How Do You Balance Nothing?

The word of the month is "balance", or so they tell me for the upcoming . I have been thinking for days about what I could write on this topic. What does balance mean to those without careers?

I can talk about stuff from the past, how I made choices about balancing career and relationship over a period of several years. First there was the decision to leave my life in Philadelphia and all my friends to move to Kansas, because I wanted to continue living with Mr. Zuska. That was a hard decision, but I was able to find a job that represented a significant career advance for me. Positives: career did not suffer, but improved; able to stay with significant other and even afford a house. Negatives: leave friends and ties to life I had built in Philly. It was very, very hard to leave my friends, but I decided the balance tilted toward leaving, and I went.

The job was great, but after one year the company changed hands, and the nature of the job changed. Around this time, Kansas State University came looking for a director for its new Women in Engineering and Science Program. If ever there were a dream job for me, this was it.

The only catch was, the job was two hours away from Mr. Zuska.

Positives: dream job of a lifetime. Negatives: leave life with partner, commute on weekends, double living expenses. The dream job tipped the scales, though, because I knew if I didn't take it, I'd resent Mr. Zuska for the rest of my life. He knew it, too, and though he missed me, he supported my decision. Thus we joined the ranks of the commuter couples.

Of course, there were long weekends and holiday periods spent together; but it wasn't like living together. Overtime, as any couple who's done this can tell you, being apart became more painful. The job was great; I loved academic life, we were establishing good programs, I had a wonderful and influential mentor. At the same time, the job was burning me out. I just couldn't ever turn it off; it followed me home, it invaded every waking moment and occupied my thoughts; it demanded my evening and weekend hours; it needed my emotional involvement, not just my intellectual labor. It was a greedy, greedy job. Life was all career and everything else was of secondary, no, tertiary importance. Out of balance. Thus, I was utterly susceptible when a friend called, recruiting me back to the pharmaceutical industry in early 2003.

But how could I leave the dream job, even if it was killing me? It was the most difficult career decision I've ever made. It's not like I was throwing my career away - the job in pharma was good, and well-paid. But a part of me strongly felt I should stay in academe and climb the administrative career ladder to positions of success and influence congruent with expectations inculcated in graduate school. The demons of Other People's Expectations blathered on in my head, but I shut them out, chose personal happiness, and moved back in with Mr. Zuska and the cat.

Positives: good job, great pay, very nice new colleagues, full time Mr. Zuska!, lowered cost of living, one garden to concentrate on. Negatives: leaving behind friends and colleagues, feeling I'd let people down, feeling I'd "given up" somehow in my career because I wasn't in academia. But the balance was heavily toward the positive, and I had three blissful weeks of exactly the kind of life I wanted.

Then I had a stroke.

Followed by: migraines left and right, lost the job, sick all the time, taking meds by the shovelful, trips to the ER, blah blah blah. In 2005, we moved back to Philly to be nearer family; there's a world class headache clinic here I can reach by public transportation; there are good career opportunities for Mr. Zuska.

These days, when I think about balance, I think "there's nothing left for me to balance". What's behind that statement, of course, is the huge hole in my heart and my life that the loss of my career has left.

On the days when I don't have a migraine, I can function normally. So I have time on my hands. Time - that luxury we all wish for when we are all so busy. And yet, time on your hands is not necessarily a good thing. Dr. Free-Ride notes:

Back when I was a blissfully childfree graduate student trying to get a thesis written (both times), I could stare at the computer screen for hours without writing more that a few paragraphs that were worth anything. Don't get me wrong -- I'd be typing for a good part of each of those hours, but then I'd decide that what I had typed didn't explain what needed to be explained, or set up the problem right, or tie together the previous work, or ...

With all the time in the world, I could not get a damn thing done.

Time is thick, and I don't measure it in the ways I used to. My days and weeks do not have the specific rhythm that a work week provides, and I have not yet drummed up a rhythm of my own that satisfies. Time is ruled by the migraine, which keeps no regular schedule, and does not phone in advance for reservations. There's the migraine, the post-migraine recovery, and the waiting for the next migraine. I don't know how to find balance, because I imagine there's nothing to balance.

What needs balancing now, of course, is my internal self-image. The question you get early after meeting someone new is "so, what do you do?" This distresses me, and I still have no good answer. Sometimes I say "I'm on disability right now", which gives people pause, because I don't look disabled. And then there are questions, and awkward explanations. Yet I can't bring myself to just say "nothing" in reply, because it makes me feel like nothing.

The balance that is lacking in my life right now, then, is a self-identity that doesn't require a job description. It is the question of "how to be" instead of "how to do". Gardening helps. So do cats. Cats totally know how to be. I am taking lessons.


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You keep on being! You have my official permission. ;-) I'm also unbalanced (retirement, not sick), and I feel for you. Leaping from good day to good day or keeping a steady strain in between good days? A really hard decision. I expect you'll do it pretty well. Hmmm, that's kind of a balance thing, isn't it?

You could tell people that your job is educating and challenging folks who are interested in gender and science and engineering, or holding accountable those who, intentionally or unintentionally, perpetuate power imbalances and make life more difficult for people from underrepresented groups. You are, in fact, a journalist and public intellectual in the new and powerful medium of the bloggosphere! Keep it up!

"so, what do you do?"

Well, you blog. Is that not a good answer?

You are, in fact, a journalist and public intellectual

Exactly so. I wish more people who draw govt salaries in "knowledge professions" would take the idea of being a public intellectual as seriously as you take this blog, and do half so good a job of it.

"So, what do you do?"

Whatever I want.

Oh, wow! It was difficult to post this entry...thank you for your warm responses. And for the great suggestions! I love the "whatever I want" response! Don't know if I would say it out loud, but I can think it in my head and it already makes me feel better.

Well, I feel encouraged by your suggestions to speak about my blog...hey, it feels nice to be called a public intellectual! That's something I definitely aspire to.

To the public intellectual (my favorite) may I suggest you add writer. She's Such a Geek! got great reviews and is hopefully selling briskly

Oh Zuska, I hear you babe. And feel for you.

I'm going to print out this post and hang it on the bathroom door to read during reflective times (if that is what you want to call time spent in the bathroom)...what I like about your post is that you do a great job of recognizing the postives and negatives of the various stages of your life. That is an exercise I have to do, because indeed, each stage of my life has had its positives and negatives, but sometimes I am overwhelmed by either the negative or positive aspects, and tend to think of the various stages in terms of black and white, rather than mottled shades of grey. Lately, for reasons similar to what you are going through now, things seem pretty black, and although I try to look on the bright side, it seems really forced and kind of fake most of the time.

And you are right...gardening *does* help (so does owning a 110 year old house that presents an infinite number of fixup projects). Cats (and dogs) help too. It especially helps that my favourite dog couldn't give a damn what I am or what I am not...she'll always love me just the same.

I really like "Whatever I want!" as a reply to "What do you do?"

Environmental philosophy blogger, Dave Pollard, recently considered this, too. He suggests some other questions to consider, such as "What is my purpose?" and "What would I like my legacy to be?"

(blog link: Sixty seconds with you)