I'm a firm believer in the impossibility of work/life balance. There's no such thing as being able to balance your work responsibilities, tasks and duties and your life responsibilities, chores and duties. Trying to achieve balance will drive a woman to drink.
I prefer to think of it as juggling and prioritizing--deciding which combination of work balls and life balls you'll keep in the air at any given time, and which will sit it out until you have more capacity.
Recently, I dropped all the balls. I had a 20-minute, no-balls-in-the-air emotional breakdown in which I took my frustration and exhaustion out on my child and my business partner. My work and life collided in a mangled mess. It wasn't pretty.
Rashelle LeCaptain, 31, went through a similar experience, taking her frustration out on her husband, her kids and her staff.
"I got to a point where I felt like I had no handle on anything, either at home or at work," says LeCaptain, president and founder of Connecting Cultures in Wisconsin. "I was short-tempered and very demanding. I lost the trust and respect of my staff because I wasn't able to follow through with anything."
In the past nine months, LeCaptain's health-care-related company more than doubled in size and is closing in on $1 million in revenue this year. LeCaptain decided to bring a general manager into the company so she could go back to focusing on innovation and business development.
"This was a very challenging adjustment for me because [the company] has been my baby for more than nine years," LeCaptain says. "However, now I'm very glad we sought outside help to maintain our competitive edge while restoring a positive environment at work and at home."
Ferne Traeger, an executive coach and psychoanalyst, says women business owners are always juggling their professional and personal lives, but crashes can be avoided.
"One way to do this is to appreciate that in any given time period, one aspect of one's life warrants more attention than others," Traeger says. "A woman business owner must devote the lion's share of her energy to the facet of her life that ails the most, be it a sick baby or a sick business."
Traeger calls this a triage system, in which a woman concentrates on the sector of her life that is most in need of her attention. For example, my situation began with a caretaker crisis. I didn't have a babysitter for my 3-year-old daughter for more than two weeks while still trying to run my business from home.
Says Traeger, "This situation--not to mention [your] daughter--is literally screaming for attention. At a moment like this, I would advise focus on resolving your day-care dilemma as quickly as possible, at the same time that you allow yourself to put all but the most important business matters on the back burner."
Traeger emphasizes that no one is expert at all things at all times. "All women--but most particularly working women--must remember to give themselves permission to let some things slide. The amount of energy a woman has available at a given period of her life is like a zero-sum game. In other words, the slack in one arena frees up the necessary extra energy to perform optimally in the arena of one's life that at any given moment needs the most attention and support."
In other situations, the crisis can't be avoided. When that happens, the entrepreneur needs to reach out for help.
Heather Ledeboer, 30, owner of Mom 4 Life, had a devastating life crisis that affected her work. Ledeboer explains:
"In May of 2008, I was 'full term' at 37 weeks with our third baby. I became concerned after noticing a loss of fetal movement and asked my midwife to check the baby's heart rate. We discovered that he had died in utero. My reaction was that of numb disbelief followed by several months of deep sadness and grief."
Ledeboer's employees kept things running at the company while she and her family grieved. She informed her clients of the loss through her blog and was overwhelmed by their support.
"The process of writing proved to be very therapeutic and healing for me, and provided a way to look back over the time line of my grief and process how I was truly feeling," says Ledeboer, who is now working on a book based on her blog posts.
Ledeboer says that having trustworthy, well-trained, loyal employees helped her get through this painful time.
"I was able to virtually step out of my business with almost no advance notice without it collapsing around me because they were able to successfully maintain things in my absence," she says. "I was able to fully focus on the crisis at hand and not be distracted by any extra stress concerning my business."
Her advice to other women business owners going through a work/life crisis is to be open, honest and transparent about your situation. Ledeboer did this through her blog.
"Had I tried to cover it up or deny what was going on with our family, I would have found it to be much more stressful. We all go through crisis situations, and I believe it is our willingness to be open and honest about what we are dealing with that actually draws people in as they feel they can trust someone who is willing to be transparent with them.
In my situation--and the situation that LeCaptain faced--we let things get to the point of crisis. Now what?
Says LeCaptain, "It is important to acknowledge that we made a mistake and that we didn't handle ourselves the way we wanted to. Acknowledge that you understand you caused a lot of stress and concern for your co-workers, family, etc. Everyone has mistakes, but the important thing is to truly create a lasting solution. A short-term solution is only a Band-aid. A true solution means it won't happen again. Communicating this to your co-workers, partners, etc., will also show them that you've taken the necessary steps to support their goals as well."
For me, I apologized to my daughter and gave her a big hug. I apologized to my business partner and gave her a virtual hug. And then, I apologized to myself.
For more on juggling competing priorities, read Aliza's blog, "When Work and Life Crash and Burn."