Friday, October 18, 2013

The Next Chapter

Anna Quindlen was a friend of mine twenty-five years ago when I was a young working mother raising my growing family in Brooklyn. The former New York Times columnist penned a weekly missive in the Metropolitan section of the paper chronicling the stresses of trying to juggle the ever-changing needs of a young family while holding down a demanding job.  During a period of my life when I was too harried to find time for actual friendships, my virtual one with Ms Quindlen, whose life seemed to mirror my own, got me through most days. Although she had ten years on me and was a devout Catholic raising three boys, we seemed to be living parallel lives. Except, I didn’t have a dog. Or a Pulitzer prize. Her column was refreshingly candid, heartwarming and a lifesaver. And it was the first inkling I’d noted that perhaps the liberated woman of the hard-won sixties movement might not be able to have it all. The two of us, Anna and I were each sinking under the crushing pressure and guilt of trying to be everything to everyone and losing ourselves in the process.   

Although I felt saddened when she left the Times to write a novel, my need for the weekly pep talk had waned since at that point I had already stopped working. Shortly after that, my husband and I moved out to the suburbs. My older children were in school, leaving me with a baby I could spend all day cooing at without looking at my watch. It was time to reconnect with myself, yet I had no idea how exactly to do that. And frankly, I was bored. A friend suggested I get a babysitter so I could shop in peace, meet friends for lunch, volunteer, or even go back to school. I was aghast. Was that allowed? I’d stopped working so I could catch my breath, and stop feeling guilty about rushing everyone around as we danced to our well-orchestrated morning and evening ballet. Here now was this new guilt about focusing on myself.

It took me a long time to embrace the idea, but when I finally did, I discovered something I’d long forgotten—me. As it turns out, taking a coffee break with a good friend is as beneficial to your health as taking a brisk walk or eating dark chocolate (just not the whole bar). It seems that our blood pressure lowers and endorphins flood our system when we connect in a way that only a dear friend can.

As my children reached high school, I realized it was okay to factor my needs into the mix, allowing my voice equal sway in the family dynamic. Not that anyone had stopped me from doing that before, well, except for me. Oh, and I stopped apologizing.

There’s a reason the flight attendant tells you to put on your oxygen mask before your child’s in the event of an accident. You’re of no use to anyone if you can’t function.  And barely holding it together is not functioning. I use this piece of advice as a battle cry to remind the women in my life that I love and care about to stop apologizing for their messy house, the missed appointment, or the cake they forgot to bake for the school function. This concept, of NOT being able to do it all is a hard one to internalize. We’ll do everything in our power to fool ourselves into believing that the word No is something other people say.  But if we always say Yes, trust me, something will give, something will crack, and most of the time, it will be us. One of the traits I most admire about women is our ability to adapt to new situations, to think on our feet, to multi-task. We are able to do six things seemingly at once, but it doesn’t mean that all six are being done well. It is up to you to decide what works for you and to speak up when it doesn’t.   

Yes, you count, and it is very important to remember that and advocate for yourself, because no one wants a resentful spouse, mother or daughter. And you know what? If you say No once in a while, you’ll enjoy saying Yes, even more. You’ll be doing everyone in your life a big favor by reaching for your oxygen mask first. It is actually the least selfish thing you could do.  Accepting a friend’s offer of help when you really need it is another liberating move. It doesn’t make you weak or any less capable, and if the roles were reversed you would be running over in a second to lend a hand. After so many years of giving, it is okay to take—really.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently wrote a book entitled Lean In, an inspirational and at times, divisive book advising high-profile women in the workplace how to reach the corner office. This Harvard educated woman urges her fellow women that yes, you can earn yourself a “seat at the table,” meaning, you can empower yourself to reach that glass-ceiling level to make a change in the system. The book is a fascinating read that is impactful for the woman working at the corporate level as well as for the woman who has decided to make her job of raising her family a full-time one. I want to highlight one point of many she makes that resonated with me.

