Happily Imbalanced - National Council of Teachers of English
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Photo of a woman holding a sleeping infant while checking her cellphone and sitting in front of her laptop

Happily Imbalanced

This essay by Shea Kerkhoff is reprinted from the July 2018 issue of English Education.


Becoming an academic and a mother happened at the same time for me. I deferred admission to the NC State PhD program one semester because my little guy was due to be born August 16, 2012, and so January 3, 2013, I sported my mom cut and shiny, new laptop to my first class.

Since that day I have been thinking about what kind of mother and what kind of scholar I want to be, not always in that order. And most of that thinking has made me feel guilty.

I wasn’t the organic-babyfood-making, mommy-and-meclass- attending mother I wanted to be. My work and life weren’t balanced, but there wasn’t an easy fix. I actually liked writing literature reviews and creating online modules for preservice teachers more than I liked pureeing butternut squash and sleep training.

So the way I made it work was to buy baby food and co-sleep with baby while I conducted four studies my first year and continued to feel the guilt. My time at home was spent reading Introduction to Statistics aloud to baby cuddled in my arms, and I answered emails from students on my phone on the way to church. I did everything that the work/life balance experts said not to do. I blended the lines, grading papers on Saturdays and making dinner during webinars, which tended to result in a crying child and burnt dinners.

Even though I needed to do something differently, I always felt like work/life balance was an extra item to put on my to-do list, like (1) Balance budget, (2) Balance checkbook, (3) Balance life.

The word balance made me feel like it was about activity, a balancing act that I needed to employ; or symmetry, scheduling two hours for data analysis and two hours for a play date. Balancing the work/life equation always made me feel like I was coming up short on the life part.

Fast forward to the present. While having coffee between sessions at the last LRA conference, a friend shared the same mental struggle as she literally struggled to balance her latte in one hand and her baby in the other. She told me about how she was trying to balance tenure-track workload and parenthood. The story of alternating child care and work schedules with a spouse as if life were a relay race was all too familiar to me.

My friend and I were both passionate about the research we were doing and grateful for our positions. She and I both loved being mothers and were grateful that we had spouses to help with the caretaking of our children. Everything was going great in our lives on one hand, but on the other hand both were harder than we had expected.

Other preconceived expectations were affecting me too. The belief that I had to be a workaholic to earn tenure and be self-sacrificing to be a good mother left me feeling depleted. Later that month, in a different coffee shop with a different friend and this time with me balancing baby and latte as if I’m Red Panda in a unicycle act, the same conversation came up. And it’s not just new moms in academia. I’ve had the same conversation with men and single colleagues.

Work/life balance entered workplace discourse in the mid-1980s, a time when middle-class women were entering the paid workforce at a higher rate and also a time when neoliberalism was shaping policy.

Using a poststructural frame, a frame that attempts to root out false dichotomies, we can see a problem right away. Work/life balance places work and life in separate spaces. Work (or public space) and life (or private space) were to signify the two spaces of responsibility for women who previously were only responsible for the private space. See, the work/life balance phrase didn’t work as a metaphor for me because it implies that work doesn’t count as life or that work doesn’t touch personal spaces. But, work for me is personal. As an educator who cares deeply about social justice, my work is a fulfilling part of my life. A career in education allows me to pay the bills by paying it forward: It’s a career choice that satisfies my physiological needs and my psychological need for a meaningful life.

Educators’ work can be extremely fulfilling, and it can also be emotionally exhausting. How do we give our best self to our family, our loved ones, our students, our community, our profession, and ourselves?

We know that teacher burnout is a problem. We need something not only to help us stay energized but also to help the next generation of teachers persevere. Staying the course is the idea behind the work/life balance trend. Increasing our quality of life, in corporate speak, is supposed to help us increase our productivity. When work and life are in conflict, it’s a lose/ lose situation.

In 2017, I attended NCTEAR in San Francisco where Jeff Duncan-Andrade spoke about our jobs as a matter of life and death. For him, the balance metaphor didn’t work because he wasn’t going to self-impose rules about when he would and would not be on the clock. For him, education for social justice was an all-in stance, and that didn’t mean that he didn’t feel the same about his family. He described his philosophy as stemming from his indigenous roots. Rather than thinking about work/life balance, he sought harmony. His work and his life were in harmony because he was doing something he cared deeply about. His work, though demanding, also made him happy.

