When I first read Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball, I wished I could go back in time, and hand it to my younger self to read as a new mother. If only I could have known the wisdom in this book. If only I could have known how much I would recognise myself in her story. I should have dropped the ball six years ago.
Tiffany Dufu’s definition of ‘dropping the ball’ is: “to release unrealistic expectations of doing it all and engage with others to achieve what matters most to us, deepening our relationships and enriching our lives”. The introduction by Gloria Steinem explains: “when women believe that for us, ‘having it all’ must mean ‘doing it all’ – it becomes what psychologists call internalised oppression”. And so, the profound message of this book’s title is we have to disrupt entrenched habits and beliefs about motherhood and our roles within the home, in order to give ourselves a chance to change the status quo for mothers in paid work outside of home.
Why do we fall into a trap of attempting to do it all?
Tiffany Dufu traces the emergence of these unrealistic expectations along these lines.
There’s a lot of intensity about what constitutes being a good parent, and especially being a good mum. From early days, mums associate their worth as a parent by how well they are attuned to the needs of their child, especially knowledge of how to soothe a baby, or what the child will or won’t eat and sleep schedules. There is reticence to relinquish or compromise on these exacting standards because this would hamper positive outcomes for the child. It works to a logic along these lines: ‘If everything that is within my control is perfect (according to my beliefs), then my child will have an optimal experience of childhood and grow up to thrive and have great opportunities in life’. Yikes, we set ourselves up against some very high standards on the basis of this logic.
Mums are conditioned to this way of thinking before the child is even born: we have to eat well, birth beautifully, and be intuitively awesome at breastfeeding. The early days at home with a baby make us the head project manager for our child’s life. Unless an early pattern is set with a partner involved in the fine details and regularly engaged in care giving for the child from the very outset, there emerges a pattern where mum becomes ‘expert’ about the child, and the partner must defer to the expert about what to do. The cliché of the clueless dad emerges (more on this later). Mum project manages the household, and it’s all sorted.
When a mother returns to paid work outside the home this becomes critical point for dropping the ball. If she does not want to find herself burning out in the process of to trying do it all, she needs to relinquish her expert status over the domain of the home. What happens next will be familiar to many of us who are ‘juggling’ parenting and paid employment. We assume that we can do it all in order to have it all. We organise the childcare, create schedules, outsource if it’s affordable. We bear a mental load and project manage the logistics for a life revolving around an unpredictable little person who could become sick with a fever overnight, and throw the next days plans into disarray with an early morning spew.
I know from experience the mother guilt is strong when a child is sick: I took the majority of ‘care leave’ when my daughter was little. And it was me who was working part-time and falling further behind in my already short week. Returning to Tiffany Dufu’s definition, I started to drop the ball on being a default carer when my daughter got sick by doing ‘split-shifts’ with my partner (we split the day to morning and afternoon care shifts so neither of us has to miss a full day of work). That said, after reading the book I can see there is more I let go of, such as project managing school holiday care and other types of care-leave required.
The way in which Tiffany Dufu explains how to drop the ball through her own memoir is a gift because it allows her readers to engage with the mistakes, failures, quandaries she faces in her attempts to drop the ball. She reveals that letting go is not easy, precisely because this is about releasing deeply entrenched beliefs we hold within ourselves about being a good mother. A parable she shares provides the perfect illustration: “a woman is swimming across a lake, and near the centre, she begins to get tired and sink. People watching from the shore cry out to her, ‘drop the rock!’ …[as] there is a rock tied around her, pulling her down … To the people on the shore, the answer seems obvious … but as she sinks, they can hear her saying ‘I can’t, it’s mine’.” Our unrealistic expectations are that rock. We have to let go.
Sharing the load
One of the important insights from the book is this: “Women have internalised the message that we cannot be successful in the public sphere unless we’re superstars on the home front as well”.
It is the mental load of our unrealistic expectations of that hold us back from what we want to achieve in work outside of home. Along with the social conditioning that occurs in childhood about what roles girls will have as adults, there is strong social conditioning about mothers’ limits to meaningful engagement in work. Tiffany Dufu provides several examples, such as an accomplished professional who was hesitant about leading a new program at work: “she never once mentioned feelings of professional anxiety. Instead, it seemed that what was holding her back at work was her to do list – and the feelings that came with those obligations – at home.”
It’s incredibly useful to learn from leadership and workplace research to think about the division of labour in a household. One concept used in the book is the idea of the Lone Ranger: the belief that we have to do everything ourselves. This observation comes from organisational research, where it is recognised that career advancement is not only about achieving results – crucial relationships need to be formed.
“Our Lone Ranger syndrome causes us to focus more on our output and less on cultivating the relationships that are just as critical to our career advancement. We go it alone, expecting to be recognised based on our own merits, without asking the right stakeholders to advocate for us”.
Importantly this translates to the project manager mum at home. And this is another gem of wisdom from Tiffany Dufu. We need to surround ourselves with what she describes as an ecosystem. In other words, we need to network in order to drop the ball. Who are the people who support you in finding some time to exercise, or getting enough rest? Letting go of the need to do everything ourselves includes thinking about reciprocal relationships with non-paid working mothers. We need to engage with others around us; our partners especially.
What is so useful about this book is Tiffany uses research alongside her lived experience to develop strategies for change. She argues there are two key reasons why we need to cultivate diversity in managing our home lives. The first is to do with social conditioning of children and the observations they make of their parents division of labour (regardless of whether mum is in paid-employment outside of the home). Children watch how things are done and internalise this.
Secondly, we need to disrupt the ‘dumb dad’ stereotype, that men are incompetent carers. Micro-managing does not bring desired results. As Tiffany Dufu eloquently states, “good managers communicate their vision and allow their teams to create and execute their own plans to get there”. With this knowledge, dropping the ball allows space for men to step up responsibility at home and share the load. We need to allow for things to be done differently in the home, rather than micromanaging with detailed lists, preparing meals in advance when we’re away, and criticising. This isn’t about stroking egos. This allows space to drop the ball and achieve our own professional aspirations and also allows for more creative solutions to household issues.
Tiffany Dufu’s excellent book shows why we need drop the ball, and how to do so. Her book is both a memoir and tool kit in one. Her analysis is backed up by research, and her strategies are informed by her expertise in leadership. She is an inspiration and someone to relate to. She reaches out to her audience with warmth and reveals the mistakes she’s made along the way so that others might not have to repeat them. Highly recommended reading.
Take this topic further:
- Read the insightful and valuable memoir Drop the Ball
- Visit Tiffany Dufu’s website for some useful strategies and insights
- For an analysis of the gender imbalance from an Australian perspective, read The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb
- For some insights into how to fit more of what it important in your life (and decide what you might drop the ball on), I Know How She Does It: How successful women make the most of their time by Laura Vanderkam