This week’s lesson was to remember to look after myself.
I was a speaker at ‘Empower’, an event hosted last Sunday by a company called The Sisterhood. Before my turn, Thokozile James, one of the organizers, unexpectedly called up a woman to the microphone. Recently widowed and a mother of three children, she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. Watching her, my heart sent a shiver right down my arms to the backs of my fingertips. Unobtrusively, I clenched and unclenched my hands in the face of that killer word, cancer, and its creeping intimacy with so many of our lives.
‘I used to be the last in the office’, she said to us.’ I missed doctor’s appointments because I was busy with work, a degree and children. I put my health last’. Listening to her, I felt my whole rib cage open as if someone was reaching in to grab my heart. I was filled with recognition. ‘Finally’, she said, ‘before I left the office late one evening, I got myself the first appointment with a cancer testing caravan. I was first in line that morning and I am telling you now that I will survive’.
I looked at this courageous, articulate professional woman, committed to her job for more than a decade, but ultimately recognizing that only life matters, and wondered what it would take for her lesson to matter to me.
Over forty now, I too work far too much, exercise too little, and keep going even when I should stop. For some reason, whether it’s from Ziya’s age or starting primary school or my own exhaustion, or both, I’ve had the flu four or five times this year, maybe more, I’ve forgotten, not for more than a few days, and low grade rather than debilitating. Through all those times, I’ve taken cold tablets and keep working, driving coughing or feverish through traffic to get to meetings it seemed crucial to attend, and managing deadlines and teaching responsibilities, despite feeling run down and run over.
Though having long proven myself to be a super-committed professional, taking more than one day to recover, knowing that it might not fit with an office plan, felt like a betrayal of my reputation and the job, as if I was risking being seen as undeserving, irresponsible or unreliable, one of those people bosses warn about not meeting expectations. Amidst this vicious circle of overwork and insufficient recovery, I wondered, is there a point at which women, like the one now speaking to us, who get awards for their loyalty and dedication, can stop proving themselves? Is there at point at which putting your health first becomes something other a negotiation with potential reproach?
Just hours later, I woke up at 3am with a sharply sore throat. Armed with cold tablets, I went to work on Monday. By evening, I knew I couldn’t make it again the next day, on a schedule that meant getting up at 5.30am to get Ziya to school and getting home later than 7.30pm after a meeting. I was about to travel to a conference and back, putting in almost 40 hours of travel time in just four days this week, and I knew I would reach back to work on Monday like a dead woman walking.
It was this woman’s reality that made me stop. If I didn’t listen now, when would I learn? If I didn’t get better, wouldn’t it keep getting worse? And, how would not fully recovering undermine my very professionalism with such low grade, continual effects on my ideas, energy, productivity and efficiency? Who would be blamable in the end, but me?
My own speech that afternoon emphasized that, as women, we all have funny, awkward, dark, sad, passionate, inspiring, life-long learning stories, of making mistakes, failing at getting everything right, falling down before we get up and dust off, feeling guilty, surviving emotional or other damage, and more. However, the story that shook me between my ribs was this woman’s. I learned what I hope I remember, defend and know is right. When women, especially mothering workers, must put ourselves first, no demands matter above our health and life.