A fractured life, put back together
She didn’t want to give up her career. But the pace was killing her. How one woman left behind the jet-set life, found success and returned to her family.
Merideth Gilmor’s iPhone is always buzzing, but on 2 June it was vibrating with more ferocity than usual.
That morning, Cam Newton, a star quarterback for the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers had signed a six-year contract worth about $103.8m. Everyone wanted to talk to him.
“They all want an exclusive quote,” said Gilmor, who is part of his public relations team. “I had about 70 email requests to respond to.”
A few years ago, the 38-year-old would have dropped everything to respond. But this morning she didn’t answer a single email until she had finished walking her 9-year-old son to school. Unless there’s an unusually big problem to deal with, Gilmor doesn’t clock in until her work at home is complete.
“When it’s kid time I’m engaged with my kid,” she said.
Gilmor once jetted around the globe from meeting to meeting as a high-powered executive at designer shoes and accessories label, Cole Haan. She was always on, always ready to answer calls and be wherever her work demanded.
But, a few years ago, Gilmor realised her home-life balance was all wrong. Something had to give. That something was her corporate career. Now she’s an entrepreneur running Modern Global Communication, which represents some of the world’s biggest sport stars; Newton, tennis star Maria Sharapova and NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, among others.
At Cole Haan, her ’family’ mostly consisted of colleagues and flight attendants. She travelled at least three days a week — to Europe, Asia and back again — and when she wasn’t on a plane she was commuting over an hour by train from her home in Connecticut to her office in New York City.
Her son, who was born about eight weeks early, was delivered during a business trip to Maine. When she went into labour she called her husband Mark — principal architect at Cloud Technology Partners — and told him to get to where she was — about five hours away — as soon as he could.
“He was driving like a maniac,” she said. “He barely made it.”
'It was going to kill me'
Three months after her son was born, Gilmor was back to her busy work schedule, which meant that she would only see her son on weekends and catch a glimpse of him on some weeknights. She missed his first steps. She missed family birthdays and other events. She missed, well, nearly everything that wasn’t work.
“Every working mom has guilt,” she said.
Still, she didn’t want to quit her job. “I worked so hard to create a career for myself and I wanted a seat at the table, but I had to give up spending quality time with my child.”
Whenever she could, though, Gilmor made time to take her son to school and attend parent-teacher meetings. “The pace was wearing me to the bone,” she said.
Starting her own public relations firm was the natural step, one Gilmor is fully aware wouldn’t have been possible without all of the hours she put in at her corporate job. “It’s all about experience in my field,” she said. “Each work experience is an integral building block.”
So she decided to take the leap.
Out on her own
Gilmor’s timing couldn’t have been worse — she quit her job in the middle of the 2008 recession. But, the financial crisis and the uncertainty that came with it also brought things into even sharper focus. Her son was 3-years-old at the time and the downturn proved no job was guaranteed.
Gilmor’s first call was to Sharapova, whose clothing line she had helped launch when she was with Cole Haan, and the star quickly signed on as her first client.
'Everything went dark'
The transition to running her own firm, plus integrating home life and work wasn’t easy. Just when things started to gel it was nearly all taken away. In November, 2014, Gilmor suffered a massive stroke.
She was staying with her husband in the Berkshire Mountains in Connecticut for her best friend’s wedding — she flew in from a business trip that day and went on an eight-mile run before the wedding.
They stayed out until 04:00 celebrating. But when she got back to her room she felt “like I had sniffed a huge dandelion up my nose,” and then everything went dark. She was rushed to hospital; the prognosis was grim. Her husband was devastated and had their son brought to her bedside to say good-bye.
Somehow Gilmor survived, but the future looked bleak. Doctors warned her family that she could be blind and paralysed down her left side, have partial use of her left side but no concept of emotions, or left in a persistent vegetative state. Or there could be a miracle.
She couldn’t speak clearly for weeks, nor could she manage simple tasks like tying her shoes and zipping up her jacket. Her son started affectionately calling her “stroke girl”. But she did begin to recover.
In the meantime her business was kept afloat thanks to eight dedicated staff members — all former Cole Haan employees who joined her at MGC. “They stepped up,” she said. “We have a well-oiled machine.”
It helped, too, that Gilmor works with athletes, as they understand how devastating an injury can be, she said. Her clients were supportive and Sharapova sent flowers and regularly checked in to see how Gilmor’s recovery was progressing.
A modified life
Gilmor wasn’t out of commission for long. She began to ease back into work, answering emails and taking calls, just two months after the stroke. Her first business trip was in April, five months after her stroke, and her first flight alone was in June. But things have changed.
She’s not on the go in the same way she used to be. Gilmor said she now relies more on her staff, travelling less and spending even more time with her son.
"I realised even more that family is critical,” she said. “I have never been more engaged and present with my son than I was this past winter. We’d colour on the floor, do rehab together — it was amazing.”
While Gilmor does not believe that it was the stress of work that caused the stroke, she does believe her work helped her recover. Her doctors have told her that she uses both sides of her brain in her profession, so the right side has been able to make up for the loss of the left side — her “dead side,” as she calls it.
“The healthy side is working for both,” she said.
Gilmor is now fully recovered and back to the day job. Mornings used to involve waking up at 06:00 and immediately starting work — mostly answering emails or rushing to the airport. She still gets up that early, but now she’s getting her son ready for school. They eat breakfast together, go over homework and then Gilmor walks him to the bus or drives him to school.
It’s only when she gets back home at around 08:00 that she checks and responds to her emails. She works until about 15:00, when her son comes home from school. Gilmor takes a break to make him a snack. She then either takes her son to his football or other sports practices or stays home to work.
Even if she tags along to watch her son play, Gilmor continues answering emails and taking calls when she’s out. It’s one of the only times of her day where she actually combines her work and home life, but even then she tries put most of her focus on watching her son. She stops working by 20:00, at the latest.
“I won’t take a call after that,” Gilmor said.
In her new, integrated life, Gilmor has time to make dinner for her family — and they almost always eat together after sports practices are done for the night.
“That’s really important,” she said. “Family dinner is the time where we talk as a family. No phones are allowed at the table. We catch up on the day and have (a) discussion about what is really happening — from current events to our upcoming plans.”
Gilmor does not jet around the world anymore — although she does travel to big events such as Wimbledon Tennis Championships, the Super Bowl and major signings or press events for athletes she represents. She makes the same amount of money as she did at her old job and is arguably just as, or more, successful.
But, said Gilmor, even if she didn’t, having more control over her life would have made the career change worth it.
“There were so many big moments that I try and look back on, but I don’t remember [because I wasn’t there]. It’s not like that anymore.”
Merideth Gilmor is far from the only professional woman who has had to tame a punishing work schedule before it broke her. Longer office hours are on the rise globally and dominate most workers’ lives. Increasing pressure to be available 24:7, combined with smartphone culture, mean the lines between work and home have blurred.
BBC Capital spoke to two other high-flying professional women, one in India, one in Europe, about their career path and how they handle demanding schedules and other big interests in their lives.
‘Work, she says, is one of her greatest passions in life so don’t bother to ask about work-life balance. “I don’t like that word,” she said. To Duhme, it’s just “life balance”.’
“One aspect of being a pilot is that rules can’t be broken,” said Kohal, one of only 4,000 female airline pilots worldwide. “So I have some hard rules at home. [My children] have it tougher than I did when I was younger.”