I was raised to believe I could do anything. The product of a largely intellectual household, I graduated from a girls' school on the cusp of the 80s, armed with the view that the world could be my oyster. Never even having heard of the then relatively new concept of "work-life balance", all I knew was that everything was open to me. Further education, career, marriage, children – I was certain I could do whatever I set my mind to.
My mother was my role model. Passionate, strong, courageous and intelligent, she had graduated with her first degree in the 1950s – a time when university was still very much a man's world – escaping the edict her lecturer had reserved for most of his female students to "go and find a husband". She had travelled the world before settling down in her early thirties – much to the relief of her father, who had urged her to "marry anyone, even a broomstick, but get married already!"
She had then managed to complete a doctorate, have two children, and embark on a career as an economist, lecturing to vast numbers of students and travelling to conferences overseas. A doting parent, her job was flexible enough to allow her to attend sports carnivals and mostly to be home when my sister and I returned from school. She would then devote her attention to us, only turning to her own work after we had gone to bed.
My mother, however, had a secret weapon in the shape of my father, who had chosen to take early retirement before she was offered her first full-time job in academia. While she was at work, he would be there, maintaining the household and driving us to our after-school activities. On the evenings when she lectured late at university, he would supervise our homework, prepare our dinner and play games with us.
As a child of the 1970s, the household in which I grew up was unusual. My teachers loved to read my weekly journal entries, where I would describe going to the office to visit Mummy after a trip to the supermarket with Daddy. At the same time, my father always maintained his own eclectic interests.
As he taught me, "The balance between a couple is not always 50-50. The person who is more available should provide the most support."
Balance … the key, we are told, to a successful life. And not just in a relationship, but within ourselves too. How many times have you heard that "we need to get the balance right" as our everyday pace reaches frenetic levels, involving a seemingly endless juggle of work and family commitments? And what about the single parents among us, juggling even more frantically just to stay afloat?
Many of us are not just responsible for children either. Having become a card-carrying member of the "sandwich generation", I am sadly familiar with the responsibilities that come with looking after young children at the same time as ailing parents, literally running two households where I am accountable for everything.
My father was a realist. We cannot do it all alone. Nor is there any perfection in this world. The truth is you're going to have to compromise that long cherished "ideal" you may have been harbouring.
Obviously, for many women, a job is an economic necessity irrespective of their family commitments. They haven't got the luxury to search for that "dream job", which would provide fulfilment, pay a decent salary and offer the flexible hours so useful when raising a family and caring for the elderly. Something has to give.
I've come to realise that the more I yearn for that perfect work-life balance, the more it eludes me, often remaining tantalisingly just out of reach. In my childfree youth, there were times when, despite my best efforts, study and work literally took over my life, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Now as I strive to live up to my own expectations of being a "good parent" and "dutiful daughter", looking after the needs of others can on occasion dominate my time, leaving minimal hours for my own pursuits. Finding the time to go to the gym, read a book or even write an article is one thing. Berating myself to "find a job" to fill the few hours I have available is quite another.
And so I have decided to call off my quest for perfect balance. It's quite an empowering decision really. No more agonising over whether I'm making the best use of my "free" time. No more fruitless searches for accommodating jobs that simply don't exist. No more bewailing my situation over lunches with sympathetic girlfriends. It's simple once you get the hang of it and manage to overcome the last vestiges of guilt: accept what life throws at you, make the best of it, and move on.
The ancients certainly knew what they were talking about: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens" (Ecclesiastes 3). I may still be able to do anything I set up mind to … just not all at once.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.