Can life partners really work together without killing one another?

I wanted to call this article ‘The day my husband sacked me (was the best day of my life)’. But it wouldn’t be true, as there were no dismissal letters and I am still working in partnership with him. Albeit in quite a different way than I was a year ago.

Earlier this year some storm clouds gathered on the marital horizon. Tensions ran high for a while between us and arguments were had. Looking back, it’s fair to say that we learned a few lessons along the way. Some people might wonder, ‘well what on earth did we expect?’

So why work with your nearest and dearest?

I can’t tell you the number of people that ask me that. They often manage to slip the word ‘crazy’ into the sentence, as in, ‘are you crazy?’

A freelance hustle might be one reason, where you share complementary skills. A start-up is another, when the budget is too lean to pay market rates for the people you need.

That’s how it worked out for my husband and I. In our early years of raising kids, work was patchy. We had two babies in close succession and that meant it was not realistic for me to work outside the home. Child-care would have cost more than any money I could make.

So I got some gigs as a freelance translator. I translate from French to English, as English is my first language. This is important, though many people assume it is not.

Translators produce written work. Interpreters speak. If you value good writing, you need a translator who is translating into their own language. Many people assume that translators can work both ways, and they can to a degree.

But as my client list grew, I received more requests for translation into French. Now, I can do this, but it is best to have a native speaking editor on hand to review the final draft, to check flow and nuance.

Enter my dear husband, an accredited translator in the reverse direction to me.

For many years we were able to work in partnership on various translation projects. The downside was many late nights. It’s hard to edit translations for a deadline when you’ve been working all day.

But in many ways we reaped the benefits of the ‘glory days’ for accredited translators. Before the internet allowed any Tom, Dick or Harry to call themselves a translator. Before the days of job offers at two cents a word. Or requests to edit pages of garbled machine translated content.

Then my husband had a breakthrough idea for a start-up. He quit his corporate job and launched a small business, specialising in sleep health.

For several years he worked crazy hours, while I did the lion’s share of child-rearing. But the little business took off. Our kids were in primary school, and I continued working in the translation business. I took a role with a global translation company, and moved into project and account management.

But there came a time where my skills were going to be more useful to the family start-up than a big company. I disliked the globalisation of the translation business. While the internet created convenience, it also drove translators’ rates down. So I joined the family business, officially.

Job descriptions don’t really exist for start-ups. For the fledging company to fly, everyone needs to roll up their sleeves. So I was payroll, HR, marketing department, manager, front-desk, and trainer all in one. And some days, general dogsbody to the other CEO, namely my husband.

Now this is where things became unstuck.

Gender dynamics being what they are, it wasn’t long before I found myself in the position of being told what to do. By none other that said husband.

Some years ago, my husband and I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. Turns out that both of us are off the scale as the ‘Dominant Director’ type. You could translate that as ‘bossy’, if you like. It’s a pity we didn’t think about that before I decided to work on front desk, when one of our team went off to have a baby.

Although a lot of people don’t recognise it, the front desk is a very important role in a company. The person on the front desk must handle a lot of admin, and ever-changing technology. They are the face of a company, and they must have a handle on their emotions. In the health sector, they often have to play counsellor to tired or unwell patients. The scope of the job can be huge. A little like motherhood, come to think of it. And because it is a job often filled by women, people often don’t give front desk people the respect they deserve.

Unfortunately someone still had to do the other jobs, and I did my best to combine it all. But I got burnt out. The mental load of family life and work life got too much. And my husband got frustrated because I wasn’t doing things when he wanted, and exactly how he wanted. He was working hard, sure, but he couldn’t see everything I was doing too. And the dominant director side of me instinctively rebelled when my husband tried to tell me what to do.

Cue storm clouds. And slammed doors, arguments, tantrums and more. Not our finest moments!

I’m pretty sure my husband used the words ‘you’re fired!’ at one point. It’s probable that I replied with ‘fine, I’m leaving!’ before slamming the door on my way out.

But you know, it was, in many ways, a very good day. Not the best day in my life, but a good one still.

It wasn’t long before the ideal person to replace me on front desk came along. My husband had to adapt his expectations of how much one person could do in a day. I returned to business development activities, which fits my skill set better. As an added bonus, we have a lovely new team member.

It’s great to work with family. I admire the way so many migrants do it, when they arrive in a new country. Starting small businesses, or buying real estate. It’s smart to pool resources, and to keep your people close to you. Loyalty to the team is near certain, if you do it right.

Family businesses also make a lot of sense when the corporate world becomes less certain. Few people have jobs for life, so family start-ups can make a lot of sense. If you’re going to work hard anyway, why not do it for yourself and the people you love?

But for most working mothers, the mental load is a real thing. I’m not denying that men work hard, and that stress and burn-out affects them too. But the mental lists of work and family life combined are long. Add the running of a business to that, and it can be exhausting.

So I’m glad my husband ‘fired’ me. I know now that when my husband and I work together, we are a great team. After all, working for the same goal is ideal for any partnership. But boundaries and space are very good things. And working in each other’s pockets can make anyone very strange bedfellows.

First published on Medium on April 29, 2019

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