All those years while working part-time and navigating early motherhood, I thought my life was balanced. I practically bragged to anyone who would listen about how lucky I was to be a mom with a job I loved away from home three days each week. And a dream of a babysitter. It looked, sounded and felt like the perfect solution to the mom vs. career battle within me.
But it wasn’t balanced. When your work is your obsession, it doesn’t matter how many days you are home each week. While your body works in the kitchen, plays at the park, or hosts a playdate, your mind rehearses the next difficult conversation you need to have with an employee or composes the email you wish you would have written.
I wish I could say that work is the only obsession I’ve ever had. But my tendency to fixate is pervasive. In my college years, I spent so much time working out in the gym that a professor called me into his office and gently suggested that maybe I should consider exercising a little less. “Don’t you think,” he asked with just the right mix of concern and sarcasm, “1000 calories on the stationery bike might be a little overkill?” I knew he had a point.
At 41, I’ve given up my pursuit of the balanced life. Maybe my obsessive ways have led me down path of defeat one too many times. Keeping life’s teeter totter in the air is not how I want to live.
This is why, on my 41st birthday, I declare a new life ambition: to live in the middle. To find that fulfilling flow between the extremes of perfectionism and apathy, and to stay there. This is how I see it: We all tend to live toward the right or left of middle. On the left, we avoid, escape, freeze and self-sabotage. On the right, we obsess, overdo and perfect. And the middle remains a mystery.
Not surprisingly, one extreme creates the opposite extreme. We work to utter exhaustion, then become productivity-paralyzed by stress and fatigue. We try so hard to control a relationship that it completely collapses. We go through life wasting our energy swinging from one extreme to the other, all the while missing out on the middle.
Buddhists call it “the middle way.” Christians refer to it as the narrow gate and the easy yoke. The Chinese name it the tao. Whatever words are used, it’s the idea that there is a space – somewhere in the middle – where we can flourish. It’s the notion that we don’t have to oscillate from good feelings to bad ones or from control to letting go; instead, there is a both/and place where the messy and the beautiful were meant to coexist. Where we are meant to exist.
In the middle, we:
- Embrace work with dedication, not obsession
- Exercise for health instead of numbers
- Parent with influence, not control
- Love with openness instead of fear
- Consume with purpose rather than escape
Staying in the middle means reeling myself in from the tantalizing sea of control, perfection and overwork. It means holding boundaries that keep me out of resentment and allow me to accept help. The middle is where letting go happens, creativity flows and there is space for my soul to be filled.
And so I wonder if, at the very end, the good life is being able to say, “I stayed in the middle.I found my flow there, took chances and flourished.I stayed away from fear’s paralyzing edge on the left and obsession’s self-destruction on the right.
I forged a path less traveled –
the middle path.”