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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Drop the Ball

Achieving More by Doing Less

Tiffany Dufu; Foreword by Gloria Steinem

Flatiron Books




I used to be the queen of domesticity, a Good Housekeeping cover model in the making. I was also an ambitious professional. These two identities had always been on a collision course. But I was oblivious to that fact until after the crash.

Eight years into my marriage and six months after giving birth to my first child, I started a new job, fully expecting to be the powerhouse perfect working wife and mother who had it all and did it all. I was joyfully wedded to my college sweetheart, we had a beautiful baby boy, and we were committed to changing the world together. I knew that juggling the demands of a growing family, reaching the highest levels in my career, and supporting my husband as he climbed his own professional ladder wouldn’t always be easy—but we were ready.

Many women find it difficult to leave their infants on that first day back from maternity leave, but I was not one of them. I loved my work. I have always been a passionate advocate for the empowerment and advancement of women and girls, and I had been offered my dream job directing the fund-raising efforts of a national women’s leadership organization. I would be doing work I cared about while learning from a pioneer in the women’s movement, Marie Wilson, cocreator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and former president of the Ms. Foundation for Women. On top of all that, the salary was enough to allow me the peace of mind that comes with leaving a child in the hands of a skilled and loving caregiver—a privilege too many working mothers cannot afford—and I had negotiated for a private room where I could pump breast milk. My maternity leave came to an end, and I joyfully prepared to go to work.

I had grown up being told I could do anything I put my mind to, and as I got dressed that first morning back, I couldn’t imagine I’d have to compromise on anything: career, marriage, raising a family, keeping our homelife running smoothly while advancing the cause of women and girls. I left my apartment confident I would be successful doing it all.

That illusion lasted six hours.

My first day back at work was a whirlwind. I was so consumed with getting up to speed and running from meeting to meeting that by the time I realized I’d forgotten to pump, my breasts were engorged. With each passing minute, they became more swollen and painful. Milk started leaking through my blouse onto my suit jacket.

To add insult to injury, the “private room” I had negotiated turned out to be a bathroom stall. Having no experience with engorged breasts, I tried to pump, but the machine suction couldn’t latch on to what now appeared to be two throbbing bowling balls on my chest. To relieve myself, I applied warm paper towels and tried expressing the milk by hand. That worked—but it meant I couldn’t hold the empty bottle. And the good Lord didn’t exactly design women’s breasts so they would be easy to aim.

There I was, kneeling on the floor of a bathroom stall in my drenched silk blouse and designer suit, emptying my baby’s milk into the toilet. Tears were streaming down my face as the milk streamed from my body. My breasts had exploded, and my vision of a future in which I gracefully managed both career and home had been obliterated.

On the suffocating train ride home from Wall Street to 125th Street in Harlem, the reality of my new circumstances began to sink in. If I was too consumed at the office to remember to do something as essential as pump milk for my baby, what else was going to fall through the cracks? When would I sort the pile of mail or pay the bills? How was I going to keep up with the laundry and cooking? When would I have time to go to the grocery store? My floors were going to turn into a health hazard as soon as my son started crawling; how would I keep them pristine? I had missed two e-mails from the caregiver while I was in meetings. How would I make sure her questions were answered promptly? What would I do about getting the car inspected? Would my book club ever see me again? Would I ever read another book? When would I buy all the Christmas gifts for my family and friends? How would I have time for family and friends? How would I have time for me? All of a sudden, the idea of scaling the professional ladder, being strong and vibrant, and making a difference in the world—all while nurturing a wonderful marriage and raising a healthy and happy child—went from inevitable to overwhelming.

My sorority sisters used to call me Trapper Keeper because I was so well organized. But now, when I looked at my situation, I felt trapped by competing demands. I wanted to be the perfect working mom—not a milk-soaked, stressed-out mess. But there was no way I could organize my way out of this. Something would have to give.

I knew that many women solved this dilemma by simply outsourcing their domestic responsibilities. There is a robust supply of professionals (mostly other women) who can be hired to do everything from cooking to cleaning to carpooling. But this is largely the solution for women who can afford an in-home staff—women at senior levels who earn big salaries or are married to men who earn them. That wasn’t my husband and me. We were making just enough money to cover our living expenses, child care, retirement, and student loans, with occasional support to members of our extended family. How was all of this going to get done? The enormity of the challenge reduced me to tears.

