The first question my husband asked me once the new job celebration started to fade was, “Does this mean you’re going to go back to being a workaholic?”

I used to work a lot.  A lot meaning ten-hour no-break days at the office, going home with my heavy university issued laptop and boxes of student files in tow, endless hours of weekend work with my dog bored at my feet – maybe not a lot by Silicon Valley standards, but a lot for us underpaid administrators of higher ed.  Even on vacation, I got so good at keeping up while sipping warm beers that I stopped setting out of office replies.  I master planned on my honeymoon.  I sent daily beachside dispatches during my last trip to Greece.  Even in China, where I somehow couldn’t get my accounts past the government hotel’s firewalls, I left early for the airport so I could get caught up on email in the Delta lounge before hopping a plane back to work.

I like work.  I like being busy.  I like feeling as though my life day in and day out has a purpose beyond me and the busy little workings of my busy little brain.  I made a name for myself by sending emails while still dripping wet from the shower, by listening to voicemails while brushing my teeth, by negotiating new hires while out on sick leave.  And as much as I want to believe that my growing bit of success is due to my amazing powers of analysis, unbeatable business instincts, or unstoppable charisma, I fear the truth has more to do with brute force than sharp intellect.  Which is why I work late at night, work while on vacation and while sick.  Why I never take breaks, even during slow times.  Why I find myself declaring over and over again that I Don’t Do Well on Vacation.

Like alcoholism, workaholic tendencies get passed on from generation to generation.  I got it from my dad, he got it from his dad, his dad probably got it from his mother, and so on and so forth.  When I was a kid, I loved my mom, but I wanted to be my dad.  My mom loved me and cared for me and still managed to succeed in her own career that never got enough credit.  But my dad was IMPORTANT.  My dad couldn’t pick me up from school because he had important people to talk to.  He couldn’t come home for dinner because he had important places to be.  He brought his briefcase on vacation because he had important decisions to make.  And when he talked, everyone listened, because he always had something important to say.

I wanted to be important.

And so now I have a new job.  And although there is a world of difference between the scale of influence I have managing a tiny office at a tiny (but mighty!) school and the influence my father had managing an actual city of hundreds of thousands of people, all of a sudden, what I’m doing feels important.  Really, really important.  I love my job.  I come home at night oozing equal parts excitement and disbelief that I’m actually getting paid to get in my car every day and go make change at this one in a million institution.  I don’t just want to do well, I want to kill it.  I want to rise through the ranks until I’m running the place.  I want to usher it into a new era and then retire happy.  But there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and then, and I know I’ll need to keep up a quick pace along that whole long road.

Did you notice, though, in that paragraph way up at the top, that I said I “used to” work a lot?  Used to is the operative phrase.  I used to work a lot, even at jobs I didn’t particularly care for, because I used to like working a lot.  Used to.  Then I had a kid.

First In Last OutI still like working a lot, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of me being a mother.  Or at least that’s what I thought, back when my job felt good but not often great.  Back when I had already established myself, when the whole world knew me and knew my reputation, when no one would have doubted for a second my dedication to my work.  Now, though, it’s a whole new world.  Uncharted territory in which to prove myself.  And so of course my first instinct is to stay late, show up early, skip lunch.  Never take a break or touch my phone or even take time to hang a family photo in my office.  Make sure everyone knows I’m working harder than they are.

But this instinct is wrong.

Among the many things I love about my new job is the very different culture from what I’ve known in the past.  It’s not about who works the longest hours.  It’s about who’s doing good work.  And for the first time in a long time, I’m being made to feel that my work is good.  Which makes me feel good.  And me feeling good makes my daughter feel good, especially when I’m feeling good from the comfort of my own home, sitting next to her warm little body, watching her eat quesadillas and hotdogs for the umpteenth night in a row, asking questions about her day and feeling so much gratitude for the fact that I really can have it all.  Right now, in this moment, in this night, I have succeeded.  My workaholic ways may have gotten me up that first steep flight of stairs, but only balance will keep me perched at the top.


8 thoughts on “Workaholic

  1. Love this. I love that it makes me think about why I always feel (felt) like I have to work longer, harder, later, better, BIGGER than anyone else. And interesting to note that my (stay-at-home) mother ran the show when I was growing up. Power was in being her. Although it wasn’t attractive power. But still. You’ve got me thinking about why we choose to do what we do, why we (over)work where we do.
    And then there’s the quesadillas with the kid(s) on the couch. That’s a no-brainer, I think. It’s the best.
    (You go, girl!)


