Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hard Working Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives

Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hard Working Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives

by Mary Lou Quinlan

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Have you ever fantasized about taking time away from your overworked life? Nights uninterrupted by email? Days to pursue set-aside dreams? Do you promise yourself that “someday” you will get a break?

Mary Lou Quinlan had those “someday” thoughts. But her hard-earned job as CEO of a New York advertising agency claimed most of her


Have you ever fantasized about taking time away from your overworked life? Nights uninterrupted by email? Days to pursue set-aside dreams? Do you promise yourself that “someday” you will get a break?

Mary Lou Quinlan had those “someday” thoughts. But her hard-earned job as CEO of a New York advertising agency claimed most of her waking hours. Exhausted and losing motivation, she was so desperate she perversely imagined breaking her leg to get some time alone. Then, she declared a brief timeout. During her time off, she slept late, took walks, danced the salsa, kept a journal and ultimately, uncovered the roots of a new business. In the process, she rediscovered herself.

Time Off for Good Behavior is the result of listening to women like her, who realized enough was enough. Quinlan tells no-holds-barred stories of dozens of women who sacrificed their health, relationships, their good humor and a good night’s sleep until they found the courage to ask themselves if they were happy with the life they were living and made the decisions to take life-saving breaks.

Mary Lou Quinlan explores the factors that compel you to work so hard and examines how to take back control of your life. She explores our unwillingness to give ourselves permission to rest so that we can re-imagine our futures. And she shows the powerful, self-fulfilling changes that can occur when we do decide to take that rest.

Whether you contemplate leaving a career that took years to build or just need a long vacation to assess what you want next, you’ll find practical tools and bolstering advice throughout. Each chapter ends with provocative questions to help you plan your good behavior reprieve. Specific exercises on financial planning, advice for negotiating time off, and tools to uncover your passions make this a must-read for women who are ready for “someday.”

Time off for Good Behavior ultimately shows that stepping away from everything—even for a short while—often means ending up with so much more.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
These books target women who are burned out from trying to do too much. Bost, an obstetrician, gynecologist, and fertility specialist, developed a plan to thwart this stress after finding that one in five of his female patients had symptoms of looming depression (dubbed the hurried woman syndrome). His seven steps to break the cycle include creating balance in one's body, finding the right caloric balance, and exercising. A particularly helpful chapter on low sex drive advises getting in synch with one's partner. While lengthy, this book covers all of the bases. Recommended for most libraries.After 20 years of dutifully climbing the corporate ladder, Quinlan found herself stifled and disconnected. She took five weeks off work to recharge her batteries and is here to share her story and those of 37 other women who had similar experiences. Gearing her message to her Type A compatriots, she spends several chapters assuring them that it's OK to relax. Although well written, this book speaks mainly to highly educated, financially secure women who probably won't have time to read it; not recommended. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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My Story

Sister, Sister, call on me!" I can still hear my high-pitched first grade voice, shouting those first Type A good girl words to Sister Thomas Anice. It was the fall of 1959 in St. Helena's School in Philadelphia and I was already in a hurry to succeed.

In my navy blue uniform, I looked just like the other sixty-five kids in the class, but my attitude set me apart. I was the kind of kid you wish you could decaffeinate. I talked fast, a bundle of energy hellbent on getting As from the start. I was the first-born child of Mary and Ray Finlayson, who had waited several years for me. For the next forty years, I never let up.

Recently I looked through my dad's beat-up aluminum suitcase, which holds our family mementos, where I found some clues to my Type A roots. Digging among his love letters to Mom, faded family snapshots, and my worn tap shoes, I found my grammar school report cards. Ironically, each one was well preserved in its own brown envelope sponsored by Theodore Geitner, our neighborhood funeral director, which I thought was a little morbid. Inside, the story of my childhood was written in perfect Palmer Method As, not only for arithmetic and history, but for "behavior subjects," like Perseverance, Obedience, Self-control, Cleanliness, and Cooperation. My dad's proud "John R. Finlayson" approved every A, year after year.

One truly prophetic grade got my attention: A for perfect attendance, nearly every year from first to eighth grade. How did I go all those years, with barely a bellyache to keep me home? I remember insisting to my mom, "I feel good enough to go in, I can't miss today!" Once I had hung the first of those Perfect Attendance certificates on my bedroom wall, I refused to break my record. I was Mary Louise Finlayson, the good girl who was afraid not to show up and be called on.

I was a relentlessly cheerful child, eager to please my parents and teachers. Nicknames like Smiley and Bright Eyes fit me, though Goody Two Shoes might have been whispered out of earshot. In my dance recital pictures, I was the one with eyes straight to camera, tapskirt pulled out to the limits, and a face that said, "Please like me!"

