Confessions of a Former Workaholic: My Multi-Step Program for “Getting a Life”

Posted by Deborah Huso on Feb 12, 2012 in Motherhood, Relationships, Success Guide |

“That is what entrepreneurs do: they pair imagination with action and move boldly and often joyfully in the direction of a vision only they can see.” –Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

Heidi, age 1 1/2, growing up in the home office

When one of my editors at SUCCESS  magazine asked me to review Meg Cadoux Hirshberg’s new book, For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I’ve read some life-changing books as a result of my work as a reviewer, but this one wasn’t so much life-changing as life-enlightening.  I literally spent the first 20 pages or so weeping.

In case you only know Hirshberg as a columnist for Inc. Magazine, let me enlighten you. She is also the wife of Stonyfield Farm yogurt founder Gary Hirshberg, the man who singlehandedly swept Meg and their three children through almost a decade of chaos because of his pursuit of a dream—to bring organic yogurt to the world. (Yes, they’re still married.)

What got me weeping over Hirshberg’s book was how hard it hit home, as in hit me right in the gut with all the not so polite things I’ve done to the people I was supposed to love while building a career as a writer. Granted, I’m no Gary Hirshberg and never will be. I have only one employee and a handful of sometime freelance designers and writers who work when I need them (or when I can afford them).  But the smallness of my entrepreneurial ventures belies the brutality of my pursuit of them.

I came by my workaholism honestly enough.  It’s in the family bloodline.  Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs, as were their fathers before them. My dad and my uncle were small business owners, too.  And none of us have ever stood authority well.  It’s just plain safer for us to be self-employed.  So I don’t think it was really any great surprise to anyone (regardless of how crazy they thought I was) when I decided to dump life in the corporate world to pursue a career as a freelance writer. And, at the time, I was young and single.  There’s really nothing wrong with being a workaholic in those circumstances because the only person you’re going to hurt is yourself.

But in walked my husband-to-be about two years into this grand venture of mine.  You would have thought, when he asked me to marry him, and I replied matter-of-factly, “Okay, but realize my work will always come first,” that he would have taken a quick hike for the hills.  Why he didn’t I’ll never know.  I can only guess that he perhaps did not believe me.

"On assignment" with Mommy at Antietam National Battlefield

All was well the first few years.  He was in the military, was overseas through much of the early years of our marriage, and I continued on with my work and my life, almost as if I was still single.  I worked 80-hour weeks, stayed up till the wee hours of the morning, fielded phone calls from West Coast and overseas clients, publicists, and reporters at all hours of the night. I lived and breathed my work.  It was like a drug to me.  I admit it: I inhaled.  And as my income doubled year after year after year, the addiction grew ever stronger. But it really wasn’t the money, as many an entrepreneur will tell you. It was the adrenaline rush of getting up every day to do something I truly loved doing and being able to pay the bills doing it.

Work-life balance was not something I worried about.  And it didn’t even really occur to me that I needed any such balance until I became pregnant five years ago.  That was the beginning of the wake-up call.  I started to feel I might have a bit of a problem on my hands when doing phone conferences with mock enthusiasm while trying to stem my nausea by sucking on ginger candy and drinking peppermint tea. Then a month-long bout of bronchitis hit.  But still I plowed through, grateful for that first pregnancy advantage of not really showing, at least not until I hit eight months.  I told no one, fearful clients and publishers would drop me if they knew I was expecting, figuring I would be one of those mothers who gave up her career after childbirth.

At six months, I installed fence line on my farm alone in the heat of summer, shoveled gravel on a flood torn driveway, kept hiking and practicing yoga up until (I kid you not) the very day I went into labor.  And yes, I took off early that day, at 4 p.m., because I felt a little funny.  Once I realized I was having contractions, ever the perfectionist, I got in the shower, shaved my legs while timing the contractions with a stopwatch, and had my husband (who had scheduled a brief leave around my due date) drive me to the hospital at the close of the workday.  I was in labor for 31 hours, and 72 hours later was back at my desk again, trying to schedule interviews around my newborn daughter’s nursing schedule.

