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Navarrette: The painful secret to work-life balance

Working mom.

Working mom. Credit: iStock

Thank you, Shonda Rhimes. You've set me free.

The same goes for millions of other parents who spend their days chasing after what has to be the most overscheduled generation of children ever.

Freedom came in the form of a single paragraph in a recent cover story in The Hollywood Reporter, where one of the most successful producers in television is quoted saying something brave and brilliant. As an African-American woman with three shows on ABC -- "Grey's Anatomy, "Scandal," and the newcomer "How to Get Away with Murder" -- Rhimes has much to say about race, gender and fame.

But the quote that caught my eye was about parenting. Rhimes, 44, is a single mother and, as the article points out, she hates it when people ask how she balances the demands of three shows and three kids.

Silly question. Anyone who is trying to raise and care for one child in today's world, let alone three, knows just how ridiculous it is to suggest that anyone can balance it all. You're going to fail at something.

Rhimes wants parents to accept the hard truth: You cannot do it all. It's not that you simply need better time management. (Don't you hate it when people say that?)

Rather, as Rhimes points out, what you really need is a firmer grip on reality and an awareness of your own limitations.

This was a major theme of the commencement speech that the television producer gave last spring at Dartmouth, her alma mater. In her remarks, she said that people ask her all the time, "How do you do it all?'

"I don't," she told graduates. "If I am at home sewing my kids' Halloween costumes, I'm probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby's first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter's debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh's last scene ever being filmed on 'Grey's Anatomy.' If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off."

She has figured it out. There is indeed a trade-off to this balancing act that gets attempted every day in America by folks who are trying to be professionals and parents, and be successful at both. Too many parents are convinced they can do it all. Rhimes is telling them what they need to hear: It's not going to happen.
     Many of us are too hard on ourselves. And no, it has not always been this way.
     Recently, the father of one of my son's friends compared what he's going through with what his parents experienced.

"You know when my dad was my age, it was different," he said. "When he came home at five, he was home. That was the end of his day. Now, with email and cellphones, you're never off work. You're always plugged in. And, then, no matter what you're doing, you feel guilty because you know there's always something else you should be doing."

He's right. These days, we're conditioned to always be fulfilling some role.

I myself never get it right. When my 7-year-old son was a toddler, I was working 14-hour days, and so I missed some of the best moments. Now I stare at photos of him at that age, and I don't remember living through those times with him. Those were good years professionally for me, and yet I look back and feel impoverished.

On the other hand, last weekend, I had a great time with all three of my kids -- watching them play soccer or volleyball, and dance ballet, then taking them all out to a pumpkin patch. The next day, my wife and I took them on a day trip out to the country.

Guess what? No work got done. But so what? You have to make a living, but not at the expense of not having a life.

It's all part of being a hands-on parent, determined not to repeat past mistakes -- because I'm busy making new ones.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is