Putting the pieces together

Want a balanced life, but feel as if something’s missing? Be good to yourself and try these soul-nurturing strategies today

So, here I am, up at 5 a.m. All is quiet. Soon I’ll head out for some exercise and then spend a few minutes writing in my personal journal. After that, I’ll read the paper until 7, when my family awakens.

I haven’t always been so good to myself. I used to run full tilt all day with 100 per cent of my attention focused on the needs of others—children, husband, clients—with no time to think about me. In my dazed state, I noticed there are a few women who seem relatively calmer and less confused about what to do or how to manage their load. How do they do it? I was lucky to stumble upon something that works well for me, but what else works? I set out to understand what other women do to balance their lives and take care of themselves.

Give to yourself

Finding personal time isn’t easy, but you can’t help others if you don’t give to yourself first.

“Are you crazy?” I’d just told my friend Donna that I had gotten up at 5 a.m. that morning. “The rest of the world is sleeping at that unholy hour!” she exclaimed. But for me, that’s the whole point. I love the quiet time in the wee hours before the sun comes up. I think of that precious hour or two as a gift to myself.

After a couple of years of raising small children, my standard for taking care of myself has shifted. Before I had kids, I would head to the gym three or four times a week for aerobics classes, plus I’d run or bike on weekends. Now I’d settle for going to the gym twice a week. But when? Getting there, or out for a run during my compressed workday, just wasn’t happening, and I finally realized I needed to do something different.

It wasn’t divine inspiration or anything quite so insightful. Rather, I happened to notice that my health club had changed its hours and was opening at 5 a.m. With my husband’s schedule, I hadn’t been able to get there and back in time when I worked out at 6 a.m., but I could do it if I got there at 5—even though the prospect of getting up in the dark was more than a little disconcerting. And while I wasn’t sure I could wake up that early every day, I reasoned that surely I could do it once or twice a week.

So, I did it. For the first few days it was rough—really rough. But if I got to bed around 10 p.m., I could usually do it—and what a difference in my energy throughout the day! Rather than drag my behind out of bed I was greeting my family with a smile and was able to handle the morning rush without getting stressed.

For me, early to bed and early to rise makes abundant sense—plus it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve tried that really works. It doesn’t have to be exercise, either—the wee hours of the morning are a great time to catch up on your reading, do household chores or prepare for the day without feeling rushed.

Reach for help

Look to your community—friends, family, neighbours—for the help you need.

As vice-president for a service management company, Carollyne Conlinn kept an intense schedule. “My idea of balance used to be meeting my nanny at lunch so I could take my son to kindergym,” she says with a laugh. After chatting with a pal about a fantasy life where visiting each other was so easy they could do it in their slippers, Conlinn went looking for a solution—and found Windsong, a co-housing complex outside Vancouver.

Conlinn and her friend moved into the complex about seven years ago. They live down the hall from one another and share a central kitchen, common room and domestic duties with the other 32 families who live there. Dinner is handled by one household every day and car pools are always available.

While co-operative housing isn’t for everyone, some of the principles can be applied elsewhere. A community starts with connection and progresses to mutual benefit. But it doesn’t have to be complicated! Get to know your neighbours. Plan a block party, get involved in community activities or help out at Brownies or the residents’ association. In the short term you may be taking on more work, but in the long term those connections will make your life easier. You will have people you trust to feed your cat when you’re away or babysit when you’re sick with the flu.

Share and care

Gain strength by connecting with other balance seekers.

Marook Sidhwa, a yoga teacher and mother of three from Oakville, Ont., has never finished a book for her book club—but that’s OK. What started out as 18 women chatting about a book quickly changed as it became apparent that the participants really just wanted to connect with other women facing similar issues. Parenting, coping strategies, life balance—all are fair game at their monthly events. The dates are firm but the evenings themselves are flexible—the members just know that if they have a problem, there will be sympathetic listeners and creative solutions in the room.

Other “life balance clubs” have used a professional facilitator—a support mechanism that’s particularly helpful if the participants have specific goals. Jane Clement has benefited from such a club. A single mother of five also from Oakville, Clement not only keeps her family organized but runs a fast-growing jewelry design business. Recently returned from a buying trip to Hong Kong and Bali, she claims to lead a balanced life. But she wants to grow her business—although not at the expense of her sanity or her precious time with her children. The club she belongs to helped her find her way.

“My personal trainer put the group together,” Clement recalls. “She described the group as five busy high-functioning women who struggle with finding balance while being perfect at everything.” The group hired life coach Lindsay Sukornyk to keep them focused and add process to their sessions.

Sukornyk announces a topic, question or issue at the beginning and helps keep the discussion on track. There are ground rules about trust and leaving judgment at the door. Group members have asked for and received parenting advice, career counsel and the inspiration to attempt new things. One member, who had a lifelong fear of water, was challenged to sign herself up for swimming lessons. Encouraged by the group, she is now conquering her fear and learning to swim.

Your blueprint for balance

Pick three statements that suit you:

· Balance is when I have lots of me-time.
· I feel balanced when I exercise regularly.
· Helping others is important to me.
· I need to know I’ve got people I can count on if I get overwhelmed.
· If I connect weekly with my spiritual community, I can cope with anything.
· A chance to be creative every few days is enough for me to feel balanced.
· A walk in the woods or a little gardening makes me breathe easier.
· My sanity will remain intact if my home is tidy and organized.

With your picks in mind, think of what will help you maintain balance:

· List two things you could do each day.
· List two things you could do weekly.
· List two things you could do monthly.
· Copy the list and post it everywhere: your dashboard, bathroom mirror, diaper bag. Refer to it often. Celebrate the days when you’ve done small but important things to balance yourself.