Holidays. Meh.

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States – our annual harvest festival where we all eat too much while giving thanks for all the stuff we have. In theory anyway. Some people follow the gorging ritual with midnight shopping sprees, to buy even more stuff.

Sounds like a job for The Distaff Side!

Women do most of the holiday work. “Wait!” You may say. “My husband loves to bake his triple-chocolate cake for Christmas,” or “My Uncle Joe makes the best turkey!” Sure, men do their part, but the brunt of the work – certainly the grunt of the work (the planning, the budgeting, the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, the hosting, the cleanup) piles overwhelmingly onto women.

Not that most women view this all as a thankless task. Most women I know – especially retirees and women who don’t work outside the home – LOVE holidays. They really look forward to them. Get excited about them. Work hard for them. Enjoy them. And then feel let down or resentful when it’s not as perfect, or as fun, or as appreciated, as they’d hoped.

Why? Two reasons, I think:

  1. If you have a busy life, whether it’s with work, kids, school, volunteering and other obligations, your days are full already. A holiday is fun and a break from the routine, but it’s also a lot of work – work that piles on to the work you already have.
  2. If you do not have a busy life, you have little to do and little to look forward to. Holidays, birthdays, vacations and other events take on epic levels of importance. You really want to go all out. But the busy people in your life don’t see it your way.

Each side of this divide needs to give the other side a break.

If you’re in the “busy” camp, practice saying “no” to whatever holiday obligations irk you most. The holiday won’t be “ruined” because you ran out of time or money or energy to follow some hallowed tradition. Decide on your priorities and stick to them. Outsource thankless tasks.

If you’re in the “not busy” camp, practice having something to look forward to besides holidays. There’s no reason why you can’t cook your special holiday dish anytime, or why you have to wait for a holiday to do some cherished activity. Recognize that not everyone has the time, money and energy you have.

Finally, both sides can eat less, buy less, decorate less and do less. Look instead for those moments that make a holiday memorable. No one’s going to remember in 5 years that the turkey in 2019 was especially delicious, but they will remember things that really matter.

Happy St. Distaff Day!

OK, there’s no “Saint Distaff.” Although, any woman who had to wield a distaff when spinning wool or flax is a saint in my book.

Rather, “St. Distaff Day” is Ye Ole Catholic Church’s way of saying: “Get back to work!”

Back in the day, Christmas partying lasted until the Feast of the Epiphany (it still does in some Christian cultures). You know, the old Twelve Days of Christmas” racket.

The day after the Epiphany, the fun was over. Women picked up their distaffs again and resumed their lives of ceaseless toil. Men resumed their ceaseless pastime of tormenting women, which on St. Distaff Day included stealing the spun wool and flax and setting it on fire.

There’s even a snatch of doggerel to mark the merry moment:

“Give St. Distaff all the right;

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow everyone

To his own vocation.”

I am on a business trip, so no textile work for me!

Five Years Ago I “Leaned In”

Five years ago, I found myself at a crisis point in my career. I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. I vaguely felt underpaid and underappreciated, in a male-dominated industry and company. While I had been successful,  I was stuck.  I didn’t know how to move forward, nor did I have the energy or courage to move. I had started looking for my next opportunity, but without any firm direction or goal.

I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg shortly after it published, five years ago this week. So had a couple of work friends. We each invited five women to be part of a “Lean In Circle” at the office, to follow up on the book’s advice. A group of about 15 women met for two hours every other month to work through the program and support one another.

“Lean In” changed my life. Today, I am at a much bigger and more prominent company, in a bigger job, with more pay, responsibility, challenge and energy. “Lean In” didn’t do this alone for me, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone, jump-started my career and opened my mind to what was possible.

A lot of people like to disparage “Lean In.” I wonder, did they actually read the book? They complain that Sheryl Sandberg approached the topic from a place of extraordinary prestige, wealth and privilege, as a Harvard graduate and COO of Facebook. Yes, she did. So what? I don’t understand how that invalidates what she has to say, as if the only “legitimate” women’s viewpoint on careers has to come from some hardscrabble perspective. And I really don’t understand why a “women attacking other women” viewpoint in op-eds and blogs is somehow more valid. There is a special place in hell reserved for successful women who don’t help other women succeed.

Here are several real-world examples coming from me, who came from a hardscrabble background, of how “Lean In” opened my eyes and helped me move forward:

Sexism: My manager at my old job was an older British man. I liked him and we got along well. But he did three things that really bothered me:

  • He insisted I get a mentor.
  • He socialized after work only with other men on our team. Me and other women were never invited.
  • He said that me and another woman I worked on a project with lacked “gravitas” to present our project findings on the big stage at a department-wide offsite, so he recruited a man to present with us.

