Two years ago, after the birth of my third child, I endured a personal health crisis that was so challenging, I could barely get out of bed. I know that seems rather flippant, that we hear the term “health crisis” often, but I assure you, as a type A personality, health crises just don’t fit into my big picture. I own a bookkeeping business and manage employees. I mentor, I write, I raise three children and I try to spend as much time as possible with my friends and family in my tight-knit community. While some might relish a day in bed, it makes my skin crawl.
So when I found myself there, laying in bed, I nearly lost my mind. And because I could barely work, without tools and a support system already in place, I could have lost my business too.
I had a very complicated pregnancy and delivery. And three days after giving birth, I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis, pink eye and — wait for it — a case of head-to-toe hives. This wasn’t just some minor inconvenience. The hives covered me like a sheet of scales and swelled my skin so badly, it cracked in places. My joints began to swell, I could barely walk and the pain was nearly unbearable. In tears and broken, I refused antibiotics because I didn’t want to upset my days-old baby’s developing digestive system.
At week three of being sick, I caved. I got on both antibiotics to clear up my debilitating lung infection and no less than three rounds of steroids to try to make some progress with the hives. The antibiotics made me better, and the steroids made the hives worse once I completed each round. Couple this with a smidgen of postpartum depression and adjusting hormones, and I was a crying, sniveling mess. I felt defeated, horrible.
Clearly, I was in no shape to tend to my business during this time, but I was upset that the energy I spent building a nursery in my office space seemed like a waste. It was also hard to admit that maybe I was a little naive in thinking I was going to jump right back on the work horse after having a baby. I had done it with babies one and two, but at that point in my life, I was just freelancing; I didn’t have a staff or commercial office to maintain. But this time, to save my sanity and protect my family, I knew I’d have to scale back on the momentum I had built in my business.
So I let go.
I gave myself permission to only focus on me. I forgot about all the things that had to get done at work and adopted the daily mantra: “Do just one thing.” This allowed my inner A-Type to feel accomplished once I completed a single daily task (usually related to client care and maintaining existing relationships), and it gave me a huge priority filter. The one thing that got done for the day was the most important.
I checked emails from my bed on my iPad between episodes of trash TV. My employees knew how sick I was, but if something was really urgent, they could text me. There was a handful of times I had to hop on the phone with a client or professional colleague, things that couldn’t be put off. Putting on a “power face” for 15 minutes was manageable, though.
It became apparent that in order to save my business, it was critical to give myself permission not to grow it. I turned down referrals, sales pitches and work, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my existing client relationships and the caliber of work I like to provide if I took on new business too. I reminded myself often: You can’t be a do-it-all woman all the time.
I relied heavily on my team, my family, my friends and John, my soon-to-be husband. And when the woman I hired to help me in the office left without warning five weeks after I gave birth, it was obvious that I’d have to be even scrappier to survive. I called one of my friends, a baby whisperer, to come and babysit my infant in my home while I worked upstairs for a few hours each day, pausing to rest or nurse as needed.
I also leaned on a group of professional women I met prior to having my baby. I was invited to participate in a mastermind group with eight other women, and I said yes. (Our purpose was to create one radical goal for the year and work toward it with the group.) This was a real stretch for me. It was a large financial commitment — not something you normally take on right before having a baby, and it wasn’t something I’d ever done before. The very first call with the group was the day my hives showed up. In my pajamas, nursing in bed, I joined the call and, through bronchitis, squeaked out my story and shared my business goals. The suffering was worth it: Without this mastermind group to fall back on for the following year, I don’t know how I would have made it through.
The women who were local came to visit and spend time with me — an important personal touch. Postpartum life is often lonely, as is the road of entrepreneurship, and having this personal contact with professional undertones was critical. On our weekly calls, they walked me through prioritizing and staying focused. They also reminded me to be kind to myself and give myself space for healing.
I used to think that “doing it all” was a great asset, but I now realize that it is actually a liability. It takes wits, courage and smarts to ask for help — the right kinds of it. Learning to prioritize is important, and I made a point to adjust my expectations based on my priorities and communicate any changes to my clients and employees. But I made sure to keep this communication strategic: I didn’t give drama-laden play-by-play descriptions of my health issues to my clients. When they made a request I knew would take a few days to make onto my “just-one-thing list,” I simply replied with the truth: “You are a priority, and I value our relationship. I am working a limited number of hours this week, and I expect this to be completed by this date. If you are absolutely pressed to get it sooner, please let me know and I will be sure to accommodate you.”
Even today, two years later, I still have chronic urticaria, which means I have hives of unknown origins for no discernible reason. Thankfully, they’re not anything like they were in the beginning, but they still flare up during periods of high stress. I’ve learned there are very few things in life that are as important as my health.
When you become so sick, it’s only natural that it shines a light on your mortality. After this experience, and the unfortunate sudden death of a mommy-preneur I know, the “what ifs” in life seem much more pronounced. To protect myself for the future unknowns, I’ve been working on some back-up plans. I created a binder of must-know information about my business for my family, which includes the agreements I have with my clients, key vendor contacts, affiliate relationships I have and important account numbers. I’m also exploring purchasing a “key man” insurance policy, which provides coverage to a business, much like a life-insurance policy. The policy is awarded to a business and is used to pay off company debts, hire replacement personnel and provide capital to keep the business running during an unexpected transition.
But in the end, the most valuable lesson I learned wasn’t about running my business; it was about how I want to run my life. Before, I was focused on achievement in a way that wasn’t healthy for me or my family. Intensity isn’t always efficient, especially if it burns you out, wears you down and affects your health and relationships. It was a hard lesson learned, but it’s been a great gift.