    1. And what sort of power in a woman would be attractive though? Maybe it’s because I grew up in an era of power-suited glass ceiling scratchers who could only be successful if they acted like men, then became a mother in an era of so many powerful woman giving it up to go back home and just be moms, just be what our maternal instincts tell us to be. Were these women of the eighties attractive in their male-imitating power trips? (Probably only Sigourney Weaver passed this test?) Do career minded women of today become more or less attractive when they find themselves back in the home?
      Maybe not a totally relevant rant, but it’s funny how often I think of you when I think of workaholics. Like your mother, I imagine, you’re power comes from who you are, not what you do, and yet you are still so driven to do so much. You write, you paint, you write, you mother, you mother, you mother some more. All of us career chasers should count ourselves lucky that you’ve gone the stay at home route for the time being, because otherwise I have a feeling you’d eat us alive…


      1. I think what makes power attractive (and maybe even makes it powerful) is if we can do what we need and want to do (if we ever figure out what that is- ack!) while remaining true to ourselves. My mother had no friends. I think she was sad and I think she was angry. And while I’m often angry (the poop on the floor! the damn seatbelts! the talking back!), I’m rarely sad. I wonder if those power-suited 80’s women were sad. I dunno. Maybe it all goes back to figuring out what we need and want and finding balance there. Because that’s attractive, for sure. That’s gorgeous. A woman who knows what she needs and wants for herself and her family and then strives to get it? Hotsy, totsy, as we say here.
        And thanks for the compliment, balance-seeking-career-chaser-extraordinaire. There are good days and there are bad days, I’ll say that. But mostly, there aren’t sad days so for now, I love what I do. Not sure if I could find balance doing family and work. Balance is not my strong suit.
        As for the glass ceiling, I have no idea. It gets me thinking all crazy Zen-ish philosophical and next thing I know I’m a cat chasing my own tail (and I’m allergic to cats!) Do women take themselves out of the rat race for the corner office on the top floor because who wants to be a rat? Wouldn’t we rather be cats choosing what to chase rather than racing the rats? Even if we’re tail-chasing?
        I could drink a bottle of wine and talk for hours about this and I’m pretty sure I’d be right back where I started: filled with respect for women working to balance both/and, struggling to maintain my voice as a sahm, and pretty murky about the bigger picture. Sigh. (How about that bottle of wine? You in?)


      2. And here I am, big balance career chaser, ecstatic during the day and oh so melancholy at night – not sad, but certainly not quite happy – because I come home and find my daughter drifting slowly away from me. It makes me so happy to see her growing closer to her dad, who’s taken on more of the caregiving roles now, but I can’t help but yearn for the closeness she and I used to share. I may be choosing what to chase, but that doesn’t mean it’s without a little collateral damage.
        And yes – if you ever get to be a far away from home mom for a few days and make your way over here to the other coast, I will definitely drink that bottle of wine with you. And probably a case of beer, just for good measure 🙂


  2. When I asked a colleague once what made him a workaholic he answered ‘laziness’. The fear that he would give way to his inclination towards idleness was what drove him. An article I read somewhere about one of our industry ‘captains’ suggested he did it because of the need for approval. He was simply hooked on praise. If you go on asking workaholics for their reasons you go on getting different answers: in my own case I believe childhood poverty was the driver, with maybe a little of the laziness thing too.
    This persuades me that maybe these answers are not answers: they’re excuses. Maybe the common factor among us all is fear of slotting into place in the real scheme of things, of becoming Mr. or Mrs.Average. We long for it on one level, but are terrified that if we stop – if actually stop…..
    I will offer one comment I received in the past as I worked out my resignation before moving on: “Think of the next poor b****r who has to do your job.”


    1. Hey, it’s good to hear from you!
      Amazingly enough, I too secretly fear that I am truly lazy by nature, and I prove it to myself every time I sit down to take a rest and just can’t force myself to get back up. I don’t care about the praise, I’m not in it for the money (I do work in education, after all), and I don’t even get any sort of power trip out of it. I just like keeping busy, because the other option is a total extreme in the opposite direction.
      Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself. Because admitting to that fear… Well, do any of us really want to think too hard about how we would feel if we just accepted that none of us is particularly special, and that maybe this shouldn’t be such a big goal after all? I mean, would it really kill me to feel just as successful as the person next door or at the next desk?


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