When I look back, I have to laugh. There I was, the CIO of an internet company in the middle of an all-day investor's meeting, sneaking away with my breast pump to a supply closet (with no lock on the door). Fifteen people were about ten feet away, and I was huddled on a box, with my back to the door, praying no one would need any paper clips in the next few minutes. And I thought, so this is having it all...
Of course, no one said it would be easy, and at the time, I felt lucky to even have the closet! But something had to change. What was I doing all this for? My heart wasn't in it. Then a new door opened unexpectedly.
A Seven-Year Secret Comes Out
It started innocently enough. I was helping my best friend, Heather, who was planning a fundraiser for Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can cause the heart to rupture. The event was for the opening of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning musical "Rent" in Boston whose playwright, Jonathan Larson, had died from Marfan just days before his show opened on Broadway.
Heather's 10-year-old son Henry, my godson, has Marfan syndrome.
The event stressed that getting the word out about Marfan was key. Yet only a handful of people knew Henry had Marfan. He's a lot taller than other 5th graders but otherwise looks perfectly normal. But Henry would occasionally whisper things to me like, "Aunt Erin, it's because of the Marfan..." Something inside me said "I don't want Henry going through life hiding this."
I called Sheila Shectman, CEO of GiftCorp, a company I loved and have used for years for my corporate gifts, to ask her to donate gifts for the event and it got us talking. We created a plan where I could sell gifts for Sheila and have a percentage go back to Marfan.
My brother heard about the idea and said he would donate $2,500. Hmmm. I didn't want to "waste" this money on just one event. I sat down with Henry, along with some chocolate hearts, and we came up with the concept for Henry's Hearts, where we'd use what people and companies need to do anyway throughout the year--send gifts--to raise money and awareness for Marfan research.
Naming the company Henry's Hearts would also mean that Henry would need to publicly talk about having Marfan. Henry said, "Doctors say it's dangerous if people don't know they have Marfan, so let's tell everyone about it." When my brother heard of the plan, he loved it. He also knew how brave Henry was for deciding to tell others and said, "Henry with you involved, I'll double the money to $5,000."
So here it was--my heart--staring me in the face. I had some money. I had an idea I loved. I could handle all the technology and design stuff. I had a gift partner. I had a cause I believed in. I had...to tell my husband.
We have two young children, ages 7 and 3, and I was the main breadwinner. I paid the mortgage. I paid the nanny. I had the health insurance. And I was miserable in my current job. I knew relatively nothing about the gift industry or non-profits. All I knew was that Henry's Hearts was something I had to do. I knew I would regret it if I didn't try. It was October 2004, and the Red Sox had just won the World Series. Anything is possible, I thought! So I jumped.
Jumping is tough. Or rather, the jumping is easy. It's the landing that's tough. But it's been an amazing year and a half.
It's exhilarating to follow your heart. I love telling people what I'm doing. Thousands of people have gotten gifts with a card that talks about Marfan syndrome. Other charities have gotten involved and are using Henry's Hearts to raise money for their causes, too. People love the gifts and the mission. What we do helps brighten people's days and improves lives. Sponsors are getting involved, and we send gifts to families who live with serious illness every day as a way to acknowledge their extraordinary hearts.
I especially love how this has changed Henry. He's no longer hiding a secret. Marfan is just a part of who he is. A highlight for me was watching him hand out Henry's Hearts chocolates at an event and when people said, "Wow, you're Henry!" a huge smile came across his face.
And my hiding in the supply closet days are over. I work out of a home office and can pick up my son at the school bus stop and have morning tea parties with my three year old. Most days, I end up working late into the night after my kids are in bed. And every day is a new juggling act. But the toughest adjustment has been the money. Or the lack of it.
I haven't really drawn a salary in over a year. This is not exhilarating. No money also means no paid childcare. My husband and I have both staggered our schedules and do "creative childcare" with family and close friends. It's tough. Money stress is tough, and you have to develop a stomach for it and come up with some options. I had to borrow money from family, which I've paid back in full. But I've had to pick up some consulting gigs and I have to ask for help a lot more.
Asking for help is new for me. I used to think asking for help was a sign of weakness. I thought I could do it all by myself. That's crazy! Sure, I probably could do it all, but why would I want to kill myself trying to do that? I do need help. And now I think it's a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help--it takes courage to ask for help. Plus, if you think past yourself, it's easier. It's not about me, I think. It's about raising money for Henry and for others, so I started asking.
That's been another gift. In relying more on others, I've realized how lucky I am. I have fabulous people in my life, people who want to help. I am a good friend to others, and I had to learn that they want to be able to help me in return.
I'm part of an amazing women's group, and we have a thing called, I Got, You Got. In order to ask for help, you have to offer up something. "I'm trying to get into 'X company.' Can someone make an introduction? Let me send out some birthday presents for you or scan your photo..." That way, you're always giving and always receiving. It's great.
As I think back on my journey from the supply closet to where I am today, I know it's not about trying to have it all. I think I had it all, and it was too much. Or maybe it was just someone else's version of having it all. It's more about taking the time to figure out how to follow your heart and make your life fit around that. It's not easy. In fact, it's very hard. But I'm happy. I can't wait to start the day. I feel that what I'm doing matters and that I'm setting a good example for my kids--and I'm getting to see them as much as I want! That's following my heart.