My wife called me tonight, quiet on the phone, for a while, until it all came rushing out. “I’m not worth anything”, she said softly, and I knew tears were streaming down her face, her hands surely clutching the phone as she sobbed. I listened from 300 miles away in my apartment in New York City, a fan whirling above me in the late August heat, not knowing what to say. All her friends and professional colleagues knew her as a poised, successful, competent, and vibrant woman, but on this day, it all became too much.
My professional goals led me to take a job in Los Angeles in 2003, and since then, I have been on the road most of the time, flying home several times a month to spend time together. Even living in New York, a one-hour flight from Portland, Maine, I might as well have been halfway across the world for the amount of physical comfort I could provide to her. Through her sobs, she said she was a failure, couldn’t make her business succeed like she wanted, couldn’t make enough money to fix the house, couldn’t get through to that freshman girl trying to run three miles in a body that was changing before her eyes, and that she must be stupid not to be able to manage everything on her plate. That, no matter how hard she prepared, no matter how much she gave, she just wasn’t making any headway. This from a woman who has run her own successful language school in a small seaside town on the coast of Maine for 15 years, managing 12 language instructors, serving as the receptionist, teacher, sales team, marketing manager, chief operating officer, and president; this from a woman who spends 30 hours a week coaching an elite high school girls cross country and track team year round for less than $10,000 a year; this from a woman who teaches French every semester at Bowdoin college; and this from a woman who still manages to run 40-50 miles a week to stay in shape.
She vented for a while, and I so wanted to tell her just stop running her business, focus on her love of teaching and coaching, and lessen the load on her time so she could breath a little. But one of the things I have learned over the years is the importance of listening. As she spoke to me across the miles, I had open, in front of me, More.com’s website, and I spoke to her of the shared bond amongst the readers, the pressures of life, multi-tasking, and the importance of accepting, and embracing, a spirit of “reinvention”.
She called me later, her voice weary with sleep, to wish me good night. I told her I loved her, that she would have good dreams, and wake up refreshed. She was asleep before we hung up, I’m sure, hoping to have a good rest before going for a ten mile run the next morning at 6 am.
The city that never sleeps is now fairly quiet, and I sit alone, wondering what a husband says to a woman like this, like all women, who feel like they don’t have the time to reinvent themselves; they don’t have the time to reevaluate their priorities; they don’t always feel appreciated, or perhaps they honestly don’t know how to change things and there simply is no time.
I understand that, and so I guess the best I can do is to tell her I believe in her, she has the power, the talent, and the unbelievable work ethic to do anything she wants. What is she willing to let go? What steps is she willing to take to do something she fears? What does she love about what she does, and what would she like to drop? As her constant, though distant, companion over the years, I know I can’t answer those questions, but I can do something. I can remind her of the unbelievably substantial, potent, and breathtaking impact she has had on the world around her.
As a female business owner, you have survived far longer than most small businesses, compensating for a small market and no staff by working your heart out, burning the midnight oil, learning new skills, confronting real and imagined fears which would have made most abandon any thoughts of success and retreat to a more stable corporate environment. And what have you accomplished? You have become the fabric of a community, as much a part of the social network and the neighborhood as the general store, the multiple coffee shops, the high end and the corner restaurant, the waves that crash against the shore, the mailman who has been delivering packages and registrations to you for 15 years. You have brought the widowed retiree back to French classes, where she recounts her visits to France long ago to those who have never been; you fill the gap for local high school students too advanced for their high school language departments, or perhaps requiring extra attention; you build bridges between young and old, professional and vocational through your Friday morning breakfasts over coffee and croissants, not only sharing a common love of language but supporting a local bakery; your contribution to the city’s monthly art walk infuses an international flavor to the heart of a vibrant art scene and supports artists in their ongoing struggle for exposure. In short, your commitment to your business has created a broader family, drawn to you through the force of your efforts and vitality, and sustained by your vision.
As a visiting professor of French to an elite academic institution, you demonstrate that one can be both an academic and a successful businesswoman; you don’t have to choose. As a woman who sets and abides by her own high standards, you may be one of the first strong female role models for your students, providing leadership and modeling successful achievement.
As the first female coach of the girls cross country and track team at a formerly all boys Jesuit preparatory school, your contributions are simply immeasurable. For every talented high achiever shooting for a state record or national prominence, there is another girl struggling to simply finish the race. You are there to provide a whisper, a yell, a push, a pull; you are there to inspire, cajole, to lead, to manage. For every 20 parents who endorses your loving but firm embrace of their daughter, there is always one parent for whom you can do nothing right. For every parent who gives the sun and the moon to their daughter, there is the rare parent who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not be there for their child. Between these two extremes sits you, to catch, to hold, to listen. You meet them in the mornings, setting a positive mood, you wait for them in the woods, cheering the leaders and exhorting the trailers. You run with a grace and strength that mirrors the way you live your life, and, except for the air of authority you carry with you, you could easily be mistaken for one of your own athletes, or a college runner coming back to train at your old high school. On Saturday mornings, despite having worked 80 hours a week, you meet your team at 8 am for a long run, staying back with the new runners on the rolling hills where necessary, then sprinting ahead to lead, and beat, the top runners in a race up the final hill. You respond to their worried text late at night, scared about a race or simply wanting to share a secret. You spend hours late at night at the office, writing up the most recent results, highlighting achievements while suggesting room for improvements, while piles of your “day job” paperwork and emails still await your review and attention. You encourage them to participate in a breast cancer awareness and fundraising event, knowing that it will teach them to look outside themselves and be of service to others; more importantly, it may save their lives someday. I wasn’t able to go to that event, but I can only imagine the hope and pride in the eyes of the women who watched you lead those young ladies into that fundraising event, with their pink ribbons on and wearing their best clothes. No one else could have done that but you.
What is your reward for all this? The question doesn’t need to be asked, I think. It is plain to see. It’s clear in the way the girls look to you, its evident in the words they share with you and the notes they send to you throughout their high school career, and its obvious in the respect they show you when they return from college to see you. I’ve seen you fight for your athletes, getting in the face of a grumpy old male referee when your girls have been treated unfairly, laughing (discretely of course) with the parents because he probably didn’t know who he was dealing with. The parents? I talk to them when I can, as you lead them in warming up for a race. They are huge fans of you, amazed at your energy, your commitment, your caring approach to their children. They know you may be hard on their babies, you may seem to ask too much, they may even complain from time to time. But, at the end of each season, and on the final day of graduation, they know their daughters learned about integrity, commitment, leadership, hard work, service to others, and teamwork from you, their coach. I’ve seen parents with tears in their eyes as they struggle to explain the impact you have had on their lives; I’ve seen you cry when saying goodbye to the young woman, beautiful in her strength and confidence and excited to move to the next new challenge, comfortable that she now has what it takes to succeed.
So, as you turn 42 years old this year, you have outlasted most businesses in staying power, you can still put the hurt on some of the top high school runners in New England half your age, you are a mentor, a leader, and a confidant to the next generation of woman, and you’ve built a durable community around your vision. I know I couldn’t do that and I don’t how you can.
And finally, isn’t it about the impact you make on the world around you? You are not completely what you do or make, you are what you contribute to your world, and your contributions have inspired young women to fight through adversity and dream big, provided comfort to mothers and fathers that their daughters are in good hands as they enter womanhood, taught retirees to re-engage in a lifelong passion through language and travel, and demonstrated the richness possible when a woman fully commits to life.