During our ten-year marriage, my wife Elizabeth and I have sought to follow God’s call in the whole of our lives and to balance our individual callings (mine as a nonprofit manager and writer, her's as a music teacher) with our calling as a couple and, lately, our calling as a family of five. When I told my wife that I was writing an article about how we balance our callings, she laughed. We often feel anything but “balanced.”
When people talk about a “balanced life,” I think they mean a life of effortless accomplishment, in which work, family, friends, etc., flow naturally out of a zen-like equilibrium. In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, a 16th-century “how to” manual for noblemen and ladies, the key was absolute mastery of all requisite skills, all the while displaying sprezzatura, an impression that the mastery was effortless. Some people seem to live like this. We certainly don’t!
Balance for us looks more like our children’s game, “Cuckoo the Rocking Clown.” Cuckoo is a wooden clown with a rounded base so he can rock back and forth. His arms stick out on both sides, and players take turns loading him up with juggling balls. As his arms fill, Cuckoo begins to teeter wildly back and forth with each new addition until finally, when one too many balls are added, he tips all the way over and spills them out over the table. It’s a huge mess, but afterward he is upright and the game begins again.
This is what our lives feel like more often than not. But looking back, beyond the teeters of daily life, I can detect a pattern of growth and yes, even balance, from a few rules we’ve tried to observe.
We understand our calling as more than career. We believe we are called and so have committed ourselves to our specific location (Northern Kentucky, where most of Elizabeth’s family lives), to our extended family, and to our local church—and have explored our careers in the context of these commitments. Today, our five-year-old daughter’s best friend is the daughter of a woman who went to youth group with Elizabeth, whose parents have known Elizabeth’s parents for over 30 years. And far from having the experience of an insular community that stagnates, we have had the opportunity to build new friendships. With another couple, we started an adult Sunday school class for people in their thirties, with the vision of Christian friendships that last for decades rather than days. It has grown into a real community of over 30 adults and nearly 40 children.
Each of us has taken responsibility for the other’s calling. The first five years of our marriage were a series of educational exchanges. First, Elizabeth finished her master’s in music education while I worked full-time to support us, then I returned to graduate school for my own master’s while Elizabeth worked. We continue to adjust as we together assess our gifts and interests.
We encourage each other to take risks. A few years ago, inspired by a book Elizabeth gave me for Father’s Day, I entered a time of prayer for a new vision for my life. This eventually led me to InterVarsity and the Emerging Scholars Network, a role that seemed custom-made for me. To join InterVarsity staff, however, required me to raise money for my salary and other expenses. Elizabeth has been my number one encourager during this difficult and faith-challenging process.
More recently, Elizabeth has started a business teaching music to children ages birth to three and their parents. She loves the work, but starting the business has required some short-term financial sacrifice, along with a great deal more flexibility in my own schedule.
I wish I could say that I’ve followed Ephesians 6:21 and submitted out of reverence for Christ every time Elizabeth has asked me to put my work on hold for a few hours while she taught a class or went to a meeting. Lately, for example, the beginnings and endings of our days have become a source of stress. When Elizabeth started teaching, I agreed to start my day a little later, so she could teach while I watched our children. Our idea was that I would make up the time lost by working evenings after the kids went to bed. This was a great idea—until our two-year-old stopped falling asleep and her bedtime routine turned into a nightly two to three hour ordeal. Though this is getting better, the resulting drain on our energy and time added much stress to our routine.
We are still caught up in the teeter-totter dance of our full lives. We hope with God’s help to avoid spilling a huge mess on the table. But if we do make that mess, we trust he will return us to a place where we can find our balance and begin again.