Lean In Too Much and You Might Fall Over

I’ve never before been to a conference panel that left both the speakers and audience in tears, but experienced that for the first time at the Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH) meeting yesterday. Titled “Leaning In, Opting Out, and Moving Up: A Roundtable on Women in the Academy,” the panel featured four women who have all earned a PhD in history, hold teaching jobs (some tenure-track, some not), and have children. Each panelist began by sharing her story of working through graduate school and moving into the professoriate (and in one case, into administration) while also raising a family. Two of them started crying as they explained the choices they had made and the professional opportunities they had decided to forgo because pursuing them wouldn’t have been in their families’ best interests. Looking around the room, I saw several of the twenty or so women in the audience nodding and wiping away tears as well.

Most of the discussion revolved around balancing work and motherhood, and to be honest, I felt left out of the conversation. I would have liked to have seen at least one panelist who was single and/or child-free, because I think there are broader issues at play than “How can one be a successful teacher, researcher, writer, and mother all at the same time?” I absolutely identified with the speaker who said that she was trying to do everything, but felt that she wasn’t doing any of it well, as that’s not a problem exclusive to women who are trying to balance jobs and kids.

The roundtable that I spoke on at WAWH, organized by UCI History PhD candidate Andrea Milne, dealt with working in non-traditional academic pursuits—either in the digital humanities, as Jana Remy was there to talk about, or in writing for a general audience, which University of Oregon PhD candidate Adam Turner and I discussed in our presentations. One of the question that I got after I described the various writing and editing projects I’ve been engaged in throughout graduate school was simply, “How do you do it all?”

I gave a few answers: detailed but realistic to-do lists every day. Working with a timer on my phone to limit how long I spend on any given task. Unplugging from the Internet during work sessions to prevent Facebook, Twitter, and email from distracting me. Ordering groceries online. Hiring a housekeeper, which I did a few months ago after long deliberation—I finally decided that I needed to “buy time,” and asking someone to come in and clean my apartment once a week made that possible.

But what I didn’t quite have the courage to say is that I am often plagued by the fear that I don’t do things as well as I would like. That I wish my dissertation were a masterpiece, but know that it isn’t. That I frequently find myself overwhelmed by deadlines and the pile of things I have said “yes” to. That I have to consciously tell myself to say “no” to great opportunities. That I’m really not very good at judging how much I can put on my plate at any given time.

I’m sure that this is, in part, built into my personality: I like being busy. But it’s also the fact that my two professional fields—writing and academia—train you to always say yes to everything. To be competitive for grants, fellowships, and jobs, you have to build a lengthy CV that demonstrates your range and impresses readers with your vast experience in the academic triad of teaching, research, and service. The same goes for journalism: I want to write for a variety of publications to show that I have the skills to speak to multiple audiences about any number of topics and convince editors that they should give me work.

I have gotten slightly—slightly—better at knowing when to say no, but I still find it difficult. Turning down an opportunity makes me anxious about what I’m choosing not to do. What if that’s the article/conference presentation/editing job that would make my career? Surely I can find a way to fit it into my schedule! I’ll just sleep less and categorize my life even more. But I know that’s not the answer.

I recently bought a subscription to Scratch (a digital magazine about writing, money, and life), due entirely to an excellent interview they did with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (one of my favorite books in the past few years). When I read these two paragraphs, I saw that Strayed had explained my dilemma in better terms than I ever could:

The way you become successful in the arts is by saying yes. It really is. I said yes to Dear Sugar—no pay, huge amount of work, completely uncertain in terms of whether anyone would even read it. And then it turned into this really wonderful thing that was some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done as a writer.

I’ve been saying yes for 25 years, but now I have to start saying no, or else I won’t be able to continue to do the work I love the most, which is writing. That’s been such a lesson for me. But no is the key to liberation. Yes was to nurture this thing, this writing. And no will be to protect it. It’s against my nature to say no, so it’s really a struggle.

Academia is also a culture of saying yes—to serving on committees, to organizing conferences, to writing book reviews and evaluating manuscripts for publication. We’re taught to always think about “How can I get my name out there?” or “How can I prove my dedication to my job?” Saying yes is a way of affirming that we’re wanted, that others think that we belong in academia. It quiets the impostor syndrome that consumes us. But, as the four women on yesterday’s panel all said, we can’t do everything, whether we’re talking about the professional or personal realm. We have to make choices, to sequence our careers and lives in a way that doesn’t leave us terrified that it will all come crashing down at any given moment. We have to figure out when it makes sense to lean in and when to step back. Like every other scholar and writer I know—married or single, parent or not—I’m working on it.

The WAWH’s panel title was, obviously, inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I’ve kind of been avoiding the book, as it’s been  criticized for its limited perspective and assumption of privilege, but the general consensus at WAWH was that Lean In is part of the feminist conversation, whether we agree with it or not. And the Kindle edition is only $5 right now, so I went ahead and bought it. No guarantee I will read it right away, though I do have a long flight back to Shanghai today.

4 thoughts on “Lean In Too Much and You Might Fall Over

  1. I’m reading the book right now and I don’t really feel that it has a limited perspective. I mean it’s a woman’s perspective….maybe men feel that’s limited??!!? It’s Sheryl’s story, so her perspective as one would expect. An assumption of privilege? Yes. But all in all, I’m finding it a moving, inspirational book. Would love to hear your thoughts once you’ve read it.

  2. Lean In left me inspired, angry, and conflicted. The worst was hearing my mother and other women her age complain that Sandburg’s making the exact same argument that women were making in 1980–as if nothing had changed in 30 years.

    I have a Goodreads review myself. I’m eager to hear your take.

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