Type A from the Start

I was a latchkey kid before it was fashionable, so in the free afterschool hours, I volunteered to stay late to straighten the desks and clap the chalk off the erasers. I never turned down a chance for extra credit work. I treasured the rewards of my good behavior, like JFK silver dollars and Pope John XXIII holy cards from the nuns.

In eighth grade, I received the greatest honor of all. It wasn't just being named one of four students out of a class of 225 to win the General Excellence Award. It was recognition of a higher order. Along with a handful of other girls, I was chosen to go down to the basement of the convent to wash the nuns' laundry at lunchtime. It was an honest to God thrill. It meant that on the most personal level, the "women in charge" trusted me. I had risen above my lowly schoolgirl status. (Plus, since all their stuff was labeled, I got to see who wore which size underwear.)

I was a self-reliant girl who shunned team sports and chorale groups. I liked going solo as the number one jump roper at recess, the lead dancer in school shows, or the class spelling bee champ. Competing that way was riskier, but I preferred counting on myself, and I admit, getting all the glory. I was in a hurry to win and no one could stop me.

Mom and Dad's Good Girl

I got my hunger for hard work from a mother who had a "real job" when most mothers stayed home. By night, she cooked our dinners, cleaned the house, and wrapped the next day's Velveeta sandwiches in wax paper. But by day, Mom worked in advertising. She loved working, and talked about her job every night at dinner. Yet she was also a chronic quitter. She took her red-haired temperament to the office and if by her morning coffee break she didn't like the agency anymore, she would call Dad, and say, "Ray, take me home. I hate this place." She knew she'd find something better the next day.

My mom often gave me permission to drop out, saying, "If you don't want to go to that rehearsal, it's okay." But I never took her up on it.

Unlike my career-loving mom, my dad taught me a different lesson about work. Dad was the service manager for an office machine company. He never seemed to really enjoy his job of satisfying irritated customers. He harbored dreams of being an architect or designer, and redesigned our row house every few years for the fun of it. His work never followed him home. Dad's true passion was our family.

In his quiet way, my dad was the one who set the expectations for my younger brother, Jack, and me. We grew up in a pay-for-performance household. Dad rewarded us with one dollar for first honors, eighty-five cents for second. I guess we'd have earned seventy-five cents for third, but we were so terrified of disappointing him and ourselves with Cs that we never dared to find out.

To this day, the words that I fear most from my dad are, "I'm disappointed in you." (Later in my career, I would dread the same from every boss.)

My parents' mantra was, "You can do and be anything you want to be," and I believed them. They'd always add the corollary: "But we will love you no matter what you decide to do." I only listened to the first part of their promise. I wanted to live up to their belief in me. I set out to prove that I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to.

Looking back, I realize how much their confidence made me believe that if I did the right thing, I would succeed. I got an early lesson in the flaw in that logic. I lost a citywide spelling bee on the word "dependant." (I spelled it with an "e-n-t," which is also correct, but we didn't contest the judges' call until too late.) Standing before their desk, I started to tear up over the unfairness of it all. To end the awkward incident, my dad told the judges, "We concede." (I had to ask him what that meant and how to spell it.) Injustice has always been hard for me to accept. Accepting failure has been even harder.

Teenage Type A

The little kid As transformed into high school ones. I kept raising the bar for what was "good." I got into advanced placement classes. I followed the rules (except for the time I got detention for hiking up my skirt after school). I didn't put peroxide in my hair or a cigarette between my lips. The years passed with straightened teeth and more straight As.

I entered LaSalle College in 1971, just as the women's movement was heating up. The school had gone coed the year before, and the ratio of men to women was four to one. It was great for my social life and even better training for a corporate career. But the lessons cut both ways. One day, the guys lined up outside the student center. They held a pile of placards, each marked with a number, one through ten. As women walked into the cafeteria, they graded us on looks. I was too embarrassed to look, but still A-obsessed enough to want the ten.

During college, I put my greatest energy into theater. I was chosen for the lead role in the school's performance of a retro musical comedy, Dames at Sea, the story of a stage neophyte who takes over when the faux show's diva gets sick. As Ruby, I gamely tap-danced my way out of the chorus line. It was a preview of what I hoped my career might be.

Between honors classes, my part-time bank teller job, and my rehearsal schedule, I was already riding the work/life balance roller coaster, but to me, it was normal. Halfway through college, I transferred to Saint Joseph's College, run by the Jesuits in Philadelphia. Those were really happy years. Good grades, good friends, and still good behavior. I was an anachronism in the seventies, as neither a rebel nor a bra burner. I was a good girl with a Farah Fawcett haircut, set on dean's list or bust.

Good Goes to Work

When I graduated from Saint Joe's, I planned to follow Mom into advertising. I identified sixteen agencies in downtown Philadelphia and put on a turquoise polyester minidress that I had sewn myself. I teetered into interviews on platform sandals with my resume, proudly proclaiming not only my dramatic roles but my hair and eye color, my height and my weight. Unfortunately, the outfit and the stats got me nowhere on Philly's Madison Avenue.

