When it’s my turn in line at Starbucks, I order a decaffeinated latte and without thinking I utter, “sorry.” Whether real or perceived, I feel that the barista is judging me for ordering decaf. After all, isn’t the point of coffee the caffeine? I could offer support and tell her about my weak stomach lining, how I’d feel the acid splashing for hours, but then I’d run the risk of sounding needy.
Once home from the morning loop of dropping off my three kids at school and humbling myself at Starbucks, I settle in at my computer. As a writer, I have a mountain of work to do: essays to write, a website to update, a barrage of social media sites to post to. Not to mention the next book — that unruly behemoth of a document that requires the most attention.
The kids are at school. The clock is ticking. Everything else could and should wait.
But my brain is a hamster on a wheel, and with each revolution I am reminded of all the motherly duties I’ve left undone: Daughter No. 1 needs to get to the orthodontist; Daughter No. 2 needs the dermatologist; Daughter No. 3 needs a new tennis racquet. I scribble down a quick list of 15 items.
I shove the formidable mommy to-do list from my brain, but it’s hard to say no to the nurturing, caregiving side of myself, kind of like slamming the door on Girl Scouts selling cookies. My first nature is to take care of my family. But I also want to advance my career. Damn me, wanting to have my cake and eat it, too.
I focus on my writing, managing to edit a good 20 pages of the next novel and am preparing to launch into some new material. But then the laundry buzzes, and because I know Daughter No. 2’s soccer uniform is in it (one she’ll need for this afternoon), I pop up to empty the load.
While I fold, I click on CNBC. Female newscasters, female analysts, female fund managers. By all accounts, females have succeeded; they have procured the same opportunities as the men. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is so committed to her job, she has declined her right to maternity leave when her twins arrive. The commentators bicker back and forth, debating whether this is a smart move for her career, for her family. A conversation that would never ensue if she were a he.
I deliver the laundry bundles to the doors of my children’s rooms. Then I get back to my computer. I’m inspired to write some new pages, but in the back of my mind the to-do list ticks like a metronome. More immediate than the novel deadline is a batch of other commitments: A book review, a magazine essay, a list of my favorite reads for a literary blog.
I’ll get to it all, I vow. But first let me write these new pages. I’m two pages in when an alert pops up at the bottom of my screen: Grandma’s birthday. I quickly click on my online calendar. I see that we’re entering into the birthday season for my family. In the next four months alone there are six birthdays to celebrate, in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas.
There is too much to do and not enough time. I’ll get it done, but how well? A dark cloud of inadequacy hovers over me as the shame seeps in. The constant worry of not measuring up either at home or at work nags at me like a fly buzzing at my ear. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, “The stereotype of a working woman is rarely attractive. She’s almost always harried and guilt-ridden.” I envision a cartoon depiction of me, a frantic woman running in circles like a dog chasing its tail.
I think of the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. The female protagonist, Kate, having just flown in from a business trip in the middle of the night, switches roles from high-powered hedge fund manager to at-home mother and attempts to “distress” a store-bought mince pie for her daughter’s school in an effort to make it look homemade. Having done this, she then needs to dispose of the evidence — the store-bought wrapper — lest her nanny rats her out to the other moms. The pressure of being the perfect mom while at the same time the ladder-climbing working woman bears down on her like the Boeing jet she just flew in on.
Later, I drive up to my kids’ school for a parent association meeting. I’ve “over-volunteered,” as I frequently do, chairing multiple committees. With two daughters entering high school next year, I know my time with them is dwindling. I want to be as involved as I can. While another woman speaks, I feel the buzz of my phone. I take a peek. A text from my mother. “Still alive?” it reads. “Haven’t heard from you for a while.” I add Call Mom to my mental to-do list.
The obligations abound: to my husband, children, and parents. To the workplace, my volunteer activities, and maintaining the home. Sandberg has described my frustration perfectly, the “holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
For women, balancing our home life with our work life is only the first step. We also need to strike the just right tone. I want to be heard, but I also want to be liked. Society — for all that it has allowed in terms of feminism — still demands that we act appropriately female. No one likes the loud-mouthed woman. Ambitious and aggressive women violate our social norms about how we should act. We expect men to be driven and decisive. We expect women to be sensitive and communal, says Sandberg. And it doesn’t take much to be labeled in a derogatory way. Just standing one’s ground is often enough.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain claims that our society values extroverts, the booming man of action, who talks first and loud, who takes risk, and whose charisma is spell-binding. Our culture used to value the person of introspection, the quiet, prudent, and morally upstanding individual, Cain says, yet now we love the salesman, the Tony Robbins of the business world. This could account for Trump’s popularity. Side by side, he out-“charismas” his opponents.
If this is true, and if we as a culture reward the booming, engaging individual, women are in a real fix. In our guts we know our place. We know it’s okay for us to want to strive and thrive in the worlds of business, academia, medicine, and any other field. But we also know that our female role requires us to be nice, compassionate, and caring. We can only be so forceful before we cross the line and offend those same people we’re trying to impress.
Maybe that’s why we apologize our way through the day, even at Starbucks.
In a recent satire by edgy comedian Amy Schumer, a group of professional women innovators have been asked to participate in a panel discussion. What follows is a string of apologies for saying too much, too little, for clearing one’s throat, for asking a question, and for being misconstrued as the wrong type of scientist. At one point, one of the panel members (played by Schumer) offers to “run to the store” to get medicine for an ailing audience member — the ultimate show of female nurturing, even when she’s working.
Perhaps the apology is our way of permitting ourselves to lean in. It’s the compromise that says we will no longer be silent, relegated to a lesser position, but will preface our opinions with a copious amount of “sorrys” and all the other precursors that beg our listeners to hear us but also to still like us.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking…”
“This might be a stupid question….”
We’re using “sorry” as a stand-in for “excuse me.”
Or maybe not.
Maybe we are just truly sorry. Sorry for being both a mother and having a job. Sorry that we can’t be in two places at once.
Feeling sorry just might come with the territory of assuming so many different roles and creating the fraud that’s inherent in being one thing to one person and another thing to another. When I’m around a group of moms, I want to be just like them, telling silly stories about what our children said, debating best techniques for homework management, and swapping lunch box ideas. When I’m conducting business, I play a different role with different tones, different vocabulary, and different body language, which hints at living two lives.
Yet women are anything but fraudulent. The honesty with which they scrutinize their own abilities is often to their detriment. In researching for their book, The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman found that women will only apply for jobs or promotions if they feel they’re 100 percent qualified versus men who will take the chance, even if they’re woefully underqualified, gauging their abilities at maybe 50 percent of what’s needed.
More likely the reason we apologize so much is simply that our confidence doesn’t match our competence. For all the strides made — females earning more college and graduate degrees than males, closing the gap on middle management, and inching our way toward a more equitable pay — we’re still not finding the bold confidence to own our accomplishments.
Discounting our abilities is a female phenomenon. Women are likely to attribute their successes to the help from others, luck, or being in the right place at the right time. Men more easily attribute success internally, stating that a victory was due to his high level of competency.
It seems that we as women, in general, are quite hard on ourselves. We worry about whether we’re allocating our time properly, we ruminate to the point of constant worry, and we demand perfection. Perhaps the next rung of feminism we must reach for is owning our accomplishments, without apology.
But for now, it’s a crisis of confidence and for that, I’m truly sorry.