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WORK-LIFE BALANCE

'I Couldn't Find That Line Between Passion and Obsession'

After years of struggles, Eileen Fisher learned to put family first.
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Periodically, I'll take time out from my regular column to discuss all matters work-and-family-related with accomplished entrepreneurs. In 1984, Eileen Fisher founded her eponymous line of relaxed but elegant women's clothing and accessories. Today, Eileen Fisher is a 54-store enterprise operating in 18 states, with 900 employees. Fisher has two college-aged children. She recently spoke with me about the challenge of being there for your kids while you're running a company.

When you were starting the company, did you stop to consider how it was affecting your family?

For me the business was such a passion, such an obsession. There was so much good in it. It was exciting, fun, happening, like a wild horse pulling me. I couldn't get off. I felt confident as a businessperson and as a designer. My personal life was harder. I wasn't confident as a woman, as a human being. People and relationships--that was murky for me. I got married at 38, very quickly. My business was going crazy, but I knew I wanted to get married and have kids. The clock was ticking. I met my husband at a boutique show and I thought, this could work.

Did your focus on the business distract you from your relationship with your husband?

Definitely. For the moment, it felt right, and I didn't understand how much work and focus a relationship required. Then I was pregnant and had my son, and I was still trying to run the business. My husband had stores in Ithaca, and we were back and forth. I was trying to rein in this galloping horse of a business and stay anchored. I was operating the business partly out of my home and partly out of the office in New York. A few years later I had my daughter.

Many entrepreneurs understand that creating a successful business takes a lot of imagination, attention, and just plain work. They don't get that this equally huge and complex thing--their relationship--takes equal commitment.

Absolutely. Today, I spend more time thinking about my kids than I do my business.

What caused you to change your priorities?

A combination of things. I got divorced. And 9/11 was a wakeup call. What am I doing? You hear the word balance so much. When my kids were young, I tried to do certain things: read to them, have dinner with them every night. But I didn't really understand how to connect with them. My business was going crazy. I was making huge, million-dollar purchasing decisions--and then going home to feed the baby? I had deadlines. I was running around doing exciting things, or on the phone, or reading reports. And somehow stopping all that to play with dolls was confusing to me. I felt like I didn't know how to do it. The hardest thing was being present for my kids. Some of my son's first words were "crinkle rayon." It's kind of funny, but also sad. I was unsatisfied with my life and overwhelmed with work. Divorce was an answer, but also a nightmare, with the kids going back and forth. My daughter was four when my husband and I divorced. There was a lot of confusion. But I was happier. Later I got more anchored. I got time for myself: time to think. I started meditating, doing yoga, and going on retreats in my downtime. It was great.

What would you say a young female entrepreneur who wants to build a rocking business and have a family at the same time?

I would say, do things to anchor yourself and to keep your priorities straight. Make sure your most important relationships stay on top. And take care of yourself. When I didn't do that, it was chaos. I would also say, be present where you are. When you're with your kids, be with your kids. I've become practiced at it. People talk about quality time, but I think it's bigger than quality. It's about the quality of the presence we bring.

How did you find this balance at your growing company?

When my kids were in middle school, I started coming home at 3 p.m. three days a week. I realized that I could get the most important things done between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. I would guard my time. This conversation is going on too long. I can delegate this or that. What's the big picture here, what do I need to decide? I sorted my priorities and organized my time better.

Could you have been this crisp in the startup years? Even if your head had been there, could you have limited your time this way? Or are there some phases in the life of a business when it always wins?

That's a great question. In my case, the business did win in the early years. But I think it is possible to have a family in a healthy way and create a really thriving business at the same time. It takes a certain kind of energy. There will be times you have to throw yourself into the business. It's important to have a good support system for those times, have a supportive partner, and be aware of when you have to let go. There were key times--weeks--when the line had to come together. If I had just given myself to the business during those times, but remembered my priorities the other times, that would have made all the difference. The problem was, I couldn't find that line between passion and obsession. Business is addicting. The addicting part is not what makes it good. The passion is what makes it good. It's like love. Love is a good thing, but when it turns into obsession--when you have to be with that person all the time--it's not healthy.

Work challenges are concrete. The rewards of giving yourself at home are harder to define, and society doesn't offer the same respect for that. It's easy to be confused about what's important. And it's hard for women to forgive ourselves for that confusion.

A lot of friends tell me that I have to forgive myself for those early years. Women do punish themselves, but also they have a willingness to look at what's past and reflect, "What can I do now?" It sounds like I'm beating myself up. But I'm also looking at it differently. I behave differently now. Attending to your kids in their 20s still has a huge impact on their lives. With my ex-husband, too--our relationship has healed. I reflect not so much on what might have been, but more on what were the pieces that didn't line up right. What didn't get put in place that can be put in place now? I have another chance with my kids, and I'm on it.

IMAGE: Mark Mahaney/Courtesy Company
Last updated: Mar 20, 2014

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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