Work life balance… it’s like spinning plates

16 May

I recall fondly the days when my two children were young – I was a twenty-something entrepreneur whose daily life felt like I was constantly spinning a dozen plates.  Between dance lessons, soccer practice, karate, girls choir, homework, teachers conferences, school volunteerism, business trips away, marketing, volunteerism, finding new contracts, running a household, and catering to a husband who was either in school or busy working 12 hour shifts (3 times a week), there were months and years where I felt a little harried (to say the least).  I was overtaxed, but considered that I was happy as I could be – spinning so many plates at once. Multi-tasking was an understatement!

I have high respect and regard for women (and men) worldwide who struggle to keep so many plates in the air at the same time. Now that my children are grown and on their own, and I am in a new life of singledom, I can view my former busy life with 20/20 hindsight.  In retrospect I wish I had done a few things differently and I’d like to share them with you:

1. Realize that there is a limit to the number of plates you can spin at once!

When I look back, I realize that two kids + too many activities + pursuing a business + living away from supportive family + volunteering at school + out-of-town travel + a competitive husband = overload.  I wish that I had taken on less, nurtured personal friendships and sought help from friends and neighbors. Over time, this overloaded situation caused me fatigue and kept me from feeling personally fulfilled.

2. You don’t have to be all things to all people.

As a person with high ideals and a harsh inner critic, I sought to keep all the plates spinning all the time and at the perfect tempo.  I sought to be the best mother, the best school volunteer, the best homemaker, the profitable entrepreneur, and the perfect attentive wife – I now think that was an impossible feat. Similar to being a jack of all trades and master of none, I regret thinking that I was a superwoman who could succeed with so many demands on my time.  If I had only known then that 20% of the effort in the right places (my children) would give me 80% of the benefits (healthy happy adults), I would have sacrificed perfection in the other areas.

3. Accept support from everyone!

I remember times during my busy years that people would offer support or help — and I turned down the offers because I didn’t want to be a burden.  Instead of looking at offers to help as exactly that (genuine and giving), I viewed it as  take and give. I felt that if I took help, I’d be indebted to return the favor double.  My advice?  Accept the help when it will ease your burden, and don’t feel that you owe double.  Others will appreciate that you trusted them enough to take their help!

4. Keep your own “Cookie Jar” full!

One of the most life changing anecdotes I’ve ever read outlines how women (primarily) are taught to make sure to take care of others first. In other words, we make sure that we keep everyone else’s “cookie jar” full before we fill our own.  When we neglect our own needs (our own self-esteem and our own cookie jar) we find that no one else is looking after us (they are looking after their own needs) – and we have nothing to eat.  Instead, we need to fill our own cookie jar first so that we can then give to others.  I wish that I had learned this a long time ago.  I wish I had concentrated on self-love and acceptance before those same needs of my family, and then given more without regret.  I realize (too late) that I gave away my power and money (paying for three separate sets of schooling for my ex-husband) and accepted his needs before mine (friends ask me how much he actually worked). As a result, I regret that I neglected my needs in favor of those of my family.

5. Nurture YOUR friendships.

This goes hand in hand with #4.  Too often we give up our own needs for friendship in favor of becoming friends with our children’s parents, our spouse’s coworkers or choice of friends, and as such we lose our identity.

When your identity consists solely of being so-and-so’s parent, and so-and-so’s spouse, your uniqueness and identity is lost. (Fortunately I had my work reputation to fall back on!)  When I was no longer a spouse, and when my children moved away, so too did a big part of my identity.  I’ve since built up my own circle of friends who love me for me, but it was very lonely to discover that no one saw me for me – I was merely a mother and a wife.

Keep, meet and nurture your friends – they love you for who YOU are, not the role you’ve taken on.

In retrospect,

I loved spinning plates and raising two wonderful children, and I recall fondly the memories of the busy times.  I miss the challenges of spinning multiple plates and the feeling of being needed by so many for so many things.  I wouldn’t trade my past work life balance challenge for anything. Today my life is simple with far fewer plates to spin at once – and it is an easy task to balance work, friends, and pets.

I applaud everyone who spin multiple plates and do so with grace and skill.  As one who has been there, I share my observations with the hope that your spinning might be a bit easier.

Have a productive, happy week!


Carol Dekkers, Software Measurement and Global Software Development expert, author, speaker. Want to engage Carol to be a speaker at your next event? Email Ms. Dekkers at or or visit for details.

2 Responses to “Work life balance… it’s like spinning plates”

  1. Molly Monday, May 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    Carol, this is wonderful advice. I believe, too, much needed tips for everyone from working moms and dads to those graduates just getting started in the workforce. We seem to live in a world where we all have to ‘keep the plates spinning’ (to use your perfect metaphor) and I think we can all use information like this to help us move along in the right direction.

    Have you read the book Your Work, Your Life…Your Way by Julie Cohen? It presents what you’ve said here in a very action-oriented, coaching approach to re-prioritizing and creating fulfillment in balance. I’ve found it valuable as a reference tool when I seem to be getting off track and my plates are falling and shattering all over the place! =) I highly recommend it.

    Anyway, thanks for the little boost this morning, Carol. Cheers!


    • caroldekkers Monday, May 17, 2010 at 9:14 pm #


      Thanks for your comments and the reference! Carol


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