The perks of being the travel writer's daughter: luxury hotel living

Within three months, despite the foresight I had exercised in hiring an assistant, I was half crazy from trying to do it all without missing a beat.  My husband was overseas, my business was running at tilt neck speed, and I was discovering that, despite the admonitions from the home nurse who came to visit after Heidi was born, that spending 12 hours a day breastfeeding as a self-employed mother on deadline was just not feasible.

“You realize if you keep this up, you are going to kill yourself,” my doula told me about two months after Heidi’s birth.

Yep, I realized it.  The workaholic was going to have to give some ground.

My retreat from super woman to the woman who admitted that having it all was slightly impossible began with hiring a babysitter, giving up breastfeeding, and asking for help, including a desperate phone call to a neighbor late one night after having been awake three days straight with my daughter who was suffering from the diaper rash case from hell.  That was the night I briefly and seriously considered leaving my daughter in a basket on someone’s doorstep and driving my car into a tree.  Sleep deprivation does that to a person.  My neighbor arrived in 10 minutes with a steaming hot supper of lamb, rice, and homemade muffins, rocked my little one to sleep, and told me I could go take a shower.  A shower!  A shower without setting Heidi outside the glass shower door in her bouncy seat so I could watch her all the while.  A real, self-indulgent steaming hot shower!

So this was motherhood….

I was overworked and under-prepared.  And I thought relief would come when my husband retired from the military eight months after our daughter was born.  And it did to some degree.  Finally there was someone with whom to share the late night feedings, someone who could take morning duty and let me sleep in once in awhile.  And it worked…for awhile.

Hiking through Milam Gap with contributing outdoors editor "Mommy"

But you see, my husband had forgotten that pre-marriage admonition that work comes first, and like Meg Hirshberg and countless other entrepreneurs’ spouses, he began to feel like the stepchild to some half-mad person’s crazy dream.  He didn’t understand why, when he would come into my office, I would shoo him away with a wave of my hand while on the phone, act disgruntled when he interrupted my train of thought while writing an article, or fail to fully appreciate the lunch he brought me in the middle of the day because he had learned I would just keep working and forget all the body’s basic needs in the process.  I was aggravated that he expected me to stop and chat with him when I passed through the kitchen on the way from the office to the bathroom.  I had two minutes before my next phone call after all.  For him, however, it was rejection on a grand scale.  It never occurred to him that he enjoyed this access to me only because my office was connected to my home.  I resented the fact that he took advantage of the access, threatened many times to rent office space in town to get away from all the interruptions.

When the ever evolving media world began to demand my time 24-7, and I realized I was going to have to do a better job of being on call at night, on vacation, everywhere, I broke down and bought a Blackberry.  Now everyone could reach me by phone and e-mail all the time.  I’d never miss an assignment or contract opportunity again.  It also meant that while my husband and daughter played in the waves on the beach, I was answering e-mails.  I was relatively okay with this.  I was, after all, sitting on a nearly vacant beach with the sun going down behind me, my toes pressed into wet sand.  But my spouse didn’t quite see it that way.  Every time my phone went off (and it went off pretty much constantly), he would grumble.  I tried to soothe him by saying, “it’s the sound of money, dear, remember that.”

He threatened to heave my smartphone out the car window.  Meanwhile, I saw the Blackberry, among other things, as an investment not just in my business but in my family’s future—pay off the mortgage, send Heidi to college, take fantastic family vacations, enjoy a superb retirement.

Like the Hirshbergs, we were misinterpreting each other left and right.  I felt my space as a businessperson was being disrespected.  He thought his role as caregiver to two thankless females was being taken for granted.

No one was going to win this battle because, in the end, both of us were wrong.

But I was wrong first, and I knew it.  Because the reality is if you put work before everything else, including your own sanity, you will, eventually, crash and burn, and you might even take a few onlookers with you.

I realized I needed an intervention.  And it started with closing my office door, even though it was right there next to the kitchen, at 5 p.m.  Sometimes I could hear the phone ringing, but I learned to ignore it (with a few relapses involving me tiptoeing into the office to check my voicemail “just in case”).  I programmed my Blackberry so that my most crucial editors and clients had their own individual ring tones, as did my closest friends.  Unless I heard those ring tones, if I was on vacation, playing with my daughter, sitting in a whirlpool bath, I ignored the persistent “bling, bling, bling.”  Sometimes I even dared to turn the sound off completely.

