It was almost one year ago today that I pulled my hatchback into the driveway of my new home in California (affectionately referred to as The Pony Farm) for the first time. When I moved here I had barely an idea of where we were living, I had a business that needed to be rebuilt on a new coast, a part-time job with APW, and a few friends that I’d made, ahem, on the internet. For the first time in a long time, life was open and undetermined and new.
And the best part was that this was going to be the year that I was finally free from my cubicle. I would be liberated from bureaucracy and rules and people who told me no. Granted, it was also a little bit scary. All that freedom mostly came with the realization that I didn’t have much on my plate. I hadn’t booked any California weddings yet and working for APW was something that took up just a small part of my time. I tingled with the same nervous excitement and anticipation I felt those first few weeks after graduating college, except this time my fate wasn’t in the hands of grumpy entertainment industry executives.
The kind of freedom I experienced in those first few months was a little like being a kid at a buffet. I didn’t have to make a choice about what I wanted to do next, because I had endless possibilities right in front of me! So like any gluttonous young’n, I decide that I was going to try to have it all. Yes, I really ought to know better by now. But to be honest, it was really exciting. The first few things I poured my heart into (setting up Hart & Sol West and helping Meg get her book tour sponsored by Amtrak) paid off in ways that I had never even dared to imagine. (I got to ride a midnight train to Georgia! I was going to travel for photography! Life goals accomplished!) And it wasn’t long before I wanted more. So each time a project wrapped or a wedding was booked (or frankly, most of the time before the ink was even dry on a current project) I was there, looking for my next opportunity.
The problem was, once I started I Just. Never. Stopped.
Maybe it’s because I graduated into the recession, or because I’ve always had to bust ass to get ahead professionally, but I became kind of addicted to hearing the word yes. This year was the first time in my professional life that I didn’t feel like I was being held back by the man, or by gender politics, or by bullshit office policies, and dammit, I wasn’t about to let that go. (It reminds me a bit of hoarding, but with opportunities. I was afraid if I didn’t take everything that came my way, I’d suddenly be without any opportunities. Which I think might be characteristic of those of us who have tried to find jobs in the recession.)
So as my working hours slowly increased and the time spent between Michael and myself diminished to about half an hour each night (on a good night), I told myself this was normal. Michael and I had even spent the first few of our married years with me working extra long hours, often leaving the house a 7AM and coming home between 9 and 11PM, so this was technically par for the course. And no matter how much my friends or colleagues protested (or how many times Meg warned me about burnout and tried to send me on vacation so that I’d be forced to take a break) I kept coming back with, “It’s fine. I can do this. I just have to make it through the next (insert number here) of weeks and I’ll be fine.”
Which of course, turned into about six months of nonstop go.
The problem was, in years past when I’d put myself in almost the exact same situation (old habits die hard, y’all), Michael and I were working in offices. So when we didn’t see each other for a few days, or if one of us worked late all week and the dishes piled up, it somehow felt normal. Maybe even a little inevitable. (This is what two worker bees in their mid-twenties looks like, right?) But with me working from home this year, I was suddenly faced with the reality of what I was missing. I mean, it’s hard not to miss your partner when there’s only a wall separating you, instead of state lines and a two-hour commute. But worse than that, I found myself constantly telling Michael “No.” No, I can’t go out to dinner tonight, I have to finish this project nobody asked me to do. No, I’d rather not go see a movie later because then I’ll have to make up for lost time by working extra late, and I just want to go to sleep. No, I haven’t gone grocery shopping in a month, can’t you see how busy I am?
At first, it was okay. Mostly because Michael had our roommate to keep him company (read: play Star Wars). But then our roommate went home for two months. And as the dishes piled way up, and I started climbing into bed at 3AM instead of midnight, and eventually became so tired that I was “emotionally volatile” (Michael’s words, not mine. But he may have had a point). It became clear that the ill-constructed foundation of our relationship was crumbling beneath us. And that in all that “Yes” I’d been hoarding (not just this year, but for the entirety of our relationship if I’m being honest. In high school I once skipped Michael’s birthday so that I could work backstage at a Def Leppard concert. Did I mention old habits die hard?) the side effect was that I was effectively saying “No” to my marriage.
I guess you could say that this is the year I learned the importance of a work-life balance. But I actually think I achieved something deeper. I’ve written before about my fears and insecurities regarding marriage. It’s not that I don’t trust the institution, it’s just that I don’t like to put all my happiness eggs in one basket. But what I hadn’t realized was that by spreading myself so thin, I was keeping my marriage at arm’s length. And instead of protecting me, it was hurting me. It was hurting us. Because you know what? You can’t really enjoy the company of a committed partner if you’re keeping them at arm’s length (or making them sleep alone while you stay up late on the computer, ahem). And Michael? Well, he deserves better. Because without him here reminding me that I am worth more than my accomplishments, I might have actually run myself straight into the ground.
The thing is, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for this year. 2012 has been by far the most rewarding year of my professional life thus far (certainly including everything you guys made possible for me). It’s actually kind of crazy to think of everything that happened: I got to go on a book tour, I shot weddings in seven states (plus Puerto Rico!), co-hosted a photography workshop, coordinated and photographed the whole P&G beauty series, and was promoted to Managing Editor of this amazing site. The entire time it felt like I was like floating on a cloud of affirmation. But. It was also exhausting. And I saw this side of four o’clock in the morning a few too many times for it to be good for my health (or Michael’s sanity.) Plus, at the end of the day, no matter how many successes I saw professionally, I was utterly failing at being a good partner. And we all know how well I deal with failure. So in 2013, I think I may experiment a bit with telling myself “no,” and perhaps working on accepting the fact that just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.
Even if I really, really, really, really, really want to.
Photo: Michael and I goofing around during a rare day off at a friend’s house, by APW’s own copy editor, Kate