CONFIDENT


stevejobsAs a professional woman who has spent nearly every day of my almost 25 year career feeling like I would be “found out” to be the fraud I really am, I have always been fascinated by the different ways men and women behave in the workplace.  Even long before I had kids or was even thinking of having kids, I struggled to understand if I truly lacked the tenacity that my male counterparts possessed or if I was stymied by something more significant.  Regardless, I have always suffered from a low supply of confidence at work and struggled to muster the courage to ask for what I wanted. Year after year the problem perpetuated and I became more disenchanted and equally perplexed by my difficulties. It was just a few years back – before Sheryl Sandberg started encouraging us all to “lean in” – that I began to realize that this issue was not unique to me.  It was more than just, perhaps, the lack of confidence-boosting during my upbringing or the low self-esteem that haunted me throughout my young life. There were women all around me in the very same boat. We all were feeling a few steps back, lacking the “balls” to make big decisions or stand up for ourselves.  And, while there have been many articles saying that women step on each other as they climb the corporate ladder, most of my experience has been that many of us cower in the corner and let the guys have a free reign. It seems uncharacteristic to the way I live the rest of my life but, for whatever reason, there is a hard-wiring that comes into play when I show up at work – even today – that prevents me from stepping up and taking the reins.  Even when I know it is the right thing to do.

This topic has resurfaced recently for me, particularly because I have suddenly seen a stream of articles coming out, including The Confidence Gap from The Atlantic, highlighting this phenomenon that holds many women back. And, to add to that, I hear my friends talking about it more and more. We are at that age where we have paid our dues and earned our stripes and are more than worthy of whatever we set our sights on and yet we still feel less than.  We believe that we might be more talented, more qualified, more capable, more efficient, more productive (I can go on and on) than our male colleagues but we still struggle to feel like we are worthy.

Last week I was out walking with one of my girlfriends – a working mom like me.  We were talking about our respective workplaces and the challenges we face as women and, in particular, women with children. Working mothers have the added challenge and pressure that is mostly self-imposed. We are perfectionists. Perfectionists who realize we cannot be perfect so we live in this constant state of underachievement. We disappoint ourselves and judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever would. Sure, we are constantly being pulled in multiple directions which leaves us feeling like we can never work hard enough to make sure that we are meeting the demands of every part of our lives. We are in a perpetual state of guilt. “I’m sorry” is a staple in our vocabulary. We are forever apologetic for actually doing more than most of the men in our lives do but not actually doing as much as we expect ourselves to do. Invariably, we feel like failures. This is not a new story for any working moms and it seems that, despite all the efforts that are put in place to create equality in the workplace and all the training and development offered to women to help them advance and all the time spent trying to help managers understand the complexities of trying to “balance” work and family obligations (not just for women, by the way), the problem never stops surfacing and the challenges never get easier.

Frankly, I don’t believe it is a workplace problem.  I think it is a societal problem. When my oldest son was just an infant, I attended a neighborhood block party and one of the moms, who did not work outside the home, asked me how I could possibly leave my child and return to work. I was startled by her comment because it was so rude and intrusive (I didn’t ask her how she could possibly stay at home and not provide financially for her family – an equally outrageous assertion) and because of how it was laced with so much judgment. I felt indicted. Everything I believed to be true was instantly in question and, despite the fact that I never once questioned whether or not I would return to work after my children came along, I suddenly had doubts about my choices. No one should have to feel that way. The problems only get worse as the children get older. Those of us who do work outside the home don’t necessarily have the same time to commit to school activities like plays and fundraisers and lunch aid duties and there is no shortage of guilt surrounding our absence – again mostly self-imposed.  (Well, the guilt can be fueled by some moms who constantly ask you why you never volunteer or offer the always delightful “Oh!  YOU’RE Tommy’s mom!”). If I am already programmed to feel bad about myself the minute I leave the house because I wrestling with the decisions I have made and worried about dividing my time between work and kids, I’m definitely starting off at a disadvantage.

But, take kids out of the equation. It is even bigger than that. We talk all the time about how girls are raised. Today, things are becoming different but we still live in a patriarchal world. And, even though women outnumber men obtaining degrees and they certainly outnumber men entering into the workforce, the air thins out substantially as you rise to more powerful perches. We are not demonstrating to women that they can be more. We are still struggling to teach girls how to stand up for themselves and feel empowered right next to the messages telling them to be sexy and cater to men. It is a constant struggle and I believe that we, as a gender, have evolved to become genetically hard-wired to not be confident when we are put in situations with men. We hand over power far too easily.  Yes, that might be a gross generalization but do the research. It’s all there. There are plenty of women who are powerful but I guarantee if you ask them what goes through their head, they, too, feel like frauds. They just do a much better job of covering it.

