BY HEATHER ROBERTSON
WHEN I was appointed editor of The Herald in Port Elizabeth in 2010, as the first woman in the position, I felt pressured to prove that I could work as hard and smart as all my male predecessors (there were only male editors since The Herald was launched in 1845).
I ended up pulling long hours day and night, behaving like the female version of the Man from La Mancha frenetically fighting the windmills of the global decline of newspaper circulation, sighing a breath of relief when the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) figures showed the copy sales were stable and blaming myself when there was a dip.
I was in the newsroom fighting the windmill at about 7pm at night on June 17, 2014 when my older brother Michael called me to say my parents had been in a car accident outside Johannesburg, over 1000km away from Port Elizabeth. Dad was bruised and dazed and Mom’s ankles were broken and she had internal injuries. My younger brother Peter put his phone to my mother’s ear so I could speak to her, just before she was wheeled into theatre. That was the last time I heard my mother’s voice.
The thing about the absolute finality of death is that it makes you acutely aware of how precious every moment of life is. Up till the point you lose someone close to you, you behave like an immortal. I did. I was sucked into the social media and print media maelstrom. A mediated world in cyberspace. I lived in front of a keyboard. Chasing likes and follows. Copy sales and unique browsers. I literally did not smell the coffee or see the beautiful wide open African sky outside the office window. The only time I inhaled fresh air was to smoke cigarette after cigarette as a form of stress relief on the shabby balcony on the top floor of Newspaper House. I did not eat supper with my partner and two sons every night. I arrived home when the boys were sleeping and collapsed in front of the television. Something had to give. First to go was my sponsorship of the tobacco industry’s damage to my lungs and heart. I quit smoking. Next was my job as editor at the end of 2015.
I escaped the ritual of running to my bolt-hole of fixed employment. My days are now both exhilarating and terrifying. I started off
spending much more time with my sons and partner, going on walks to the park, riding bicycles, playing lego, playing guitar, but when more work started streaming in from different clients, I threw myself head first into it, pushing long hours into the night to meet deadlines. I verged on beating myself up about this, but on reflection maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Doing one’s best to deliver the best possible service is a worthwhile pursuit as long as there are set boundaries and limits. I do enjoy spending time with my family and friends and I do love my work, specially now that I have the freedom of determining with whom, when, where and how I work.
I kicked off my first year of self-employment working three days a week facilitating change in newsrooms for a client till November. I did social media training with Social Weaver, speaking face to face with teachers and lecturers at King Hintsa Technical College in Butterworth and at Walter Sisulu University in East London, helping them use social media tools as an effective means of networking, curating content, researching, marketing and planning in their work. Facilitating these workshops has helped me rediscover my passion for teaching.
My passion for learning has also been reignited by studying for my masters in digital journalism at Rhodes University, learning with inspiring fellow students in the media industry and equally inspiring course leader Prof Harry Dugmore. I also rediscovered my love of interviewing, research and writing for a book chapter project on “Women in MK” I was commissioned to write by Ryland Fisher, a former colleague of mine who I met when I started as a journalist at the now defunct South newspaper,
I do sometimes slide into old habits, I get totally absorbed in a project and switch off to everything else around me like I did when developing this website and blog while on holiday, which led my ten year old son to say “Mommy you are working more on your laptop now that you are home with us.” A bit rich from the guy who spends the whole night watching Dan TDM, Pewtie Pie and Think Noodle on his laptop, but I humbly accept he has a point.
The trick, I guess, is to be flexible in one’s routine, to give and take. As life coach Lauren Laitin writes: “When you learn to set boundaries based on your various priorities and obligations, you’ll feel in control and at liberty to make decisions that work for you and the kind of life you want to lead—not the kind of life you’re supposed to lead.” If work is an integral part of your life as much as eating healthily, going for a walk and playing uno with your kids, then work-life balance is not what we seek, but the flexibility and common sense to prioritise what is important at a specific moment in time, to basically “go with the flow” as my mother used to say.