At the time, I didn’t see these things as sexist, but “Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • Sheryl Sandberg wrote a lot about and how older people are always encouraging young women to get mentors. This push makes young women feel inadequate and forces them into artificial relationships with senior people who… you guessed it… make them feel even more inadequate. Mentors can be wonderful, but such a close relationship must develop organically.
  • By not being invited to after-work events, I missed out on valuable face time with the boss.  The men had better relationships and more insight into what the boss was doing and thinking.
  • “Gravitas” is a fancy way of saying “you won’t be taken seriously.” The man who my boss pushed into the project ended up doing some harm to it because he had to throw his dick around.

Equal Pay: I pushed for better pay when I joined the company, but I was told “this is our offer, not up for negotiation.” I was getting paid more than at my last job and this was a big opportunity, so I accepted it. Once I got promoted into management, I got a small raise because it was in the middle of the budget year, with a vague promise I’d get more later. I wasn’t happy, but I was naive enough to trust the system. Then two things happened:

  • I realized that most of the men who reported to me made more than me, and the lone woman on the team with equal experience to the men and at a higher position made even less. My complaints got me nowhere. I was never made whole and each year I sank a bit further back in pay equality because new people were brought in at higher salaries.
  • I was a top performer and earned raises and bonuses regularly, but I still was underpaid. I earned about 85% of what peers from the “Lean In Circle” earned. And they were underpaid compared to men in similar positions.

“Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • I didn’t understand how compensation works. If you are underpaid today, you will always be underpaid. The compensation system is rigged against you and no one will fix it.
  • If you want to be paid more, you need to know your value and negotiate hard. I learned how to negotiate and how to calculate my value to get better pay and other perks at my new job.

Taking Risks: I am by nature rather risk-averse. I don’t seek thrills or take many chances in life. “Lean In” made me realize I was too comfortable where I was, not challenged enough or interested enough to find fulfillment at my job. I noticed a few things:

  • My job was in a female ghetto – an operational role that was viewed as a cost center, not revenue-generating or otherwise contributing much to the bottom line. My boss took another job and I had a new female boss, who in turn reported to a woman, “Big Boss,” who was one of only two women leading our entire division. Only human resources had a higher proportion of women than our group did. Men made the decisions, and we women (for the most part) executed them.
  • Women at my level within this group were moved around like chess pieces to satisfy whatever demand at the moment fell on Big Boss’s ears. These lateral moves were good for gaining experience, but they never seemed to lead to promotions or big opportunities, rather just putting out fires and shoring up crumbling walls. Some women had been at these types of tasks for 5 to 10 years! Strategic decisions came from a higher level they didn’t penetrate.

Because of “Lean In” I realized I needed to take chances in my career. The longer I stayed where I was, the harder it would be to move. There was a reorganization and Big Boss wanted me to take one of these lateral-move jobs. I had a meeting with her, where I laid my cards on the table and told her flatly what I wanted. She said no. So I left. I never would have had the courage to do this without “Lean In.”

Leaning In at Home: Sheryl Sandberg inspired the most vitriol with her insights into how to manage a work-life balance. Such a powerful and big earner of course could have endless nannies, maids, assistants and other helpers. She didn’t understand the struggles of single mothers, or of women whose partners also have demanding jobs and are unwilling or unable to take on more responsibilities at home. This is a valid criticism.  And Sandberg herself viewed these challenges through a different lens when her husband suddenly died a few years ago. Also, I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on the working mother dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that all of Sandberg’s ideas are bullshit.

  • Just like at work, at home you also have to ask for what you want. Your partner and kids won’t read your mind.
  • Your husband needs to be an equal partner, or you will tote around resentment along with all the housework, shopping, cooking and child care responsibilities. If he won’t meet you halfway before you’re married, you have no hope after you’re married.
  • Don’t put your career on hold because you might get married, might have kids, or might have to care for aging parents. Do what you need to do at work. If personal life throws curveballs later on, deal with them then.

When I took my new job, which has a long commute and longer hours, I told my husband that he must take on some responsibilities at home, such as making dinner two or three nights a week (including cleaning up after), vacuuming, paying some bills and shopping for groceries as needed. He doesn’t like it, but he does it, and he acknowledges it’s fair. “Lean In” helped me craft these discussions with my husband, to get to a satisfactory agreement.

What’s next?

I think I will reread “Lean In” this month to see what else I could learn or other places where I disagree with Sandberg. I also wonder what other women think. Have you read the book? Did it help you?

New Year, Clean House

I spent much of New Year’s Day cleaning and decluttering my house. Such a chore! I put off doing routine things for months and guess what? They only get worse.

Since I’ve had a lot of success with simply asking for what I want, I figured I’d try it with my husband when it comes to cleaning and keeping the house clutter-free. My husband hates getting rid of his possessions. He has literally 100 socks as a result. My requests:

  • Please go through your closet and throw things away, recycle them or put them in a bag for donation.
  • Please put junk mail, catalogs and the like straight into the recycling bin. No “keeping to go through later” and no piling them up on the desk, the dining room table or the buffet.
  • Please shred documents that need to be shredded as soon as you decide to get rid of them. (Don’t pile them up on the shredder.)