Ms Sandberg takes women to task for not advocating for themselves in the work arena. Her most outspoken critics claim she is blaming the victim for not furthering herself, rather than the institution for not allowing the opportunity. She disagrees with this point, citing fear as the reason women are afraid to speak up and take credit for their accomplishments, while their male counterparts fly past them up the corporate ladder.  Girls are taught to be obedient and are praised in the classroom when they raise their hands before speaking. Boys have learned that calling out in class gets them heard and are willing to trade obedience for opportunity. Girls politely wait their turn, often in frustrated silence while boys speak out and sail by without censure. Girls willingly trade likeability for success. When women make the subconscious decision that they will swallow their needs to keep the boat steady, they lose, and everyone else does in the process.

Ms. Sandberg’s introduction in her book highlights the time when she was working at Google and had to hoist her highly-pregnant self across a very full parking lot, fighting fatigue, nausea and swollen ankles to get to an executive meeting. She recounted the ordeal to her husband that night at dinner and he told her that at Yahoo, where he was employed, there were specially-assigned spots for expectant mothers. She marched into the Google founders’ offices the next morning to demand the same parking privileges for their employees; they readily agreed. Surely there were other pregnant women in the company who had the same challenge as herself, and she wondered why they chose to suffer in silence.

Yes, she spoke up—she wasn’t afraid, but first she had to have a “seat at the table” in order to have her voice heard.  Ms. Sandberg highlights this point of the female standing by and not advocating for herself. A woman would rather be liked than heard, she states, while allowing herself to be labeled bossy from a young age, rather than assertive. This needs to be changed.  She stresses that not all women want careers, not all women want children, not all women want both. That is each woman’s choice, but if she wants a “seat at the table,” she’d best speak up and have her voice heard.

She asks the same question that got me wondering fifteen years ago, what would I do if I wasn’t afraid…what could I do if fear was not part of the equation. I already had a Bachelors in Economics (although I wasn’t exactly sure why), so I went back to school and studied Interior Design, something that had always fascinated me. Then I opened my own business, taking only the jobs that intrigued me, while trying very hard to factor in all the other pulls on my time. 

As our lives develop and grow more complicated, there will be varying sets of demands and obligations as our roles keep getting redefined. It’s an opportunity to challenge ourselves, even if we’re scared doing it. For those women who find work fulfilling and enjoyable, or simply need the second income, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean you have to stay up all night hand decorating twenty-six cupcakes for your five-year olds birthday party. A lot of us gave up our most productive work years that could have bettered our careers, opting to stay home and raise a family. For those of us who did, it was an active decision—a real sacrifice, and one, hopefully, whose rewards will be reaped for many years to come. But what about now? What happens when everyone leaves the theater after the second act and you are left alone in the thundering silence of a once bustling household that bustles only a couple of times a year? You can fear the quiet or revel in it. You decide.

Four years ago, when my business slowed down due to the economy, I had some free time on my hands. One day I sat down at my computer and wrote some ideas that had been rolling around in mind for a while. I didn’t really analyze what I was doing; I just did it. About a year or so later, I had the foundation of a novel on my laptop. I’d always loved to write, but I can’t say I ever felt I had the Great American novel locked away in the recesses of my mind trying to get out. Or maybe I did, and the noise in my life had drowned it out.

 I’ve since written two more books, and I’ve never had more fun. I do it for pure pleasure, and when I stopped being shy about it, did a little self-promoting and managed to develop a readership. It’s opened a whole new world for me and I’ve met compelling people in the writing classes I’ve taken and the conferences I’ve attended. And I’ve discovered that everyone has a story to tell, something that is uniquely their own. And so do you. It’s time to write your story, and don’t worry about the ending, it’s the journey that counts. And if you find yourself looking at an empty page, don’t feel guilty—go out for a walk and get some air or call up a friend and meet for coffee.

 It’s your turn.


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