Take The Leap (Day) to Make Your Own History

It’s Leap Day!

February 29 is the every-fourth-year calendar adjustment for the Gregorian calendar’s imperfections. The extra day appended to February inspired a leap of vision and blazing hope for women in 5th Century Ireland, when St. Bridget persuaded St. Patrick to declare that a woman could do what was then the unthinkable: ask a man to marry her.

At a time when a woman was, for all practical purposes, owned first by her father and then by her husband, marriage meant not love but economic survival for her and her children. No doubt many seized their one chance to override gendered power norms and choose their own fates. Unheard of!

Leap Day was codified in 12th century Scotland (again initiated by a woman, Queen Margaret). The tradition continued, highlighted by merry belittlements to remind women of their lack of power the rest of the time. For example, women on the prowl for a husband were to sport red petticoats as fair warning so the poor beleaguered men could see them from a distance and dash in the other direction.

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Maxisms: 8 Things I Learned from My Crazy Father

My father, Max Feldt, stood 6’ 3” with a personality so big (and the towns we lived in so small) that the postal service once delivered a letter to me addressed only: “To the eldest daughter of Big Max, Stamford, Texas.”

Big MaxFamily lore says he roared, “Who said I wanted a boy?” when reminded that prior to my birth he’d boasted HE was having a son. (No ultrasound back then, folks.)

Daddy was the dominant influence on my life—eventually. It wasn’t till I delivered his eulogy, when I was 50 years old, that I realized he had given me an entire philosophy of life and leadership.

He had many aphorisms I refer to as his Maxisms, including this all-purpose one he repeated to me on hundreds of occasions:

You can do anything your pretty little head desires.

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8 Ways to Erase the “Can Women Have It All?” Question

If it’s so darn hard to be a parent and a CEO, why doesn’t Indra Nooyi resign from PepsiCo?

Nooyi, who receives high marks as a CEO, fell several notches in my estimation as a leader who apparently doesn’t realize the impact her words will have on younger women’s aspirations. And don’t even talk to me about Anne-Marie Slaughter, who firestarted the debate with her incendiary article that got her a tidy book advance and left many women smoldering with guilt. I am so done with her whining about “not having it all” when the rest of us have a mighty hard time mustering sympathy for her life as a tenured professor married to another tenured professor.

I mean, really. All of life for everyone, men and women, is a series of choices. No one has it all, all the time. Everyone has to make decisions about what is important to him or her daily.

But men are never, ever asked whether they can be good parents and CEOs at the same time. I am boycotting The Atlantic, which keeps publishing this tired trope. Let’s not feed the beast.

Let’s have some positive advice for a change.

To be sure, Indra Nooya comes from a culture where she is grappling with traditional role expectations. And even women who grew up in the US and Europe face implicit bias in the workplace and often at home. Women have come far and fast. We are in an unfinished revolution, on an easily interrupted path toward gender parity in leadership. So how do we deal with it?

Instead of handwringing, let’s share with women and men how they can have a life and earn a living, including as fulfilling, high powered career as they want.

I decided to look for helpful advice from the likes of executive coach Kathy Caprino, who like me is sick and tired of stories that tell women they can’t have it all, and worries that these narratives place enormous and unnecessary emotional burdens on women who are already struggling to define their lives and careers.

Caprino gives four wise pointers:

  • Understand that your career – and your life – has seasons. It’s not just all about today—you can have multiple opportunities to fulfill what is most meaningful to you.
  • Be vigilant about how you talk about, your life and career – the lens you use to see it through, and the language you use to describe it—those words have consequences for yourself and others.
  • Third—and I think this one is really key–build a support network and get help when you need it.
  • And finally, stop comparing yourself with others. It’s your life after all. If it makes you happy, who cares what others are doing?
Anna Catalano
Anna Catalano

Anna Catalano, a businesswoman who blogs about leadership, tweeted me a link to her post with four more points of sage advice:

  • The household works on a partnership.  If a woman is holding an incredibly demanding job, then maybe she shouldn’t be made to feel like she has to pick up all the groceries on the way home.  Of course no one can “take the place” of a mother.  But the role of mother doesn’t mean she has to do 100% of everything at home.  Husbands and partners need to be willing to cook, clean, iron, run errands, give baths, and help with homework.
  • The kids need to understand the program.  Kids at a young age will realize that yours is not a “traditional” family.  It’s okay.  They turn out fine.  In fact, kids from these families develop a wonderful set of values that men and women are capable of doing all kinds of things.  What a novel idea.  Mom can work in a business just like dad can, and dad can cook dinner just like mom!  Boys and girls who grow up in this environment have a healthy outlook on gender issues, feel loved by both of their parents, and don’t get hung up on whether someone is there for every soccer game or school play.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself.  Popular culture places incredible pressure on what a woman is supposed to do.  If we’re executives, we’re supposed to be a darling of Wall Street.  At the same time, we’re led to think we have to run a household like Mary Poppins, be a homemaker to rival Martha Stewart, while all the time, look like the cover of a fashion magazine.  Stop feeling guilty about not doing everything perfectly.
  • Ask for help when needed.  It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a privilege that you have earned!  Hire someone to do the things you’d rather not do.  It might be housecleaning, it might be yard work, it might be cooking.  Doing this does not make you a bad wife or mother.  And don’t let anyone make you feel that way.  You are doing amazing things, and you deserve some help.

