BALANCING ACTS

Minding the Kids

For better or worse, your children are deeply involved in your business. Stop feeling guilty about it, and start inviting your kids into your work life.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

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Now that our youngest is about to graduate from high school, my husband, Gary, and I have been reflecting on how we raised our three kids. Curiously, it had never occurred to us to ask our children how they felt about our company, Stonyfield Yogurt, and its endless claims on Gary's time, presence, and attention. Gary always worked hard to make up for his frequent absences. If he couldn't be there consistently, he wanted at least to be consistent about some things that were meaningful to the kids. When he was home, he would rise with them, make yogurt smoothies for breakfast, and drive them to school. He coached their soccer teams. When he was away, he constructed crossword puzzles, which he faxed to them from the road.

We both hoped it was enough. But we didn't really know. So I posed the question to each of my children: What was this like for you?

Part of my inspiration to ask this simple question came from a conversation I had at last year's Inc. 500 conference with Salem Samhoud, founder of &Samhoud, a consulting firm in the Netherlands. Stealing a trick from the manager's tool kit, Salem holds quarterly "360 degree reviews" with his wife and three children, ages 20, 13, and 9. The reviews show him where he's falling down as a parent and also where he doesn't need to sweat it. "Last September, they told me I spend too much time on my iPhone," he told me. "They were right. Now I switch it off on weekends. Because of their feedback, I already feel more relaxed and focused. They asked me to do it for them, but it's also better for me." Every six months, each child spends a day with Salem at the office. "They get to see not just the negative -- my absence -- but the positive -- what I do all day, how I work, how my work is valued," he says.

The subject of children is fraught for many working parents, but company owners experience extra dimensions of guilt. It's one thing to expose yourself and your spouse to financial risk and instability, another to expose kids who have no voice in the matter. Work follows the entrepreneur wherever he or she goes -- into the family room, onto the beach -- providing an ever-present reminder that Mom or Dad has competing priorities. Frequent travel is usually unavoidable. And even when you're there, you're often not there. Your body is at the Girl Scout meeting with your daughter, but your mind is mulling over margins.

When children are affected by a parent's absence or preoccupation, they often have ways of letting the parent know. At the same conference last fall, I met Susan Edwards, who told me that her entrepreneur-husband, Barry Edwards, got a wake-up call when their youngest child was about 2 years old. Susan had just pulled up to her husband's office with their son Cody. The boy excitedly pointed at the building and exclaimed, "Daddy's house!" "That comment changed my husband," Susan said. Across from his desk, Barry hung a poster of a little boy who looked like Cody. Printed in bold at the bottom was the word Priorities. "It's been his daily reminder of the need to shut down and go home," Susan said.

The competing pressures of business and children can be hardest on female entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is attractive to mothers, because it promises flexible hours, but how flexible can hours be when you're working 16 of them? Recently I met Amy Cueva, co-founder of a technology-design firm called Mad*Pow and the mother of three children, ages 5, 11, and 12. "Sometimes I don't even feel like a woman," she told me. "I don't have time to nurture and be there the way my mom was. Recently my daughter e-mailed me with a detailed plan for her 11th-birthday party. I didn't know whether to be proud of her organization and tech savvy or be depressed that she knows that e-mail is the best way to get in touch with me.

"People tell me how amazing it is that I accomplish all that I do," Amy said. "But I feel like I'm screwing up every day."

Still, there are upsides to being the progeny of an entrepreneur. Many company owners have extraordinary latitude to involve their kids in their work, spending time together while providing an early education in business. Packing boxes after school or counting inventory on weekends is often a terrific first job. Laboring alongside a parent, children feel proud of the family business -- this is ours! We are making this! And they watch their parents acting as leaders, taking responsibility both for their own lives and for the lives of others.

The intimate observation of entrepreneurship also helps shape children's future decisions. Some find their own horizons expanding as they realize they can choose to build something themselves rather than become part of something built by others. I was surprised to learn that my son Ethan, 19, is now interested in business. "Dad has a cool life," he told me. "It's really busy and demanding, but he has a personal attachment to what he does." Some children see the labor, the stress, and the sacrifice and decide the entrepreneur's life is not for them. My 17-year-old daughter, Danielle, for instance. "When I was a kid, I thought it would be cool to have Dad's job, but as I got exposed to what it's really like, I'm just like, ugh."

My children also had differing reactions to Gary's absences, mental and physical. The boys weren't much bothered by them. "Dad was there for things I cared about, like my soccer games and teaching me to ride a bike," said Alex, who is now 21. "All I remember now are the things that he was able to do." "I think Dad's absences put a lot more pressure on you than they did on us," said Ethan.

Danielle had another view. "It was great that he coached my soccer team. But during those times he was my coach, not my dad," she said. "Our games and practices were just part of his busy schedule. Sometimes I felt bad when he came to soccer games, because I knew there were more 'important' things he should be doing.

"At this point in my life, I appreciate his mission and what he's doing to support organic farmers," Danielle continued. "But sometimes I think, Why does my dad have to be the guy who saves the world? Sometimes you need to be the guy who chills out. Let somebody else save the world for a while."

An entrepreneurial business sucks the entire family into its vortex. Marinating in guilt is an opportunity lost. So invite your kids into your work life. Let them see how things are made or marketed, how problems are tackled and solved. They will gain more appreciation for what you do. "Daddy's (or Mommy's) house" will feel more like their house, too.

My "interviews" with our children let Gary and me understand them better and deepened our relationship as a result. Your kids' feedback may change the way you run your business and live your life. As I write this, Gary is downstairs in the den with Danielle, watching her latest favorite show (United States of Tara) and, to all appearances, completely chilling out.

Of course, it's possible he's mulling over margins.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg (mhirshberg@inc.com) writes a regular column about the impact of entrepreneurial businesses on families. She is married to Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt.

IMAGE: Esther Pearl Watson
Last updated: Mar 1, 2010

MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist

Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at mhirshberg@inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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