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Fashion Magazine
On Being a Working Girl: An essay.

Work is the most important thing in my life.

This realization came thundering home during a recent lunch meeting with one of my editors, an extremely hardworking mother-of-two, who was urging me, as editors do, to turn in a piece of writing earlier rather than later.

“I know you think you’re over-extended and that you have responsibilities, but let me assure you, you fewer responsibilities than you think,” she said, which was her way of pointing out that fact that I have no children. “Now is the time for you to work. You can rest,” she assured me with a steely smile, “when you’re older.”

My first response to her speech was flattery. (It’s nice to be wanted, especially by someone you respect.) The second was stress. (How the heck was I going to meet the deadline?)

The third was a nagging deja vu.

I’d heard her speech before, I just couldn’t place where.

Forty minutes later, pounding out a column on deadline in my cubicle at The Globe and Mail, it came to me: Bonnie Fuller.

In the opening chapter of her recent book The Joys of Much Too Much, Fuller, a poster girl for careerism if there every was one, outlines a similar justification for making work a top priority in her life despite having four children and serious gym addiction.

“For the time being, I’ve given up sitting in the park with just a book, gardening for hours and other such contemplative pursuits, for the joys of having and raising children while building a successful career. Truth is, I’ve given up a lot of sleep, too… I’ve worked hard to get where I am in the magazine industry. Why stop now? I’ll have time later to plant irises.” [intro p xiv]

That I had joined the ranks of hard-nosed careerists like Fuller, who prioritize work over outside interests, came as a surprise to me. But it shouldn’t have.

Since entering the workforce just under a decade ago, there has been little consistency in my life apart from my job. Relationships, diet regimens, apartments, shoes, cities, pets, cars, countries, houses, haircuts and furniture have all come and gone. Work is the one thing that’s stayed constant and true, building upon itself and paying off at every turn. Where ever I am, who ever I’m with, whatever I’m doing, if I’m doing it for very long, three things will likely be involved: a desk, a chair and a computer.

It seems I have become that kind of woman. The kind for whom work is a central life force. Not merely a way of paying the rent or passing the time before marriage and childbearing, my work is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. It’s my passion, obsession and sense of self worth. In essence, my job is… me.

I never intended it to be this way.

Despite growing up in the feminist era, I had always passively assumed that, after getting a degree and a respectable job, at some point in my late twenties or early thirties, my ambition would dry up, only to be replaced with an equally respectable urge to get married and have children.

Instead I find the opposite is true: The more central my work becomes in my life, the more I make it my top priority, the more I am beginning to understand the sort of sacrifices pursuing a life outside work would entail. I crave a traditional domestic family situation less at thirty than I did at twenty-five, and less at twenty-five than I did at twenty.

That this goes against all biological reason is not lost on me. Trouble is, I have no power to control what I want in life – or do I?

Will I live to regret making work the single organizing passion of my adult existence? Will my career be fulfilling enough for me in the long run? Will I end up alone, in an exquisitely-furnished condo eating a Whole Foods organic dinner for one with no one but a stack of books and magazine article clippings like this one to keep me company?

They say no one regrets not spending more time at the office, but it’s not true. The late American novelist Wallace Stegner (who published a plethora novels during his life) is said to have lamented on his deathbed, that given a second chance, he would have worked harder.

Looking for guidance, I called up some women I admire.

Sarah Murdoch, 60, the executive editor of the National Post, expresses a similar feeling to Stegner’s about a lifetime spent building a career in the newspaper business. Her job is in many ways the single greatest love of her life.

“I’m on the side of work,” she says. “I find it to be a kind of play. Even when I was a married person I felt that it was an escape. It reminded me of summer camp -- a world away from home.”

Some might say that using work as an escape (a place to sublimate outside stresses) is the most unhealthy aspect of careerism. But Tova White, the head of Human Resources at Indigo Canada (a company that is 75 percent female), firmly disagrees.

“When I was going through my divorce I’d go to the office on Saturday for six hours and forget about everything. It kept me sane. For some people the gym is like that. Not me – I need to work.”

White, who is in a new partnership and currently pregnant with her first child, admits that while she has shepherded so many employees through life transitions as an HR executive, she has mixed feelings at the prospect of her own maternity leave.

“My job is such a huge part of who I am,” she says. “When you move to that next phase or you choose to leave your job that’s gone -- instantly. I’m no longer Tova White professional, I’m something else. Will I be satisfied going to a play group when I’m used to going to meetings and running the agenda?”

Murdoch, for her part, knew the answer to that question and choose not to have children. She’s never once regretted her decision.

“All my girlfriends who are mothers say the best thing they ever did was have a child,” she says, “but on the other hand, I don’t really see women who don’t have children suffering for it.” Particularly, she adds, if they are devoted to their jobs.

The fact remains, there are serious personal sacrifices in choosing to put one’s work first. Romantic relationships can suffer, or be severely limited. One girlfriend of mine, an ambitious screenwriter in her 30s, recently confided in me that she has given up dating outside her profession. “What’s the point?” she said. “My work is incredibly important. I might as well be with someone who shares that, otherwise I’ll never see them.”

Perhaps the well-documented challenge of balancing the needs of a family and a high-powered career is simply untenable. I emailed Bonnie Fuller to ask her honest advice on the prospect of “having it all.” “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to do this interview,” came her prompt reply. “I am just so swamped this whole week, I won’t be able to get to the questions. Thanks you so much for thinking of me, I really appreciate it. Good luck!”

But the age-old (and frankly tiresome) modern work-life balance debate aside, let’s face it: you can’t argue with results. My work has given me so much that I care about: inspiration, hope, security, intellectual challenge and identity. Not to mention the free cell phone. Why would I long to give that up for an abstract future involving a Diaper Genie? It may not be fashionable to say it in this era of back-to-basics values and Mommytracking MBAs, but maybe some women just aren’t cut out for mashing bananas.

If I’ve learned one lesson in my adult life it is this: Work works. It’s a straight-forward equation. Put the time, effort and spirit into your job, and you will eventually reap the rewards.

I wish the same could be said about romantic relationships.

But choosing the solidity of career simply because it precludes risking one’s heart in the shifting quicksand of romance is seems a cowardly way to live. Just as cowardly, I would argue, as the choice to have a family to escape the challenge of work.

I myself am a product of my now-divorced mother’s choice to get married have in children in order quit the tedium of being a bank clerk in Calgary.

“Getting pregnant seemed really attractive because it gave me a purpose and allowed me to not do the things I didn’t want to be doing,” she told me recently. “It ended up to be something to do, but that’s another story.”

Something to do. Now that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Through work, motherhood or iris planting, aren’t we just trying to find something to do -- something that engrosses and rewards us for our efforts and makes this whole messy, difficult and surprisingly joyous “life” thing seem, in many ways, well worth it?

Speaking of which, I’d better get back at it.