I was still sniffling in bed at 10:00 P.M. when my husband got home. It was early for him, as he regularly pulled all-nighters at the bank where he worked. I listened to him kick off his shoes and leave them in the hallway instead of putting them in the closet. I knew the exact moment he was hanging his jacket because I could hear the rustle of the dry-cleaning bag I had picked up for him on my way home. He headed straight to the fridge for the dinner he knew would be waiting there. After he’d eaten, I heard the familiar clatter of his plate and cutlery being placed in the kitchen sink instead of the dishwasher. Then a thud—his body hitting the blue couch. I had seen him in this position countless times. His right hand would be resting lazily on his thigh as he used his thumb to awaken the remote. As I heard the TV click with the usual drumbeat of ESPN highlights, a tinge of resentment tickled my toes. By the time it reached my knees, it had become jealousy, which turned to anger inside my stomach. By the time the anger crawled up my chest, it was full-blown rage. Clearly he and I were on the same highway, but somehow he had managed to detour around the crash scene.

I was his solution to having it all.

What would be mine?

I wish I had known then that I was far from being the only woman struggling with competing work-life demands. In a recent Pew survey of millennial working mothers, 58 percent said that being a mother made it harder for them to get ahead in their careers compared with 19 percent of millennial fathers.1 The reason for the disparity is obvious. Just as women reach middle management and their leadership responsibilities at work increase exponentially, they are simultaneously starting families and taking on a larger share of labor at home. It is a cruel confluence of a college-educated woman’s career and her biological clock. By the average age of thirty,2 whether it is as part of a team at the office or in caring for a baby at home, women are shouldering more responsibility than ever before in their lives. This collision of bad timing then combusts with two other external forces. First, workplaces are still organized around the myth of an ideally supported worker. The professional world assumes that every full-time employee has someone else managing his or her home. Second, the heightened demands of modern child-rearing make the burden of parenting and household management heavier than ever. The myth of the ideally supported worker and the expectations of extreme parenting conspire to communicate a clear message to a new generation of women: you can have it all, as long as you do it all. Sooner or later, we discover that doing it all is impossible.

The most commonsense solutions to the work-home conundrum are national affordable child care, paid family leave policies, evolved workplaces, and a culture that values caregiving. Anne-Marie Slaughter makes a powerful and persuasive case for this in her book Unfinished Business.3 Iceland, along with many European countries, has subsidized nurseries and has the longest parental leaves of any nation. It is ranked as the best place in the world to be a woman.4 In contrast, most American women can’t find time to go to the gym, let alone to wait for Washington bureaucrats to pass this type of forward-thinking legislation that would support working families.

So in addition to calling our senators and dreaming of an in-home staff, women (and the men who love them) are left to solve this problem for themselves. The most traditional solution is to drop out of career pursuits altogether. Women who choose this path are a small, affluent group representing only 5 percent of married mothers.5 This solution is economically impractical for the vast majority of women whose families rely on their income. In fact, women are now the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households with children under eighteen.6

The second solution involves slowing down career pursuits. Seventeen percent of women reduce or adapt their work commitments so that they will have the bandwidth to take care of demands at home.7 This path is commonly referred to as the “mommy track” because it involves working part-time or reduced hours, or taking advantage of flex policies—all of which carry a stigma of noncommitment in most work cultures today.8 In recent years, the slowing-down solution has been referred to as the “nonlinear track.”9 In a Harvard Business School alumni survey, 37 percent of millennial women and 42 percent of those already married said they plan to interrupt their careers for family. By age thirty, nearly half of them had already chosen more flexible careers or had intentionally stepped off the fast track. Nine percent had declined a promotion because of family responsibilities.10

The third solution is to not have children at all. In 1992, nearly 80 percent of female Wharton business school graduates said they planned on having children. By 2012, this had dropped to 42 percent.11 Millennial women who choose not to have children as their career success strategy, or who can’t have children, do have a precedent: at this point in time, 49 percent of women at the highest levels of corporate leadership have never had children, compared with only 19 percent of their male counterparts.12

None of these three solutions worked for me. I didn’t marry a very rich man, but even if I had, I was too risk averse to compromise my economic viability (and that of my son) to stop working. My mother had stalled her career to raise her children, and I’d seen the cruel result: when she and my dad divorced, she soon fell into poverty. I spent my young adulthood struggling to help her, and I vowed that I would never be financially dependent on anyone. Opting out—leaving the paid workforce—was unacceptable, especially now that I had a child. So was working anything less than full-time, since that would leave us unable to cover the cost of child care. And, as a brand-new employee, I wouldn’t dare ask for a flexible arrangement. Besides, I loved my job. I didn’t want to quit or work less. I didn’t want to tamp down my ambitions.

And as for not having kids, that train had already left the station.

