“How do you feel about your wife’s job?”
This question changed my life.
It was early 2010 and I’d owned my own small corporate training consulting firm for nearly 15 years. I hadn’t intended to. Back in 1996, I’d been hoping to take on independent contract work to accommodate my unexpected life circumstances: I was single and pregnant and figuring out the career/motherhood equation with no family nearby and an unreliable co-parent.
My plan worked. I quickly had an impressive client list and had hired contractors to supplement my work. Soon I had full-time employees, and by 2007, I’d acquired another company, moved into an office, and had an impressive array of Fortune 500 customers.
At first, I loved what I did: helping our clients learn skills they needed to succeed, from data input to leadership. Before the world had learned to work virtually, I created an at-home work environment for myself and dozens of other contractors. There were a lot of good times. In those early years, I was involved creatively and spent a lot of time in front of and alongside people I admired and loved.
Over the years, though, my connection to the work and to myself changed. I did fewer of the things I enjoyed, instead seeking new projects to feed the machine, or managing staff and client issues. Along the way, all this activity somehow became me. My identity and my ego clung to the business that bore my name.
I depended on my business’s success, prestige, sense of control, and financial rewards to define me. In an imaginary dictionary listing of my company, the definition would be a picture… of me.
Then, the economy tanked.
In 2008, my clients went bankrupt or cancelled large projects. Stress descended on me like a fog, overtaking the joy of the work. My sense of mastery was challenged. If this enterprise failed, what would that say about me?
Focused as I was on my own needs for accomplishment and the weighty responsibility I felt toward my employees, I could only vaguely see the impact my stress had on those around me. My life had changed since those early single-mom days. I’d been married for four years and had a partner I loved and trusted. I was no longer alone, fending for myself and my son. As I struggled, so did they.
Luckily, by the time economic disaster knocked my anxiety into the stratosphere, my husband Tim and I had already begun working with a counselor. We love each other, and wanted to do all we could to ensure a lasting union.
So when the counselor asked Tim “How do you feel about your wife’s job?” his answer was something of a shock.
“If it were up to me, she would quit.”
Had I heard that right? Why would he want me to give up the thing that had sustained, supported, and defined me?
“You haven’t seemed happy for a really long time,” he continued.
He was right.
That night, I talked to our son, Josh. As kids do, he spoke a truth I’d been blind to: “We’d all be happier if we could see more of you.”
I began to ask myself what I really wanted. Defining my biggest fears about what not being the CEO would mean, I discovered things that challenged my sense of self. Among these were amusing concerns like, “I’ll become bored, stupid, and lazy.” I also uncovered dreams I didn’t know I had: I wanted to write, dance, and travel. I didn’t want to “be the company” anymore.
More than anything, I wanted to be free from the feeling of “have to” that had driven my whole life; to change the pattern of over-achieving I’d created decades earlier, in attempts to be noticed, loved, and safe. Was this my opportunity to notice and love myself? Could I be my own source of safety?
I brought those hopes and fears with me as I packed the company into boxes. I found a buyer who could give a home to the products, clients, and staff I’d nurtured. I handed the company off and walked into the unknown.
It was a great decision.
In the years since, I’ve had more time and energy for my family, and gone on multiple vacations without checking email. I’ve spent more time enjoying nature, more time doing yoga and dancing. I’ve found new ways to channel my skills, becoming a certified executive coach and nonprofit consultant. I’ve found a new universe of friends and a new sense of identity, one less focused on achievement, control, and status.
I still tend to take on too much responsibility. But this more grounded version of myself is a much happier one.
Georgianna Marie is an aspiring author, currently developing a series of essays about her upbringing. After discovering the beautiful North Oregon Coast in 2020, she and her husband Tim purchased a cabin in Manzanita. She spends half her time in Oregon and the remainder in the Phoenix desert.