I had incredibly high hopes for Tiffany Dufu's Drop the Ball: Achieve More by Doing Less (2017). Dufu, a launch team member for the Lean In initiative and chief leadership officer for the professional network Levo, has long been committed to the success and advancement of women. White men dominate the business/leadership/productivity section of the bookstore.
It's refreshing to see someone acknowledge that the rules and expectations are different for women, especially the idea of getting to “drop the ball,” or cede any assumption of full and all-consuming responsibility is a relief. And particularly as a black woman, often quietly burdened with the expectation of doing even more to be perceived as competent and qualified, someone allowing me to shake that heavy weight is immeasurably important.
I was with Dufu from the beginning: “I wish I had known that I was far from being the only woman struggling with competing work-life demands.” Yet, as I read the opening pages, some of my excitement turned to dismay. Many of the solutions offered in Drop the Ball were tailored to women with husbands, creating systems to share the workload with them, and otherwise framing said solutions in what a husband can do to help. While I don't begrudge her this approach, and recognize its need for many women, it did leave me wondering: so, can single women drop the ball?
Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016), marked a 2009 shift in demographics that is key to this discussion: “For the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or separated) outnumbered married women.” She adds, “Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising twelve percentage points in less than a decade.” While all women need permission to shed the weight of perceived perfection, this might appear differently if one is single rather than married.
Of course, women who are married with children need permission to drop the ball, but so do divorced women with children. Or deliberately unpartnered women with children. And yes, even single women who are childless need space to drop balls now and again. Traister speaks specifically to them elsewhere in her book, writing, “These women are not waiting for their real lives to start; they are living their lives, and those lives include as many variations as there are women.” Lives have innumerable variations, so there should be variation in how we manage personal and professional expectations.
Key to the alleviation of Dufu's stress and worry was finding a way to get a handle on household tasks. As a mother of two, these tasks piled up often as she sought to balance them with her own work, with (at first) relatively little help from her husband. But single women will also have some version of these tasks to get done, and in the absence of a spouse or partner the division of labor is likely less clear—if not impossible.
Dufu created an Excel spreadsheet that listed every task that was needed in order to run her home. Housework, car maintenance, correspondence, and other routine tasks were all listed. Then, she made columns for whose purview each task would fall under: hers, her husband's, and a crucial column—“no one.” The “no one” column would become crucial, because if all tasks were assigned and “no one” tasks remained, the pair could deem them nonessential, and then no one could feel guilt or shame for not doing them.
For single women, the assignment process could look different: which tasks are friends willing to help with? Which tasks could a parent, babysitter, or neighbor help with? And, if you're truly going it alone, these columns could then come to represent when or how often these tasks get done. Maybe deep kitchen cleaning happens on alternating weekends with deep bathroom cleaning, rather than both happening at once. Maybe volunteering is quarterly rather than monthly (or, the inverse, should you choose to prioritize it). Bottom line: this system can work when done without a spouse; it's just a matter of deciding what will dictate how tasks are assigned.
Encourage Your Ecosystem
Dufu's construct of networks goes deeper than just having a mentor, she speaks about support-providing ecosystems, “interdependent and [requiring] nurturing to expand. It takes an ecosystem to propel a career.” Devoting time to growing and deepening these relationships can provide the support that those without spouses often need for personal growth, as well as professional encouragement.
She speaks of Sage Mentors, who have been around the block more times than us and can offer context when we make decisions; Peer Mentors, who are closer in age but can offer different perspective from what we see and experience; Sponsors, “who are willing to use their social and political capital to lobby for our success”; Promoters, who typically cheer from the sidelines (“you should totally go for that!”) and are willing to leap into action when we need them to; and Mentees, who we can get as much from as we are willing to give in service of their development.
These five categories of people, along with other people like family members, neighbors, friends, babysitters and what Dufu terms “Specialists” (think mechanics, tailors, dry cleaners, etc.) can help provide a sense of structure and safety that allows us to drop balls on occasion, knowing that they'll be picked up.
It's OK to Do OK
One of my all-time favorite online videos is of a little girl in the backseat of her dad's car, insistent that she can unbuckle her seatbelt on her own. Her dad offers to help a few times, but she's insistent on doing it herself. As he reaches his hand back, she bats it away, stating indignantly, “Worry about yourself!” Her dad laughed, continuing to try to help, only to be greeted with more steadfast calls to “worry about yourself!”
This isn't me encouraging you to refuse help; it's more about the advice that she dispensed to her dad. Too many of us feel guilt or shame about how we're existing and advancing in the world, because of how we believe others exist or advance in the same space. Compared to others and how they work, live, or appear, how can we be expected to succeed? But Dufu speaks to this as she continued to negotiate her own sense of balance and peace:
You know what happens when something new happens to you—you get a new car, a new pair of shoes, you get visibly pregnant—and all of a sudden you start noticing tons of Jettas, Chloe scalloped slip-ons, and waddling bellies? That's what happens when we Drop the Ball too. All of a sudden, we start running into women who confidently declare, “I stopped cleaning the top of my refrigerator years ago.”
That sense of perfection you're seeing or perceiving in the women around you is likely just that—only a sense of it. There are considerably more women dropping the ball than you might think. Worrying about yourself, how you can reasonably negotiate all the balls presently in the air, is an OK thing to ask of one another. Helping one another to juggle in a way that helps us all live well is even better. Because the chance to juggle differently or at varying speeds—and yes, drop the ball every now and again—is something all women, regardless of marital status, should be able to enjoy.