For me, personally, confidence comes and goes. Sometimes I walk around thinking I am the queen of the universe and have it all figured out and sometimes I am deep in a hole of self-doubt feeling voiceless and powerless against all around me. And, the struggle for me seems to get more difficult as time goes by.  I was certain that by the time my kids were old enough to walk home from school, tend to their homework without supervision and had cell phones to communicate with me that I would be able to exhale just a little bit. On the contrary, as my old boss at Working Mother magazine told me, way back when my youngest had just been born, the troubles only get worse. The demands only increase. The less your kids think they need you, the more they actually do. I couldn’t understand her point of view when I was struggling to get a full night of sleep tending to an infant and a preschooler but I never forgot her words. I knew implicitly that they would resonate for me at some point down the road. Today is that day.

I’m not sure what the bigger challenge is, frankly. First, the guilt over not being present enough or having the time or energy to commit as much as I would like to my mothering is omnipresent. Then, equally consuming is my inability to feel confident in how I am showing up at work. I just can’t get past the second-guessing, the emotional tug-of-war with my family and my inherent fear of being found out. I work with a guy who simply doesn’t care what people think. He’s polite and respectful enough when he needs to be but he pushes his way into situations when he believes he belongs there. I ask for permission. He makes a decision and deals with the repercussions afterwards. I ask for permission. He disregards other people’s expectations and does what he thinks is best. I ask for permission. He’s a foreign concept to me. I am probably really frustrating to him. Yet, we are both strong, smart, capable, experienced, accomplished, talented, visionary and, to different degrees, successful. He is confident. I ask for permission. When it comes time to stand up for myself, when the time is right for me to let my voice be heard, I am silent. I am fearful. I suffer a crisis of confidence.

When I was chatting with my friend last week, she shared her experience of self-doubt in her industry. I marveled at this because she has a PhD! She is as accomplished as anyone I have ever met. She is brilliant and savvy and has over 20 years of experience. What she told me was that she finally felt, after all the years in her industry, that she might now be taken seriously. All the degrees, all of the accomplishments and, at nearly 50 years old, she was just now beginning to feel confident enough to believe that she has the gravitas she deserves. And, if she were being completely candid, she would probably tell me that she doesn’t really have all the gravitas she thinks she deserves because she still has some self-doubt. It’s unbelievable to me and yet completely plausible.

While I always like to wrap things up with steps towards a solution, I really don’t have any in this case because it is a never-ending struggle. I take it day-by-day and situation-by-situation, hoping that it will only get easier over time. I know I have many reasons to be confident and often rely upon my husband to provide the male perspective and help me understand how my behavior might be perceived. Yet, theres on 12-step program to being a more confident female in the workplace or to being a better working mother. But, I have an awareness and sensitivity that hopefully makes me more aware of this for myself and others.

And, as everything always begins and ends with my kids because I am always a mother first, I reflect on a conversation with my younger son yesterday. My family was sitting together playing a game and it was clear that my younger son was about to lose. He looked around at us and very seriously said, “This makes sense. I would lose. I always lose. It fits me perfectly.” His face turned red and I wanted to throw up. I felt the pain emanating out of him and wanted to scoop him up and protect him from the world. “You are not a loser,” I said to him in the most comforting way I could. That boy is me and I knew exactly what was coursing through his brain. “You are confident and awesome.” He looked like he was going to cry and I knew he couldn’t feel my words. And I knew exactly what he felt like. He felt exactly how I feel when I am at work and am absolutely certain that I am making a mess of everything. I feel like a loser and I get to come home to him to remind me that I am confident and awesome.

STRADDLING THE FENCE


I realized this morning that it has been weeks and weeks since I last wrote a blog post.  Blogging has become such a way of life for me but, apparently, my life has been getting in the way of my way of life.  My life has not slowed down and there certainly has been plenty to write about – I still suffer through my daily struggles of trying to continue my healthy journey, I have the normal ups and downs in my relationships and I glean new insights from my work – every.single.day.  Yet, with all that is happening, I have not been able to find the time to slow myself down to catch my breath and check in, even if just for myself.

