This Saturday morning, in an attempt to wake up energized, I listened to a TED talk by Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg, given before her husband died. She talked about how she was once offered a promotion, but turned it down because she didn’t think she could do it. She thought more about it, decided to take the promotion, went home, and, in her words, “gave her husband the grocery list.”
I went back to sleep.
Earlier this year, about six months ago, I asked for more help at work. My boss, who was new, had been working 12 hour days to stay on top of the work needed to be done. Because I am the only parent of my two children, 12 hour paid work days are not possible- mostly because I’m working at least that (and not being paid) for the other waking hours. I got to the point where I was tired of feeling bad about what couldn’t get done; I finally figured out that it wasn’t that I was an ineffective worker; the job was nuts. This was a significant hurdle in my career and life: to distinguish a situation from my capabilities. I am still learning this. I continued to work even when the additional position I requested was not approved. I eventually hit a wall of exhaustion, walked into the Vice President’s office and said I needed to leave my position.
The night before I knew I was going to resign, I had the thought that what I was about to do was incredibly brave or stupid. As the sole breadwinner of our family, it was easy to see my decision as foolish: I was going to put my family, my children, in financial risk. Yes, I did have a full time, tenured teaching job to “fall back” on, but one that would lower my annual salary by 20%. I knew I’d be facing big decisions about where we lived, where the kids went to school, how we lived our life. I didn’t know exactly how I would make it work, or what exactly would change. Despite the risk and potential stupidity, I only knew something needed to change and it started with work.
Sheryl Sandberg reflected in her TED talk about how she never talked about being a woman in business. Implicit in her discussion is what I suspect all women still wrestle with professionally and personally, consciously or subconsciously: that by stating our gender difference we are in a vulnerable position to be seen as less than. HOW DOES THIS STILL HAPPEN!!?!
Six months later, I have accepted a promotion. My boss ended up giving his three week notice, left on my tentative last day, and the college responded by giving the division what it needed: another position. I took my boss’s job, and waited for the hiring of my replacement and the new position, and I have been doing pretty much all three for six weeks, with a few weeks more before the new people start. This is not what I pictured when I walked into the Vice President’s office in late spring. I thought by now I would be re-grouping, preparing for classes, picking up my kids from school, coupon clipping and breathing out regularly.
Just this week I had the thought, maybe it’s not possible that a widow with two children could be head of division. Maybe it’s silly for me to group myself into the women who can take a promotion because they have a partner to share the load. I STILL REFUSE TO ACCEPT THIS. And, yet, after a particularly rough week, I lost it. A parent of a student came in to let me know how unfair a situation was. The father said some particularly cruel things to me. I didn’t have the resources to step outside his words. I fell back into the mindset that it was me failing the situation, not the situation failing me. In an attempt to appeal to his humanity, I explained the challenge in our division, the transition we were in, that things aren’t able to be attended to in the timely matter they should. I acknowledged that it was an excuse, but it was also the reality. As I was I saying it, I realized the excuse didn’t matter. It sounded weak. Which must mean that I am weak (HOW DOES THAT THINKING STILL HAPPEN?!)
The parent left and I was a mess. I cried. At work. I shut the door and sobbed. At work.
I talked to a colleague and friend and relayed my biggest fear and frustration: because I am the only parent, it is that much more critical that I do what I can do make the amount of two parents, but it is because I am the only parent that I am less likely to be able to do the work required of the jobs given to men and women who have a partner at home to do the grocery shopping.
Of course, grocery shopping is just the logistics. What I miss most about not having my partner is the processing and support. When I walk in the door at home, I am still “on” -- I am holding it together for my kids. I go from boss to mom, employing an adjusted version of what happens at work: setting the tone, being calm, facilitating, negotiating, doing by best to be reliable, consistent and responsible. And, as much as I still crave it, I can barely remember what it’s like to come home after a particularly rough day to a familiar face who reads my exhaustion, or me his, and turn it up a notch: kick in the unconditional love, listen fully without judgment and with support, and let the other fall in and crumble a bit. More likely, neither of us would get to that complete state of exhaustion because there would be just enough give and take each day between us to adjust either emotionally or domestically to the other, to lean on one another just enough to get our footing back again.
Fall quarter at my school starts in two weeks. The kids are two weeks into their school year. The leaves are starting to change and the air is getting crisp. We are less than one month away from the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death. I am reminded of how far we’ve come. I am also wondering what it means for us to be whole, what it means for me to be whole. Most days I go back and forth between absolute gratitude and grumpiness. And so it (this life) goes.