Work-life balance: It’s an epic fail!

That’s what I told a younger colleague recently. My friend was just back from maternity leave and nothing was going as she imagined. She crafted a plan to “do it all,” and on paper it worked perfectly. But after a few months back at work, she was faced with the struggles so many of us experience while trying to manage a career and a family. She was pained when she asked: How do I manage?

Working in financial services for more than 20 years while raising two children, I too, often struggled to find the proverbial “work-life” balance. It was my goal. Yet, it constantly eluded me. Most days I felt like a failure. I just couldn’t seem to find balance – but when I looked around there were all these women who seemingly had it all together. They made achieving work-life balance look like a piece of cake. They would arrive at the office with perfect hair, completely pressed and unwrinkled, sporting a flawless mani/pedi. And although I got up at 5am to get myself and kids ready, I’d often arrived at the office with my hair out of place, yogurt on my dress and for the life of me I couldn’t keep a manicure for more than 24 hours.

Eventually, I learned a few tricks–more hair product, realized aprons were extremely useful and went for the gel mani/pedi! While those strategies helped, work-life balance was still out of my reach. I was finally able to look the part – but did not feel it.

Six years ago my world changed and I realized that striving to achieve work-life balance on any given day is a ridiculous notion. Indeed, I have retired the phrase. Why?

My mom had been fighting cancer for years and it was increasingly evident the end was near. In February of 2009 I was on a conference call giving a presentation to 150 people. The stock market was tanking and I was providing an update on 401(k) accounts. About half way through my presentation, my cell phone started ringing – it was my sister. I didn’t want to pick it up; I knew in my gut why she was calling. I let the call go to voice mail. I was almost done and compelled to finish. When the call was over I called my sister back. My hunch was right – my Mom was in the hospital and I need to get there immediately.

She did not pass away that day, but did just a few short weeks later. In the months following – I spent time reflecting. It had been a long haul trying to be there for her, take care of my kids, work full time and make time for my husband. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I knew it was an unusually difficult time, but it got me thinking about “work-life balance” and how it set us up for an epic fail. The word “balance” is the problem: balance requires an even distribution of weight for someone or thing, and to achieve it, the item has to remain perfectly still. My life is never still! Therefore the idea of work-life balance seems too rigid for the flexibility life requires. The word suggests we can meet all needs simultaneously — at work, at home, at play. And if we can’t, what’s our problem?

My mother’s illness and death brought to light for me, that the secret to living a busy and rewarding life is to consciously decide when and where to be fully present. The key is realizing what to put on the back burner for a while — without guilt or hand wringing.

My new philosophy is to achieve “sway.” Finding sway means embracing the natural ebb and flow between work and life. Sometimes work takes priority and others times my family. I no longer strive for balance every day, but instead reflect monthly or even annually to ensure that I swayed in both directions. Sometimes it’s a few days in one or even a few weeks, but it sways back. It’s never perfectly balanced.

So, what’s the secret to swaying?

  • Don’t be afraid to make an “ask.” Many women don’t ask for what they want, and hold back. It’s sometimes hard to make an ask , but asking, increases the chances of reaching the goal.
  • Know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” Be realistic on what to take on, both at home and at work. Don’t say “yes” to everything. Become comfortable saying “no.”
  • Nothing is forever. Careers evolve, and family’s needs and interests change. It’s important to take stock of what’s working and what’s not from time to time. When something stops working, it’s time to make a change.
  • Fret less. I know—it’s easier said than done. It’s easy to drown in daily details of life and lose track of what’s really important. But worrying is time wasted. Take a deep breath and embrace the sway.

For more information on careers at Fidelity, please visit WomenAdvisors.FidelityCareers.com.

Views expressed are as of the date indicated and may change. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of Jeanne Thompson and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments.

Fidelity Brokerage Service, Member NYSE, SIPC. 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917

This was originally featured on LinkedIn.