When I was a little girl, crayons in my hands and dance steps in my feet, I had the good fortune of watching an entrepreneur up-close. As I was growing up, my father started his own business in real estate and hotel management, and at the age of five, I decided that it didn’t look so hard. Why not start my own business? Thus began my first foray as a door-to-door saleswoman, hawking my latest handmade trinkets to the unwitting neighbors.
These days, I know lots of women like me. Women who, as little girls, loved to make a buck (lemonade stands, anyone?), but also loved to draw masterpieces for the refrigerator. We’re the ones who don’t quite fit in an office environment, but that doesn’t mean we’re starving artists. On the contrary, we get a buzz from marrying our artistic passions with an enterprising spirit. “You actually make money doing that?” folks wonder when they meet us, we of the photography / writing / beauty branding / lunchbox designing persuasion.
That’s because our version of professional success doesn’t exactly look like the coveted office C-suite. As I learned from experience, sometimes it makes personal – and professional – sense to lean out.
When I had my daughter Harley six years ago, I saw a huge shift in my work. I’m a photographer, and suddenly, I was not nearly as independent to travel the world. Pre-baby, my job could whisk me away to exotic, glamorous locales for high-end weddings or fashion shoots, or conversely, drop me into gritty, dangerous sites for my photojournalism work. After baby…not so much.
I started to feel like I was living two different lives: One as the committed mom and one as the jet setting photographer, all the while seriously doubting I was doing either well. Guilt set in, and I started to wonder, “Am I all alone here? What do other working moms do?”
“I don’t think there is such a thing as work/life balance. For me, they blend,” said my friend Suzanne Lerner, now president of Michael Stars. Huh, I thought. What does that look like? Blending your work…with your “life?”
Another pal, Casey Georgeson, was a working mom I spoke to around this transition who had recently left her job with Sephora and took on a work-from-home position doing product development for wines. “I completely switched gears to diaper changes and temper tantrums,” she told me about having her own baby, “but to be honest, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved both worlds, but I felt a really strong desire to make a change.”
There it was: change. My relationship to work had to change.
Now, let me be clear. I have the utmost respect for Sheryl Sandberg. I think she revived a conversation about women and work that desperately needed fresh energy. But after talking with scores of working moms like Suzanne and Casey, and shooting them for The Project for Women, I’ve come to realize that leaning out can be exactly what’s needed – not only for one’s sanity, but for one’s professional sustainability. And for those of us drawn to creative pursuits, that means applying our creativity to different work models, too.
These days, this is what I’m trying to do with my daughter. Instead of flying away from her, I now bring her along to shoots, help her take pictures, and show her my photo edits. This gets easier the older and older she gets of course, but slowly, I’ve learned that these spheres of work and life, the ones I always assumed to be unassailably separate, don’t have to be. By leaning out of work enough to envelop my daughter, I not only feel better about my job. I also feel good showing Harley – just as my dad showed me – how to breathe passion into your pursuits, and how to build a business out of your dreams.
Lauri Levenfeld is the founder of TheProjectForWomen.com.