A moment of silliness at Dukes Creek Falls while on assignment for Disney's FamilyFun

Then I began taking dance classes, taking on cardio combined with camaraderie.  In the last four years, the women I have met in those classes have become like a second family to me, as have their daughters to my daughter.  Twice a week, I pummel my stress with intense dancing and laughter, and I do not pick up my phone.  In fact, I cannot even hear it in the midst of the music and tom foolery.

I’ve still not learned to turn off the phone when on vacation.  I don’t really feel I can. As a writer, my business is me.  But I check it less.  I sometimes even turn it off completely at night or at least put it on “silent.”  I keep it tucked away in my purse when out with friends, generally cut if off completely between 5:30 and 7:30 each weeknight, the two hours I try to devote to Heidi with attention undivided.

But I am not cured, by any means.

I realize that having arrived as a writer has won me some space from my business.  Most of my editors will wait for me.  They will not give up and hand assignments to someone else just because I don’t answer their e-mails in two minutes.  I am close enough to the best of them that they respect my time when I say I’m going on vacation and do not bother me.  Some even admonish me when they see me responding to work e-mails on weekends.  And because I’m not engaged so much in business building these days as business maintaining, it’s not a tragedy if I do indeed miss some project because my phone was turned off.

I don’t know as my husband ever really understood the Siren Song that lured me (and continues to lure me) to work sometimes ridiculous hours and to travel as often as twice a month to places ranging from the wilds of Alaska to the islands of the Pacific.  He learned, after a time, to accept it all, perhaps gave into the role of second or third best.  My daughter, on the other hand, has grown up in the throes of the business, understands, even at age four, many of the strange complexities of her mother’s life.  “When I am big, will you take me on adventures with you?” she asks.  “When do we get to go on an airplane together again?”  For her, my world is one of excitement. And she longs to join in on the fun.

This is not to say, however, the road with her has not been rocky.  Through a strange twist of circumstance, my business was at its most demanding level in the years surrounding her birth.  She was three years old before I felt I had bonded with her.  And sometimes she still cries when I work on Saturdays, out of necessity to meet Monday morning news deadlines, and leave her to play with her LEGOs and Thomas the Train alone.  But on some level, because she has grown up with it, she gets its.

As I hurry to prepare for a morning meeting, she stands like a soldier next to the shower, my skirt in hand, ready to hand it over once I’ve pulled on my pantyhose.  My phone goes off, and she grabs it, rushes it to me like a trained personal assistant, watches as I scroll through e-mails, then takes it back, and scrolls through them herself.

Have I brought her into some ill landscape where deadlines reign supreme?  Perhaps.  Only time will tell.  But on some level, she knows, since she was born into the world of the entrepreneur, that life and work, for me, conjoin and separate like waves pressing the beach.  It’s all jumbled together at times. And that is, in the end, what makes my world so incredibly lovely—that my work and my life are one.  I do not watch the clock, live for Fridays at 5 p.m., or dread Monday mornings like an Egyptian plague.  No, I catch the wake of a ship with my kayak and ride it as the sun settles, being at one and the same time at work and at play.  I will write about this afternoon on Lake Superior with a storm drifting in, but I will also remember it as a moment of living—living my life and living my dream…and teaching my daughter, by example, the art of working, not for money, but for love.

I have a life now, separate from work.  But it took me many years to get it.  And I often wonder, as I lie awake at night thinking about the week’s deadlines, if I’d have it had I not finally figured out how to fit 80 hours of work into 25 or 30.  Am I really cured after all?  Or has success just dampened my thirst?

It is, perhaps, hard to say, but I do know that if work demanded of me now what it demanded of me years ago–to give up (or at least set aside for a time) the people I loved most in the world, the leisure time I had envisioned all this work earning me to begin with, or the freedom to live my life on my own terms–I’d be a damn sight less inclined to take it on.  Because while I do indeed work for love, I also work for a living.  And right now, I’m pretty darn busy living.



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