Vacations were cancelled. Dinners with friends were pushed and rescheduled until there were no invitations left to postpone. Wedding anniversaries were acknowledged in faraway cities, squeezed into the last few hours of the day, until after the director declared it’s a wrap and the clients sent reassuring notes to their bosses saying they had it all in the can.
For seventeen years, I worked for advertising, always avoiding the question: Is advertising working for me?
I gave advertising everything I had, and even things I didn’t. Hey, Fertility. The line starts back there! Yep. All the way back there. Like, around the block, behind the launch of the latest flavored vodka, behind the global introduction of the fastest computer chip known to man, behind the latest 99-cent menu offering. Until finally my determined-to-be-born daughter slipped in just under the wire.
I did good work, followed my ambition, and kept an admiring eye on the few remaining female role models in positions I aspired to. I felt disappointment as other women dropped out along the way. Advertising is an endurance game. You gotta be in it to win it.
Here’s the confession. I really didn’t believe it could work both ways, that you could have it all. Not at the same time.
Then one day, the launch of Jennifer Lopez’ collection of ready-to-wear for my retail client and my 20-month-old daughter got ensnarled in a Battle Royale for my attention, and J. Lo’s gorgeous mug was really taking a bruising. All I wanted was to be home in time to be the one to read Brown Bear to my kid. And that felt like weakness.
This terrible secret was held close to my vest, whispered only in weekly sessions with my therapist. I wrung my hands and fretted. What did this mean? Am I over? Is this the end of my career? The answer was more complicated than I could have imagined.
It turns out the real victim was neither my daughter nor the sales of J. Lo’s faux fur vests. They were both doing fine. Gangbusters, in fact. It was my confidence that took the hit. And if there’s one thing you need in spades when you’re the day-to-day creative lead of one of the largest clients at one of the largest agencies in New York, it’s confidence. Stripped of it, I began to falter in meetings. I became a pawn rather than a player in the political workings of the agency. I questioned my value. And not surprisingly, others followed suit. They say everyone in advertising gets fired at least once in their career. But like Claire Danes’ character in the opening of Homeland, my mind doth protest, “Everyone isn’t me!” So when a meeting with the CCO began with, “This isn’t going to be a good conversation,” boy was he was right. It wasn’t good at all.
The day after I was fired, I took stock of my feelings and to my surprise, I actually felt relieved.
The frightened little voice inside that wondered, “Is this the end of my career?” now cleared her throat and said “Oh, honey, of course not!” It just turned out to be the end of a way of working – and ultimately a mindset – that was simply no longer working for me.
The following day, my daughter enjoyed the novelty of my presence. My husband took me out to celebrate. My therapist said I looked years younger. My Facebook employment status change got so many thumbs up it was almost embarrassing.
As a creative director, I had hired scores of freelance creatives over the years. I begrudged their day rates as much as their yoga arms and twitter updates on their home cured salumis. The sans soucí with which they could say, “I can’t work this weekend” never failed to incite a riot of work-life-balance jealousy in me.
Now I was one of them.
Yet, after a wild year of freelancing on challenging briefs, pitches, and brand reinventions, my arms were no more toned than before. I was as busy as ever. In fact, it didn’t look much like the work-life-balance nirvana I had envisioned. Namaste? Shiva-something-ana…Anyone?…
I still worked weekends. I still missed bedtime stories. I still sometimes pulled the kinds of hours reserved for students studying for finals.
The difference was, I was happier than I had been in a long time. I was firing on all cylinders, doing my best work – both at the office and at home. I could recite Brown Bear front to back and deliver compelling ideas that won pitches. I could keep dinner reservations (the little lady will have Mac and Cheese) and justify my day rate. How wonderful it was to become reacquainted with the me who was good at her job. Both of them. It turns out that confidence can’t be compartmentalized. My ambition, my drive, my love of the business was back.
During my year of freelance, I realized I was beholden only to the holding company called “Me & My Family.” Now, my daughter is almost four. I’ve recently returned to full-time agency life with a full-time position that materialized via one of my gigs. And I know now that work-life-balance is, more than anything, a state of mind, more than it is a state of work.
Gail Barlow is an Emmy Award-winning writer and creative director. She splits her time between NYC and her garden in the country. Her notable work includes penning the iconic Chick-Fil-A “Eat More Chicken” campaign, memorable advertising for brands such as Wendy’s, Intel and Absolut Vodka and her remarkable 4-year old daughter. She is currently Group Creative Director at Grey.
We are ever so grateful to Gail Barlow for this guest post. If you’d like to join Gail in contributing to the 3% Blog, please send queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.