I love to work. My best friend tells me that work is my hobby and when my work is going well, I radiate fulfillment. I’m good at work. I throw my heart and soul into it, and have built a career working for organizations and companies that are mission-driven and strive to make a difference in the world.
I am not, it turns out, good at getting pregnant or staying pregnant. Twelve years ago, getting pregnant and staying pregnant became more than a full-time pursuit: fertility treatments, early morning blood tests, tears in the parking lot before heading into a meeting with a Fortune 500 client; it was an intense time. I had moved to New Jersey after being in Boston for a decade. I had left a career I loved. I had left my best friends, and a city where I had spent a decade putting down roots. I was in a new marriage, a new house, and a new job. And, if the science and magic worked, hopefully I would have a new baby.
Finally pregnant with my first child, I left work on a Friday afternoon for my routine 20-week ultra sound. I didn’t walk back into the office for another twenty months. Twenty months. Right after that routine ultrasound, I was rushed in for emergency surgery and then put on bed rest. After 11 weeks of bed rest (that’s an entirely different kind of work), my ever-impatient son arrived early at 31 weeks. He stayed in the NICU for 6 weeks. Throughout the bed rest and intense days at the hospital, and the even more intense days of being home alone with a teeny-tiny baby (who sometimes stopped breathing and turned blue when eating - that was fun), my boss let me know that this baby came first and not to worry about my job.
My boss was the co-founder of a 200-person company that processed donations from corporations to non-profits. She and her husband ran the company like a family. This, of course, had its pros and cons. In this instance, however, it was a definite pro. When I called her in a panic about being put on bed rest, she simply told me not to worry, and that my job would be waiting for me. When my son was about four months old and I was COMPLETELY going insane from staying at home watching him breathe and becoming best friends with my breast pump, I asked if I could work very part-time from home. She said yes. On a very productive week, I was lucky to clock about twelve hours of work - a week. At most.
When the doctors gave the greenlight for my son to go into daycare at 18 months old, I pitched my boss the idea of coming back to work three days a week in the office. I offered to become an hourly employee and not accrue vacation or sick time. She agreed, and I marched back into the office 5 months pregnant with my second son. And yes, I ended up on bed rest again, and took 5 months off to stay at home with him after he was born. And yes, they held my job for me. When I returned, I continued working three days a week, and after a few years, upped it to four.
I see now how lucky I was to be a part of such a supportive company. I see how lucky I was to be able to straddle both of my worlds. There were tradeoffs for sure. I was so far off the management track, I couldn’t even see the track in the distance. There were days when I sucked at work and sucked at being a parent.
However, I also saw that working actually made me a better mom - and that being a mom made me a better worker. I have more clarity and have to work smarter because I can’t work 17 hours a day. I have more tolerance of myself when things aren’t perfect. And seriously, once you have had a baby who turns blue, it puts everything else in perspective.
I continue to work for mission-driven organizations. My ambition has grown, and I’ve taken on new challenges at different organizations. I’ve been on the product side, the sales side, joined a management team, started a few side hustles, left companies when their values didn’t line up with mine, and sought out companies whose purpose fed my passion.
These days, the equation for my work happiness is pretty clear. For me to love my work, feel that joy and sense of fulfillment, I need to believe in the purpose of the company (does the company actually make a positive difference?). I need to feel a sense of purpose in my role (do I actually make a difference at the company?), and do the people I work with fuel and inspire my passion?
The final element is that I need flexibility to be able to parent well. I now work from home for a Corporate Social Responsibility technology company. Our Founder/CEO authentically talks about “family first.” My millennial male boss knows that there are some days that I sign off at 3pm to take my kids to after-school activities. Or that I may start late because I have a morning School Board meeting. But he also knows that on weekends I’m up early getting work done. Or that after the kids’ homework, bedtime reading, and clean up, I’m often back online working.
I’m old enough to know that work/life balance is a myth. Sometimes life needs your full attention, and other times, work is all-consuming. When I believe in what I am doing, and when I feel the connection between my work and the bigger picture of making a difference to the company, my clients, and frankly, the world, I feel the balance I need to thrive.
Susan Gross Pollara
Susan finds a few things impossible to believe: that her 2 sons finally convinced her to get a dog; that she actually loves living in New Jersey after reluctantly moving there 12 years ago; and that she's been lucky enough to have spent over a decade combining her passion for doing some good in the world with her love of technology and business. When she's not helping corporations with their employee engagement and corporate social responsibility programs, Susan can be found organizing local food truck events, being a member of her local Board of Education, and renovating her 1936 bungalow.