I went through my closet and packed a big bag for donation, threw out a few things beyond hope, and selected a few things for sale on eBay. I rejected the idea of selling on consignment again – I didn’t get enough money from it to make it worthwhile. I should get at least $40 apiece for the items I’m selling on eBay.

I also organized documents for taxes, packed up our 2017 records into a box in the attic and sorted other papers that we need to keep.

If you struggle to focus and complete cleaning and decluttering tasks, here’s a method that helps me: I “time box” a task. Say, I give myself 1 hour to go through all my clothes and pull out things I don’t want anymore and decide what to do with them (donate, toss or sell). Or, I give myself 30 minutes to iron as many clothes as I can. I stick to that schedule and do 2-4 tasks, depending on the time they take. I give myself a half-hour break every two hours to have something to eat, return emails, relax with a magazine etc. I repeat until I get done what I need to do.

Yes, I Do Windows

The windows in the kitchen badly needed cleaning, so who cleans them? Me.

Another job for The Distaff Side!

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My husband didn’t even notice when he got home this afternoon. He’s a pretty clean guy. When we were dating, he’d always spruce up the kitchen and bathroom, freshly vacuum the carpet and sweep away clutter. But there would be dust everywhere. And the windows and mirrors were never washed. He really just doesn’t “see” it. I guess like how some people don’t “see” that they’ve gained 50 pounds. Willful ignorance is more like it.

“I don’t do windows,” is one of those catch phrases that comes from a life of ceaseless toil. A housekeeper or maid was expected to do all kinds of jobs, but windows were such a thankless and irksome task that they could reasonably refuse. It’s the kind of job you need to hire special for.

When we first bought our home, built in 1908, I guessed that the windows had not been cleaned since 1970. (That’s the year I was born, and I am old as dirt, so it made sense at the time.) I called around to some window-washing companies to get a quote for doing our house, and I was laughed right off the phone. I lived with the dirt.

Years ago we replaced the drafty, rattling old wood windows with newfangled ones that tilt in for easy cleaning. Excuses over, time to get out the Windex and paper towels. Don’t tell me that vinegar and newspaper are the way to do this, in an effective and environmentally responsible way. All you get for your troubles is a big mess. Hey, I take public transportation and bike whenever possible – so what if I burn through half a bottle of Windex and half a roll of paper towels?

Anyway, the windows are nice and clean now. I can look forward to looking through them all winter. And in the spring, they will probably need to be cleaned. Again.

“Women’s Work”

I’ve had these garden gloves for years. I never noticed the label: Womanswork.

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I love these gloves because they fit perfectly. No wonder – Womanswork is owned by a woman and many key staff people are women and relatives of the company’s founder. (For more info, see their Website.)

Wow does the term “woman’s work” get a bad rap. I have been watching this BBC show “Victorian Slum House” (airing now in the US), one of these shows where modern people try to live in historical times, and this old guy who probably would have been dead in the 19th century is all upset because he’s stuck doing “woman’s work” – making artificial flowers to sell to milliners. He tried “man’s work” at a bell foundry and put his back out.

I felt sorry for him, because back pain is horrific. But I turned sour at his disdain for the flower-making job. It put food on the table and kept a roof over the head of his whole family of five for a week. Why, is his mind, is making a bell more important than making an ornament for a hat? Is it because a bell is big and heavy and a flower is tiny and light? Because the bell costs more? Because a bell is “manly” in some way that a flower is not?

Both iron bells and artificial flowers are fripperies in life, one might say. Not necessary. Not important. One is not inherently better than another. But all work has value. All work matters and should be treated with respect, just as all workers should be treated with dignity.

A lot of young men find themselves out of work nowadays. That’s for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because of their disdain for “women’s work.” Health care is the largest sector of the US economy, yet it’s predominantly female. So is education; except at the collegiate level, female teachers and staff outnumber men greatly. Men need to get over this idea that only certain kinds of work are worthy of them. Or, they can stand back and watch the women continue to outshine them at every turn.

Ceaseless Toil and Spring Cleaning

Yesterday was a marathon spring cleaning adventure. Five hours I spent washing and vacuuming and dusting and decluttering. And I’m not done yet.

Is there a more thankless task than housework?

I decided to budget my time. I set the oven for a five-hour self-clean cycle and gave myself five hours to do what I could.

The oven racks needed a good wash. How the hell do these things get so greasy? And why can’t I leave them in the oven in self-clean mode?

Bah.

We rotated the carpets and vacuumed, moving all the furniture out to do it properly. Aha! That’s where all the dead bugs went! 

Gag.

I filled two vacuum cleaner bags with lovely assortments of dust, spider webs, fireplace soot, carpet fuzz, dog hair, crispy needles from the long-gone Christmas tree, and whatnot.

Gross.

Another job for the distaff side done and dusted, literally.