While balance seemed like an ideal I would never achieve, harmony I could. When seeking harmony, you ask yourself if you are happy and if the people who are important to you are happy.

Thinking back again on that first year, I remember going to a dinner with tenured professors. I was trying to figure out what my new normal was going to look like and trying to figure out what activities counted on the work side of the work/life equation and what counted on the life side. I asked a professor, who had achieved tenure and had raised three children at the same time, how she managed to find time to exercise. I couldn’t figure out if exercise counted as work because it took time away from my child and spouse, or if it counted as life because it was my stress relief.

Rather than spending energy trying to figure out what counts as “work” and what counts as “life,” from a harmony perspective I now ask myself if I am happy. And when I’m not happy, I can figure out whether it is something at work, something with my family, something inside myself, or something in the world, and if I can do something about it.

When I needed time with my husband, I found a babysitter and made it happen.

When I needed to process my anger after seeing the hundreds of #metoo posts by my friends, I planned a small act of #resistance and wrote to the female representatives from my district to thank them for their service.

But, thinking of work/life balance as harmony isn’t a cure-all. My reconceptualization did not make the challenges of being a working mom magically go away. I had to come to peace with the fact that some things are out of my control (even writing that last part is hard, let alone accepting it).

Even though I don’t have the power to resolve all conflicts in the world, thinking about achieving harmony rather than balance has had a freeing effect on me. Instead of looking at work and life as opponents in conflict over resources, work and life can be seen as sources of energy propelling me to be a better teacher at work and a better mother at home.

At bedtime with my 5-year-old, even though it’s late and I’m cranky and he’s stalling, I always carve out time to read bedtime stories with him and ask him to predict what will happen or to imagine what the character is feeling. My research in literacy provides an intellectual curiosity that gives me the energy to really engage with him during this nighttime ritual. At the same time, my hope that my son will have an English teacher who sees him as more than a test score invigorates me when I’m spending my Sunday afternoon with a crying student teacher.

Adding to that, instead of thinking about the ideal balance of work and life manifesting in symmetry, we can think about the ideal being our work and life in harmony with our core values.

If you’ve ever been rock climbing or practiced ballet dancing, you know that the key is not symmetry but core strength. The stronger your core, the better your balance. If we think of balance as connecting our work and our life to our core values and not think of balance as 50/50, balance and harmony are closer ideas.

Our core values keep us centered. When we are going through the motions without thinking about why we are doing what we are doing, we aren’t centered. When we reflect on how our actions align to our core values, we are centering ourselves.

Sometimes we can center ourselves by dropping in to a barre class or taking a hike with the family, but sometimes being centered simply takes being present and doing our work with intention. I don’t look at my phone on the way to church (anymore) or at family dinners so that I am 100 percent present with my family members in that moment.

I volunteer at my son’s school for duties that allow me to spend more time with him, such as Valentine’s Day parties and obstacle course day in P.E. Being at dinner with loved ones and being with my son at his school make me and my loved ones happy. I don’t sweat the stuff that doesn’t seem to affect our happiness, like whether or not I cooked the dinner or hand-made the valentines. When I’m teaching, I don’t check my email, so that I am 100 percent there with my students. If it’s reflection time for them, then I also journal, or if they are working in small groups, I join the conversations.

And most importantly, I don’t worry about whether my life fits into someone else’s formula for happiness.

I work a lot. I love my work, and I love my family too. Working makes me happy, and my being happy makes my family happy too. I am a feminist who believes women can have it all, but I choose not to do it all. I choose to do the things that make me happy and the things that make my loved ones happy. At the end of the day, that is what matters.


In August 2018, Shea Kerkhoff begins an appointment as an assistant professor of secondary education in the Department of Educator Preparation, Innovation and Research at University of Missouri–St. Louis. She taught high school English in North Carolina and Washington, DC, before returning home to the Midwest. Her research focuses on critical, digital, and global literacies. Shea has been the assistant editor for English Education since July 2016.