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Katrina Alcorn's picture

Almost two years ago, I wrote my first blog post. As soon as it went live, I thought, I have quite possibly just ruined my entire life.

This was about a year after I went home sick from my job and then never went back. The whole experience still felt painfully raw. I was filled with shame for letting people down, for abandoning the career I’d worked so hard at. I didn’t know how to explain the fact that I was so completely burned out that it wasn’t a choice to stop working, it was a physical necessity. Like most professional women, I had always taken great pains to appear confident, together, in control, and I didn’t know where to begin with the truth. Instead I told people that I was “just really exhausted,” as if I needed a lot of sleep, not a year of medication and intense therapy.

During that year, in between the meds and the therapy, I did a lot of writing and reading and thinking. It became increasingly important, for reasons I will explain, that I share what I was writing about with others.

I thought about starting a blog, but realized all those people I worked with would probably find it. (Of course they would. They’re web consultants. They spend most of their time on the Internet.) They would lose any remaining respect for me. Or maybe even get angry, thinking my experience somehow reflected negatively on them.

And what about when I did start working again? What if potential new clients and coworkers read things I’d written and decided they didn’t want to work with me? I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get freelance work when I needed it.

By that time, I had realized that my nervous breakdown was not some isolated incident, or simply a flaw in my character. Trying to work full-time and raise three very young kids is terrifically hard for most people. The struggle to support a family and still have time to see them was the central angst of most of the women I knew.
I also knew, by then, that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of countries where women are guaranteed paid parental leave (actually, make that all developed countries except for the U.S.), and generous sick pay. There are many places where people are not expected to work punishingly long hours, where it’s the norm to take a month vacation in the summer, and where part time work is more abundant and less frowned upon than it is here.

But the biggest reason I decided to write about my experience is because I don’t think we can truly solve our problems until we understand them. What discussions of “work-life balance” usually leave out are the throbbing, chaotic, emotional realities of what life is like when you don’t have it.

I launched my blog in March 2010 and held my breath.

A few days later I got my first email from a former coworker. He thanked me for being so honest. He said that even though he didn’t have kids, he, too, was in an ongoing battle to keep work from kidnapping his life. Then I got a similar email from another former coworker. And then, one from a former client who told me he’d quit his job for the same reasons I had described.

Flash forward two years …

So far, 17 former coworkers or clients have contacted me through email, phone calls and blog comments to show their support for what I’m writing about. I can’t tell you how gratifying that is.

And so far, (knock on wood!), I’ve had a steady stream of freelance work coming in, which in this economy is something to be grateful for. If anyone has decided they don’t want to work with me because of the things I write about, well, I’ve been too busy to notice.

In fact, some of my more interesting job leads have come, not in spite of my blog, but because of it. One entrepreneur who runs a local agency practically stalked me with job offers after reading this Mother’s Day post. He, too, was struggling with how to keep work from swamping his life. Just the other day, I mentioned in a blog post that I was in between freelance contracts. Almost immediately, I got a Twitter message from someone I haven’t talked to in years. “I LOVE your blog!” she said. “I’m looking for freelancers. Interested?”

Career “experts” would tell you to never be as frank as I’ve been. They’d advise you to transform your nervous breakdown into a ‘sabbatical,’ or perhaps an ‘ethnographic study of the behavioral health care system’ — anything to hide the fact that you were not in complete control of your life at all times. But I didn’t follow that advice, and here’s what I’ve learned instead: When you speak open-heartedly, when you are authentic about your own experience, when you are honest about what went wrong, a lot of people will like you and want to work with you, even more than if you pretend to be floating sublimely above the messiness of your life.

I’ve worked at places that spent ridiculous sums on company retreats and internal “messaging campaigns” to get people to work together better. But imagine how workplace culture would be transformed if everyone decided to stop posturing, playing stupid turf wars, and desperately trying to look like flawless mannequins and instead inhabited their own humanity and the truth of their experience.

Last week I got a call from a recruiter. I frequently get calls from recruiters, so this one struck me as unusual. Instead of launching straight into his project pitch, he said something about being a new dad.

That’s odd, I thought, Recruiters never do that. But then he brought it up again a minute later.

It dawned on me that he’d been reading my blog. Rather than scaring him away, he was eager to find a way to work together. Soon we were deep in conversation about the sacrifices you make to be home with your kids.

You know what? That’s really cool. It’s really cool to be yourself in a job interview.

This is my career advice:

  • Stop pretending to be bulletproof, invincible, and perfect.
  • Stop pretending your personal time doesn’t matter.
  • Know your limits, and be honest about them.
  • Inhabit your own humanity at work, warts and all.

It will feel weird at first, but you will be giving permission for others to do the same. You might find that work becomes a healthier place to be.

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Cross-posted from Working Moms Break and the Huffington Post

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