I slumped back to my bank teller station and widened my net. That year, the job pickings were slim. I interviewed to be a travel agent, a vending machine inspector, and a textbook editor. I met with Union Carbide on a construction site. "See this map, sweetie," the fellow said, "you could sell car batteries to garages from here (he indicated Boston) all the way to here (Maryland.)" How fast did my platforms blow out of there?

I even auditioned to be the cohost of a college bowl game show hosted by Scott Tissue Paper. Being an on-air toilet bowl spokesperson never struck me as odd. I think I lost out to a weather girl.

My college came to the rescue with an offer from my advertising professor, Dan DeLucca, who had just been promoted to head of college relations and development. He offered me the huge sum of $9,500 a year to write fund-raising proposals. It wasn't advertising, but it was a writing job. That "yes" would begin the next twenty-three years of never saying "no" to work.

Happily Over My Head

My success strategy from the start was to be over my head as often as possible. For example, in 1976, the college commemorated its 125th anniversary. At twenty-two, I coordinated the entire event for six thousand people, including dignitaries like the head of the Jesuits in Rome and the late Princess Grace of Monaco.

For six months, I worked around the clock to make the celebration perfect. I got my first taste of being exhausted and overwhelmed by work. But I shook it off. Despite losing too much weight from running myself ragged, I was already addicted to the charge of making success happen.

As a reward, I was promoted to head of public relations, writing all college press releases and publications. I was the youngest person on the college administration, and one of the few women.

While working in the PR job, I met Joe Quinlan, who would become my husband. First, he was a friend and a career counselor. Where I was high voltage, Joe was calm and easy-going. A news reporter, he coached me on how to deal with the Philadelphia media. Even more valuable, he advised me on how to deal with men, how they thought and how to solve problems with them. As months went by, networking over lunch turned to love. He asked me to marry him on a fence in a South Jersey R/V campground where my parents had parked their Airstream. Romantic? I felt like I was in the movies.

Then Joe did the unthinkable for someone from Philadelphia. He got a job in New York City. He was hired as a TV news reporter for a new nightly news show called The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. I knew I had to get my own big-city job.

If You Can Make It Here

I tried to get an advertising job, but my nonprofit credentials didn't fly in New York. So I followed up on a friend's connection to Avon. I took the elevator to their headquarters, and the doors parted to reveal a panoramic view of Central Park. Beautifully dressed women were handing out lipsticks for a promotion. Our Lady of Cosmetics! I had arrived.

Avon didn't think I was qualified to be in public relations or advertising, but they thought I was enthusiastic and a good listener. They offered me a job as a recruiter in human resources, which was then called personnel, to hire assistants, who were then called secretaries. But my goal from day one was to be in their advertising department.

I approached my new job as if I were signing on for life. I figured, as long as they're paying me, I'm theirs. I wore only Avon makeup for the next ten years. I recently found an old jewelry box where every piece inside was made by Avon.

From the beginning, I had a mental picture of success as a ladder to the sky. I never envisioned a glass ceiling. But what haunted me was that it just kept going up with no end in sight. No relief or detour, just more steps.

After a few months, the job of company newsletter editor opened up. I took home a couple of old issues, redesigned the four-page monthly to a biweekly eight pager (it was the precomputer late seventies, so I cut and pasted it by hand), with new features, columns, and executive interviews. I got the job. The lessons stuck. Focus on what you want. Do something above and beyond to prove you can do it. Reach for the next rung of the ladder. Working overtime helps you get ahead. Good girl lessons for success.

Raising the Stakes

I was constantly setting aggressive goals. I planned to be a manager in two years and a director in five. In both cases, I made it and was one of the youngest at my level. By ten years, I expected to be a vice president. I figured that if I lasted till my fifties, I could hope to be president of Avon. I was a lifer.

At Avon, the highest accolade for a rising executive was, "she's got a strong sense of urgency," which meant persistence in the face of obstacles. I got into the habit of setting tighter deadlines than necessary and beating them. I had that sense of urgency, another Type A trademark in spades.

I continued to reach farther over my head. I was promoted to sales incentive manager to run a trip to Hawaii. I had never been to Hawaii or planned a vacation other than spring break, but I was responsible for taking one thousand Avon representatives to Honolulu.

We hired Bert Parks, who had just been fired as the longtime emcee of the Miss America pageant, to host a live award show to be teleconferenced from Hawaii, with medals, mink coats, and me as his onstage cohost. (I admit there were visions of "Ruby redux" in my head.) We pulled it off, which led to another promotion. And another.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

MARY LOU QUINLAN is the founder and CEO of the marketing company Just Ask a Woman and the author of Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy. She speaks to corporate audiences and women’s groups about issues relevant to women’s lives. She lives with her husband Joe in New York City and in Bucks County, PA.  www.timeoff4goodbehavior.com 

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