The Juggle is Real

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Mar 31, 2020

Mar 31, 2020 • by Kelly J. Baker

I'm in a seminar room with graduate students from my alma mater. We're talking about sexism and teaching. I brought in candy to soften the blow. One student raises a hand to ask me a question about juggling their commitments. In this department, the very one I graduated from, students have a lot to juggle: taking seminars, teaching their own classes, researching/writing their theses or dissertations and living their lives. What kind of strategies could I offer about juggling all of their obligations? I had done it, right?

How did I continue to juggle now?

These were work‐life balance questions. Folks want to know how I do all things. How do I balance being an editor of two magazines, an author and a public speaker—work—with my life as a friend, daughter, sister, partner and parent?

I wanted to laugh out loud, and I did … a little. Those questions about work‐life balance are tricky. It's not so much about “How do we do it all?” but rather “How do we do it all well?”

The Pressure to Excel

And I understood their impulse to want to do it all well. Graduate programs and the academy, purposefully or subtly, suggest that students should always excel. There can be no “off” days. Your paper can't be just good; it has to be the best. Your comment in a seminar has to be life‐changing. Your teaching record has to be stellar. You have to be excellent at everything while trying to have a life outside the classroom and taking care of yourself. There's always something to be done, and you better do it well.

Excellence is the standard for most grad programs. Anything less than excellence feels like failure. You have to be a master juggler, not merely an amateur. You have no room to drop the ball. In the academy and many other workplaces, there's no real concept of good enough. Good enough is never enough.

So, how do I juggle? I just do it, but I don't always do it well. Sometimes, I drop a ball and manage to pick it back up again. Sometimes, I keep all of the balls up in the air, frantically, while hoping they just keep staying up. Sometimes, someone lobs an unexpected ball or two at me. Sometimes, I get whacked over and over in the face as they all fall on me and I scramble to get them back up in the air. Sometimes, I have to resist the temptation to chuck a ball at someone else's head. Sometimes, I don't resist.

Can you juggle all of your obligations while being excellent at each?

No. You can't. It's not possible. There aren't enough hours in the day. We all have to eat, rest and sleep, and occasionally do laundry.

The Best We Can

We juggle the best we can. We have to realize that sometimes we are going to drop a ball or two. That's OK. We can't keep them all up in the air all the time. There's a tweet going around with a line from Nora Roberts. She said we have to learn which balls are glass and which are plastic. Some balls can bounce back if we drop them. Some will shatter. We have to learn which is which. Some balls matter more than others. We have to decide which ones matter the most.

But we also have to learn that we just have to juggle and sometimes we are going to be bad at it. We have to get to a point where we can find peace with doing the best we can. If that means a seminar paper isn't the best paper you've ever written, that's OK. If that means there's a not‐so‐great day of class, it happens, and you get to try again in the next class session. We get to try again.

We constantly have to make choices about what gets our full attention today and what can slide. Our priorities shift. Shit happens that we haven't planned or that we can't do anything about. We get to have off days. We get to drop a ball or balls. We can't always keep everything aloft. We shouldn't be expected to. We can pick some of the balls back up.

I do manage to juggle, but I often drop the ball. That's life. It's tough out here.

Strive for Good Enough

Just the day before I met with the students, my 6‐year‐old claimed his stomach hurt, so he couldn't go to school. I could feel the panic set in. I had multiple deadlines coming up. I had to work. So, I convinced him to eat some breakfast and gave him a pep talk. After he ate some waffles, his stomach felt better. He was just hungry. Off he went to school and off I went to work.

I had to juggle work and parenting. That morning, I had to choose which ball to keep in the air. I did good enough. I could live with that.

Good enough is more realistic than the constant excellence employers and advisors expect. It is truly good enough.

Let me let you in on a little secret: What we think is only good enough is often good. It can be hard for us to evaluate our decisions or actions noncritically. Juggling is hard, and we all have to do it. But we have to be able to give ourselves permission to do what we need to get by and nothing more. We have to learn that we are doing the best we can. We can't always juggle all the things all the time. But we can be good‐enough jugglers who know what balls we can drop, and that we can also pick them back up.