What about you?

Tell us: What tips do you have for women AND men who love their work and love their families and intend to have satisfying lives with both?

How can we erase the limiting “Can You Have It All?” framing and turn the question into a celebration of the choices we have today as women and as leaders?

Grappling with a problem or have a work/life goal you want to achieve? Create your own personal action plan for your life and leadership. It’s not too late to register for 9 Practical Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career. We have some great group rates for your organization—or create your own group and inquire here.

The Meaning of Crackers, or What Painful Memory Holds You Back?

2013-06-24 18.50.38Stefi materialized like a sea sprite during our first breakfast at the Dubrovnik estate overlooking placid turquoise Adriatic waters. In an uncharacteristically impulsive act, I had purchased four nights for four people in this Croatian paradise at a charity auction. And here we were, absorbing the wonders of this gorgeous place, complete with Nada the amazing chef, a driver—and Stefi.

Until that moment, the four of us–my husband Alex and me and our friends Eileen and Bill–had been giving our full attention to Nada’s spread. There were succulent strawberries, salacious green figs, and juicy peaches that really tasted like the pure, unadulterated produce Croatians speak proudly of maintaining, local yogurts and cheeses, healthy whole grain cereal, and freshly baked sesame bread served with bottomless cups of steaming strong coffee.

Stefi’s appearance roused us from our breakfast bliss.

She skimmed across the garden patio in child-sized yellow Crocs, and planted herself between our table and the kitchen. With a cheery, “Good morning!” she began to weave a captivating narrative.

2013-06-25 19.17.38Unlike the lovely but reserved Nada (whom we later learned from Stefi had once been the national women’s judo champion—appearances can be deceiving), Stefi bubbled. Her full name is Stefica, but the diminutive fits her perfectly. She described herself as “a tiny person” in comparison to typical tall Croatians, suggesting her shortness was one reason why despite her master’s degree in marketing and economics, at age 31 she was still unable to find professional work.

“So I’m mopping floors,” she allowed, with more irony than bitterness. “But,” she quickly continued, “I’m lucky to have this job to support myself. And bit by bit, day by day, I am going forward.  You have to be patient and not become discouraged.”

Who could not love this energetic miniature woman in her Disney themed t-shirt? We peppered her with questions: Where did you learn your English? (in school) Are you married? (No) What job would you like to have? (anything where I could use my marketing skills) Have you tried approaching online marketing services? (I just yesterday applied to Elance! How amazing that you ask me that question today!)

2013-06-26 14.18.29Typical Americans, we began to solve her problems, whether she wanted our help or not. She responded to each word of advice with delight, as though it was a sparkling gem she had never before imagined.

And yet: there was always a “yet.” A reason she could name that made her success unlikely.

Like many of the Croatians we’d met during the first three days of our visit before coming to the villa, Stefi expressed a constricted view of life’s potential.

The country’s long history of avoiding subjugation by paying tributes to stronger forces had been recounted to us by tour guides and books.

But fresher wounds of war stem from the 1990’s Croatian War of Independence that formed the country’s present borders. This personal experience of terror and deprivation remains raw, defining many Croatians’ worldview. It scars most adults’ memories, just as its physical scars remain visible in buildings pock marked or reduced to rubble.

Stefi described her wartime hunger in painful detail, speculating that lack of food during a crucial developmental period had stunted her growth.

“We had nothing to eat but crackers,” she told us.

2013-06-23 14.17.31Crackers came to symbolize the trauma of war. Years later, she recounted, when the villa owner served her a cracker and cheese appetizer. “I saw the crackers and couldn’t breathe,” she said, fanning her face with her hands as if to ward off a fainting spell.

And there was the conundrum. Could she break out of her traumatic victimhood to achieve her stated life goals? Could she change the paradigm of her life view?  Was she wishing for a fairy godmother to transform her struggles with the wave if a wand? Or, having been defined by wartime’s limitations, was she now more comfortable staying put within her own real or perceived barriers?

Could she face down those crackers and move on?

During our short stay at the villa, we became like old friends. Stefi continued to talk with us about many things, while seamlessly making our beds, helping Nada cook and serve, and offering advice on hikes around the area.

But I realized, on the last day when I encouraged her to start a blog in order to build her profile with prospective employers and she quietly replied “Oh, good idea,” with furrowed brow, that she probably would not take action on any of our suggestions.

And I wondered, how often do we all limit ourselves by staying within our mental boundaries because breaking out seems even more painful?

When does the risk of changing what has become our “normal” in life keep us set in psychic stone even when our behavior pattern no longer serves us? How can we become aware when we are so shaped by past struggles that we fail to see today’s opportunity staring us in the face?

What “cracker memories” are holding you back?