself a fair bit: how to give equal attention to two little humans whose needs are constant and humbling and so different from each other. How to forge a work identity without tying my identity to work. How to give ample, if not equal, attention to all those noncareer, nonkid pursuits — friendships, exercise, good books.

It's an elusive thing, balance, and it will always mean different things to different people. But I wonder if we wouldn't all do well to place joy on one side of the scale and the rest of our stuff on the other side.

And to make sure the stuff side never weighs more than the joy side.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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