That left me with the recourse that most women take: trying to do it all at work and at home. Unfortunately, these attempts take their toll, primarily on our health and mental well-being. Those of us committed to our careers and our families, who are unable or don’t want to pause or slow down our career pursuits, end up more exhausted, stressed out, depleted, and sick than any previous generation of women.13

The night after my first day back from maternity leave, lying in bed as this dilemma was hitting me, I realized I needed a better solution. It would take me years to find an answer. And the journey was not always easy and conflict-free. But I did eventually find an answer for myself.

Today, I can report that I am flourishing in my career and I am doing work that matters deeply to me. I’ve maintained my health. And I’m focused on the aspects of parenting that are most important to me. It wasn’t easy or automatic to get to this place, but the results have been life-changing. I’m not burdened by the anxiety that so many working mothers feel—and that I once felt myself. I average seven hours of sleep a night and work out four days a week. I’m not bogged down with child-care logistics. I can RSVP to evening work events and know that my husband will either cover for me or coordinate a babysitter. Most importantly, I’m not plagued with guilt. My life is far from perfect, as the clutter bursting out of my apartment closets can attest, but on most days, I feel that everything I am and everything I do is enough.

I have devoted my career to exploring the best strategies for addressing the dearth of women in American leadership—as head of the White House Project, a national women’s leadership organization, and currently as chief leadership officer at Levo, a technology platform founded to help millennial women elevate their careers. I’ve seen that despite climbing to new heights on the professional ladder, women still rarely get to the top. We are 51 percent of the population,14 and by 2020, we are projected to be 47 percent of the labor force,15 yet we still command only an 18 percent share at the highest levels of leadership.16 Smart executives are committed to changing this trend. Many Fortune 500 companies and major nonprofits have hired me to advise them on retaining and advancing women, and I do a lot of public speaking on the benefits of diverse leadership.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been heartened by the growing support for women’s empowerment in the workplace, but I’m mindful that most of the efforts involve either encouraging women to keep their feet on the gas pedal of their professional lives, equipping workplaces to support their female employees more robustly, or changing public policy to incentivize workplaces to do so. I’m a fierce proponent of each of these approaches (as we all should be), but I’ve come to realize that they don’t give guilt-laden, anxiety-ridden, and exhausted women a practical, actionable solution to juggling the competing demands of work and home.

This realization—and the inspiration for this book—came to me at the end of 2013. That year, I spoke on sixty stages to nearly twenty thousand women, usually about what individuals and organizations can do to diversify leadership. Regardless of the content of my talk or the composition of my audience, the most common question at the end of my lectures was always personal: “How do you manage everything you do?”

In response, I would say, “I expect far less of myself and way more of my husband than the average woman!” That always got a laugh. Then I’d solicit what I thought were more pressing questions about how to navigate office politics or reform corporate and government policies. Despite my best intentions, women were inevitably eager to return to the logistics of my personal life. Details that seemed mundane to me—like how my husband and I coordinated school drop-offs or camp shopping lists or evening work events—seemed fascinating to them. One day, after yet another experience like this, I made the connection. I finally understood that when women kept asking, “How do you manage it all?” they were really wondering, “How can I manage it all?”

Drop the Ball is my honest answer to their question. It is the story of my three-year journey to figure out what really mattered to me, how to achieve it, and what structures of support I needed to put in place to make it possible. The situation I was in on my first night back from maternity leave—feeling helpless and confused, angry and resentful of the person who was actually in the best position to help me—is not uncommon. Many women experience the struggle of home lives that become more demanding and time-consuming right at the point when their careers need the most attention, energy, and creativity. This is the story of how I learned to excel at a purpose-driven career, nourish my marriage, raise happy children, give back to my community, sustain meaningful friendships, and be healthy and fit—all at the same time.

But Drop the Ball is more than a personal memoir; it’s also a manifesto. I want women to know that their individual problem is a collective one, too. The research is unequivocal: the most complex problems are best solved by a diverse group of people. Yet the highest levels of leadership are glutted with the same type: male, white, straight, able-bodied, and wealthy. This has been true since the dawn of our country two and a half centuries ago. Don’t get me wrong. Like many of our founding fathers, today’s corporate decision makers are accomplished, smart, and well meaning. It’s just that now that it’s the twenty-first century, their lens is too narrow to address gigantic problems like economic inequality, climate change, terrorism, or the decline of America’s educational system. If we care about these problems, we have to care about the women whose help we need to solve them.

Today, women are half of the workforce, but at our current rate, it will take one hundred years for women to be half of our leaders.17 The very future of our society rests on women’s ability to get past middle management and to thrive in the process. We need a Drop the Ball movement—not just to prevent working mothers from crashing but to fast-forward history.


Copyright © 2017 by Tiffany Dufu