Many women find it difficult to leave their infants on that first day back from maternity leave, but I was not one of them. I loved my work. I have always been a passionate advocate for the advancement of women and girls, and I had been offered my dream job directing the fundraising efforts of a national women’s leadership organization. The salary was enough to allow me the peace of mind that comes with leaving a child in the hands of a skilled and loving caregiver—a privilege too many working mothers cannot afford—and I had even negotiated for a private room where I could pump breast milk.
As I got dressed for that first morning back, I couldn’t imagine I’d have to compromise on anything: career, marriage, raising a family, keeping our home life running smoothly while advancing the cause of women and girls. I left my apartment confident I would be successful doing it all. That illusion lasted six hours.
Work was a whirlwind. I was so consumed with getting up to speed and running from meeting to meeting that by the time I realized I’d forgotten to pump, milk was leaking through my blouse onto my suit jacket. To add insult to injury, the “private room” I had negotiated turned out to be a bathroom stall.
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There I was, kneeling on the floor of the stall in my drenched silk blouse and designer suit, tears streaming down my face and milk streaming from my body. My vision of a future in which I gracefully managed both career and home had been obliterated.
On the suffocating train ride home from Wall Street to 125th Street in Harlem, the reality of my new circumstances began to sink in. If I was too consumed at the office to remember to do something as essential as pump milk for my baby, what else was going to fall through the cracks? How was all of this going to get done?
Over the course of my career, I’ve been heartened by the growing support for women’s empowerment in the workplace. But I’m mindful that while efforts to encourage women to keep their feet on the gas pedal of their professional lives or to better equip and incentivize workplaces to support their female employees are vital—they don’t give guilt-ridden and exhausted women a practical, actionable solution to juggling the competing demands of work and home.
This realization came to me at the end of 2013. That year, I spoke on sixty stages to a total of nearly twenty thousand women, usually about what individuals and organizations can do to diversify leadership. Regardless of the content of my talk or the composition of my audience, the most common question at the end of my lectures was always personal: “How do you manage everything you do?”
In response, I would say, “I expect far less of myself and way more of my husband than the average woman!” That always got a laugh. Then I’d solicit what I thought were more pressing questions about how to navigate office politics or reform corporate and government policies. But despite my best intentions, women were inevitably eager to return to the logistics of my personal life. Details that seemed mundane to me—like how my husband and I coordinated school drop-offs or camp shopping lists or evening work events—seemed fascinating to them.
One day, after fielding yet another question about my own balancing act, I had an epiphany: When women asked, “How do you manage it all?” they were really wondering, “How can I manage it all?” Drop the Ball is the story of my three-year journey to answer that question—to figure out what really mattered to me, how to achieve it, and what support structures I needed to put in place to make it possible.
The helplessness and confusion I felt that night after my first day back at work is not uncommon; many women have home lives that become more demanding and time consuming at the very point when their careers need the most attention, energy, and creativity. Between all of our meetings, carpools, texts, emails, phone calls, laundry loads, playdates, working out (or guilt over not working out), women are doing enough. On any given day, most of us are trying to do the impossible. This is why we are so tired and stressed.
Doing the one thing we are often afraid of—dropping the ball—is our only solution.
The first ball we must drop is our unrealistic expectation about who we’re supposed to be. Too many women feel an invisible pressure to live up to a set of roles, the pursuit of which makes life exhausting. Mine were “good sister,” “good daughter,” “good wife,” “good mother,” “good student,” “good employee,” “good friend,” and “good citizen.” In order to relieve this pressure we have to get clear about what matters most to us. We have to decide who we want to be and redefine these roles in a way that works for us personally.
The second ball is our unrealistic expectation about what we’re supposed to do. Each one of my roles had a long list of to-dos to accompany it—everything from cooking a week of homemade meals on Sunday to saying yes to every young woman who asked me to mentor them to returning texts from any of my family members within minutes of receipt. I was spinning. Eventually I learned that what you do is less important than the difference you make. Once we’re clear about what matters most to us we can prioritize our to-do list so that we’re not so overwhelmed.
The final ball? Releasing the fear of asking for help—and learning to delegate with joy. This was the most surprising part of my journey, because I discovered that dropping the ball—and inviting others to pick it up—strengthened my relationships with everyone who’s come to my aid. My husband is the one I most often turn to for help, and our all-in partnership at home has allowed me to flourish at work and in life.
I wrote Drop the Ball to help women address the pain points we have in our personal lives, but I want women to know that their individual problem is a collective one, too. Today, women are half of the workforce, but at our current rate, it will take one hundred years for women to be half of our leaders. The very future of our society rests on women’s ability to get past middle management and to thrive in the process. We need a Drop the Ball movement— not just to prevent working mothers from crashing but to fast-forward history.
Tiffany Dufu is the author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less, was a Launch Team member to Lean In and is Chief Leadership Officer to Levo, the network for millennial professionals. She’s a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, a sought after speaker on women’s leadership and has presented at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, MAKERS and TEDWomen.