Several weeks ago I had some travel away from home and was gone for 10 days.  It was officially the longest I had ever been away from my husband and kids in one stretch and I knew it would take its toll.  I was pretty excited about my travel, though, because it started with a quick weekend away with an old friend and was immediately followed up with an intense week of work with my business partners in the midwest.  I knew these days were going to be transformational for me in many ways so I had great anticipation for what my journeys might bring.

My girls’ weekend ended up taking the shape of a bit of a midlife crisis weekend (or, at least, that is what I dubbed it).  I got my first tattoo and my first massage (and shame on me for waiting until midlife for the massage!).  The tattoo was meaningful in that it symbolized a change in myself that I was extremely proud of and marked a new phase of my life.  The massage, aside from being extremely relaxing and therapeutic, also marked some symbolism in my life because it represented a sense of indulgence and release that I had not before permitted myself to experience.  Instead of buying myself a convertible or running off to Jamaica with a younger man, I decided to indulge in myself and nurture the parts of me that needed to be tended to.  I also tried to stare down the realities that I am probably a bit further than midlife at this point and that, while my best years may still lie ahead, there are likely to be far fewer of them than what had already passed.  That is a pretty sobering thought.

When I continued on with my journey to my work meetings, I managed to catapult myself from my midlife crisis focus to building my future.  It was a great week of meetings, inspiration, collaboration and a few personal breakthroughs for me that I will forever remember and be grateful for.  As I returned home from the 10-day tour of duty, I felt disconnected and disjointed, not sure where I belonged.  I love my family and my heart broke every time my 8 year-old son texted me “I love you more than life” and, yet, I felt like a stranger intruding into someone else’s life when I got back.  Of course their lives had gone on while I was away.  Both my boys looked like they each grew a foot while I was gone and my tween son was that much more bottled up and unwilling to even hug me when I came in the door.  He could never admit he missed me.  My husband was suffering the pains of having to hold down the household for nearly 2 weeks without the support and assistance of a partner.  He was battle weary.  I was lost, trying to transition from my friends and work back into my family and responsibilities.  I was straddling two different worlds, not sure which one I best belonged in.

It is not uncommon for many of us, particularly parents, to be challenged by the disruption caused by immersing oneself into work and then trying to emerge and return to “normal” life.  Those of us who travel a lot for work or who have particularly intense jobs often live in a suspended state where we love everything in our lives but sometimes wish we were at work when we are at home with our families and desperately miss our families when we are away at work.  It’s a classic Catch 22 scenario.  Layer on top of that the guilt associated with feeling like you are not completely present in either (frankly, in my case, I feel like I am always more present at work and tend to be less present when it comes to my family and, for this, I am not proud).  I feel like I spend so much of my time lamenting about what I am not doing that I find it difficult to simply enjoy wherever it is that I am.  After all, both sides of my life are very appealing.  I love my work and my business partner is my best friend so, when we get to be together working, it is a double pleasure.  We have a magical quality to our work and our relationship that makes work feel more like play and who wouldn’t want more of that.  On the other hand, my family is my heart.  They are what makes me tick.  My children bring joy to my life in unexplainable and unimaginable ways.  My husband is the only constant in my life for the past two decades.  He is my support system and my rock.  My friends in my community are an extension of my family and make me feel connected in the world.  Who would ever want to leave that behind?

It’s an amazing conundrum that challenges me on many fronts.  I feel like I have to work that much harder to maintain all my relationships because sometimes I only have small chunks of time to work with to make my impact.  I have to be very conscious about being present and not distracting myself with my work when I am spending time having lunch or coffee with a friend.  I have to be much more deliberate about focusing when I am doing activities with my kids and husband because it is easy for me to pull out the phone, check my email or let my mind wander to the many details of my business.  I need to release myself from the guilt I feel when I am away from kids, trusting that they will not be blogging 20 years from now to try to overcome the pain they endured by having a sometimes-absentee mom.  It’s a lot to manage.  But, in the end, I suppose this would be what they refer to as a “first world problem.”  I am so fortunate to be able to get to run my own business, travel, luxuriate in collaboration and imagination.  And, I am even more fortunate to have love everywhere I turn.  I am blessed with children who, while growing by leaps and bounds every time I turn my back, give me the grounding I need to find my footing when I seem to be a little off balance.

I know I am not alone in this.  I know, even in my intimate circle of friends, there are many of us who struggle in a similar way.  Nonetheless, sometimes it feels really lonely and isolating and sometimes getting lost in my thoughts about this takes me away from some pretty important stuff – like remembering to blog…