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.
I 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.