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BALANCING ACTS

Is it OK to Leave Your Spouse at Home?

What to do when the work-obsessed spouse wants to play--without you.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

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Back in the 1980s, when my husband, Gary, and I were living the full catastrophe (young kids, new business) -- when hundred-hour workweeks were commonplace, dinners together a luxury, and most conversations an endless list of to-dos -- one commitment remained inviolable: Gary's tennis dates. Often, he and his friend Rick would meet at a local court in the evening, and by the time Gary returned to the farm, I was long asleep. As a nonjock, I was mystified and more than a little resentful of the choice he was making: to miss precious catch-up and connection time with me in favor of smashing little green balls over a net. I felt abandoned and pretty far down on his priority list. And at the end of my long day, I wasn't exactly gracious about being left with three screaming little people while he was off working up a cathartic sweat.

For families of entrepreneurs, the issue of leisure time is often a flash point. Spouses can usually -- albeit often unhappily -- reconcile themselves to the time demands a business makes on the entrepreneur. The family may depend on the income; dreams may rest on the company's anticipated success. But the spouse's repressed resentment can flower in the fertile loam formed by the entrepreneur's regular jaunts to the golf course or the gym. Voluntary abandonment stings in a way that obligatory leave taking does not. Work is necessary. Leisure pursuits are a matter of choice.

Or are they? For Gary, sports are a necessity, not a luxury. They lower his blood pressure and clear his head. He gets creative ideas while he hikes, in the fresh air, away from the clamor of people and the bleeping of computers and PDAs. "Doing sports makes me a nicer person," he told me recently. "I can't make the stress go away. But after the tension release of playing tennis or skiing, I feel more hopeful -- I feel revived. Better that than bringing the stress backwash home." (It's true that I've learned to gauge Gary's stress level by observing the number of pairs of sports pants in the laundry hamper.) This past winter, when Gary returned home on a Friday night after 10 days away on business and announced his plan to go skiing the next day, I felt a frisson of anger. But right on its heels came my lecture to myself: This is good. He needs this. The more he sweats, the more he smiles.

Tennis and skiing, however, are only two of Gary's many voluntary pursuits. He is politically active, serves on several boards, and travels frequently to give speeches. The crux of the problem, as Gary has pointed out to me, is that entrepreneurs are overoptimistic about how much they can take on without sacrificing something important. When you overpack a suitcase, something has to come out, or the lid won't close. It's hard when the item Gary chooses to remove is time with me.

My friend Kit Crawford, who owns Clif Bar with her husband, Gary Erickson, once wrestled with the same issue. "All Gary's adult life, he's taken an annual two-week intense bike trip," she told me. "Right after our third child, Lydia, was born in 1994, Gary left on one of his trips. I thought, You are kidding me! I rolled with it, but it was hard. He'd call me from the road, and I would weep. I felt lonely, overwhelmed, and resentful. He came home early from that trip, and then I felt guilty that he cut his trip short because of me."

Gary's commitment to his biking made Kit mad, but it also made her think. Having passions was a good thing, she realized. The solution wasn't to deny Gary his but instead to pursue her own. So, with Gary's encouragement, she started painting and resumed horseback riding and biking -- hobbies from before her kids were born. "My resentment sprang from the fact that I wasn't taking care of myself," says Kit. "We do a lot of things together. But doing what we love individually has ultimately made us stronger as a couple."

Like Kit, I believe it's important for both spouses to pursue their passions. And now that I have my own fulfilling work -- writing and teaching -- I sympathize more with both of the Garys. Professional gratification is not the same as personal fulfillment. Nor are work-life balance and work-family balance identical. There's more to personal life than just family. We all need to take care of ourselves and give back to our communities. For me, gardening and traveling and reading and serving on nonprofit boards (and, yes, even exercising -- thank you, Gary) are not just leisure pursuits. They have come to feel necessary.

Another friend, Nancy Rosenzweig, puts it more philosophically. Nancy is a serial entrepreneur and CEO and the mother of two small children. The fact that she also devotes significant time to volunteer work has sometimes caused tension at home. Paraphrasing the poet David Whyte, Nancy asserts that the antidote to busy-ness is not rest but rather "wholeheartedness." She says that her community commitments don't deplete her -- they energize her. Nurturing ourselves by doing things we're passionate about in turn allows us to "wholeheartedly" nurture others -- including our families and our companies.

So when Gary is off playing tennis, he is replenishing his body, mind, and spirit, and the children and I benefit from that. I get that now.

Right here would be a lovely place to tie up this essay with a bow. But the truth is, my understanding is more in my head than in my heart. I know I shouldn't chafe at Gary's rightful and healthy decision to do things he loves. Still, the extent of his voluntary commitments rankles. We enjoy our respective leisure activities in very different contexts. My work is largely confined to normal business hours and requires little travel. When I take up a new interest, our family life is not materially affected. The demands of Gary's business, by contrast, consume his mind and his time. Long before he snaps on that ski boot, his cup hath run over.

There will always be new things that Gary and I want to explore. Ideally, some will be interests we share. But many will not. And as our combined calendars fill up, the white spaces representing our unscheduled time diminish. Without conscious brakes and limits, heedlessly adding commitments can create a cycle of escalating busy-ness, a mutually assured (if unintended) destruction of shared time. Balance remains elusive -- but Gary and I do better when we grab the eraser together and reclaim some of those calendar squares.

On Valentine's Day, Gary and I woke up, ate a wonderful breakfast, and watched a movie we'd rented. It was a lovely, lazy start to a wintry Sunday, and I was looking forward to a rare day together for the two of us. And then, the backhand volley: "I'm playing tennis with Adam at 3."

I winced but immediately rallied and lobbed myself The Lecture: This is good! He needs this. Then up piped a wee voice in my head: "Isn't this out of bounds?"

Absent an umpire, I wasn't sure. I served up, "OK, but it would have been better if we'd talked about it first." Gary agreed. Neither one of us cried fault.

We both got the point.

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: May 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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