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Work-life balance? Yeah, right.

We’re all desperate to achieve it, but no one can find the time

By Beth Teitell
May 6, 2010

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Oh, work-life balance, you elusive goal. You, with your promise of happiness and fulfillment, taunting, out of reach, like world peace, or the perfect haircut. If only we had you, we’d be better mothers, workers, wives, friends. Zen.

On Mother’s Day this Sunday, millions will seek to give mom just what she wants — flowers, a Kindle, a call — and she loves those, she does, but she wants something else, too, a state she can’t quite reach no matter how many work-life balance books on tape she listens to while commuting, no matter how elaborate her homework-sports camp-playdate spreadsheet.

Work-life balance, hear our pleas, our stories.

Listen to Nicole Russo, the mother of two young girls, and a partner at O’Neill Hospitality and Entertainment, speaking on a recent morning at a volunteer event before starting her day at work, then going home to West Roxbury to do the bath and bedtime routine. “People say, ‘you should do yoga, you should do Pilates, something for yourself for an hour.’ But who has an hour? Who has time for inner peace?’’

Hear the story of Susan McConathy, a saleswoman for a high-tech firm with two young sons, one of whom has started questioning Santa’s existence.

“Mom,’’ her son said, “a kid at school said Santa’s not real. He said it’s the parents who buy the presents and hide them in the attic.’’ So McConathy countered, her Bluetooth ear piece in place: “Jake, do you think I’d have time to not only shop for presents, but wrap them?’’ “No, you’re right,’’ he said. It seemed more likely that a man would fly around in the sky than that his own mother would have time to put a Game Boy into a gift bag.

Hear my own story, that of a work-at-home mom, who appears to some to have the best of both worlds, except when those worlds collide, as they did when I was being interviewed live on the radio, and my fourth-grader burst in from the park.

“Mom, can I go to Andre’s house?’’

“I’m on the radio,’’ I mouthed, while trying to keep up the on-air banter with the host.

“Mom, can I?’’

I tried to focus on the radio program: “Give me five minutes,’’ I scribbled. It was time he didn’t have (his life-play balance being hectic, too, and his friend poised to leave the playground). “Have his mother call me,’’ I wrote. At that he took off, me stupidly thinking my problems were over, until the call-waiting started going off.

Work-life balance, how distant a goal are you? Consider the story of Jen Palmer, of Belmont, a high-tech saleswoman.

“I had cancer treatment two years ago,’’ she said as she shopped for clothes with her young daughter at Target at 9 p.m., on a school night, “and it sounds strange, but it was like a break.’’ She could enjoy time with her children, she said, without having to check her BlackBerry. “I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything else but be with them. I had no stress.’’

What do moms need? That’s a long, ongoing discussion, but here’s what we don’t need: Julia Roberts. Apparently the multimillion-dollar smile and the good hair is not enough for her. She has to rub our faces in her . . . balance.

In case you were too busy working on your balance to read the Sunday papers, here was the headline from The New York Times piece: “Mother and Mega-Star, Happily Balanced.’’ “We are happy as clams,’’ said Roberts, who, we learned, works only when she wants to. “I am fulfilled by my own life on an hourly basis.’’

That last statement can’t help but throw the unbalanced moms further off balance. If there’s one thing that’s harder to take than your own lack of equilibrium, it’s someone else’s success in that realm. To say “I spend time with my kids, and I volunteer, and I’m blessed with a wonderfully flexible job, and my husband and I have date night every Saturday,’’ is akin to boasting “I’ve got firm thighs.’’

So what is to be done? The experts are ready with advice: You can have work-life balance, but just not all at once; take time for yourself; redefine what success means to you; and on and on.

But perhaps the best advice comes from the unbalanced moms themselves. Asked if they had work-life balance, many let out a long “ha ha ha ha.’’ In other words, when all else fails, laugh.

Happy Mother’s Day.