Callie Enlow — In the Balance
“You get up, you get other people ready, you get to the office. If you’re at a certain level, you’re basically in meetings all day. There are things you need to do, you write them down, you think that you’re going to get them done at the end of the day before you leave but you end up rushing out of the office to go relieve your childcare provider. You get home and you take care of your family, then you get back online and catch up on the email.” Sound familiar?
This revolving-door hustle of caregiving and professional catch-up was Tiffany Dufu’s life. Dufu, currently chief leadership officer at Levo, is a longtime advocate for women’s rights and was part of the launch team for Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book encouraging women leaders in business. But it was her own struggles to meet the demands of her home, her job, and her family that inspired her memoir-manifesto Drop the Ball.
During talks to promote Lean In, Dufu appeared polished and peppy, sprinkling details about her loving family and kickass career into her speeches. “I would largely focus on the public policies and corporate practices that we need in order for women to bring their full selves to the table and be able to thrive,” Dufu told me via phone. Despite the focus of those speeches, “during the Q&A period, the first set of questions I would always get were personal questions that, to me, had nothing to do with what I was talking about.” In short, the women in the audience wanted to know how Dufu managed to “have it all.”
“I have this one-liner I would give … ‘Oh I just expect way more from my husband and far less from myself than the average woman.’ I would get a few laughs and then I would try to move the audience on to what I thought were more substantive questions,” said Dufu. But it dawned on her that all these women asking the same questions were really telling her that the biggest barriers preventing them from “leaning in” weren’t in the office, they were at home. She thought, “if your life’s work is advancing women and girls, you owe women a better answer to this question than the one-liner.”
That was the seed for Drop the Ball, which shares the three-year backstory of that one-line answer. Dufu was once an overwhelmed new mother juggling a career and a seemingly unengaged spouse, wondering if she’d ever get a break from her “life-go-round” to fulfill the ambitious goals she set for herself as a young woman. She had great career opportunities in front of her, but without the money to hire a slew of domestic staff or nearby family members on call, Dufu could feel her home life gradually overtaking her lifelong aspirations.
In the book, Dufu describes a turning point shortly after the birth of her first son when she realized all the domestic duties she shouldered were allowing her husband Kojo to continue in his career but hindering hers. Not only that, she was seething with resentment at how unfair it was. “More than I hated doing laundry,” Dufu writes, “I hated the fact that I had to do it—that somehow this household task, along with so many others, was on my plate even though I’d never signed up for it.”
To get to where she is today, Dufu had to let go of the unrealistic expectations placed on women, figure out how to inspire Kojo to contribute more to their household, and create other ways to delegate the nonessential tasks that were dragging her down.
There’s a reason why this is the only productivity book that has a forward by Gloria freaking Steinem. Dufu’s work is a one-two punch, articulating the many problems that overwhelm working women and pointing out their patriarchal roots. She writes: “Most modern women scoff at the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. And yet, many women still focus obsessively on everything about it—how it’s organized, how it’s managed, and how the cooking, cleaning, and caretaking get done, right down to the smallest detail.” To Dufu, this societally-induced “home control disease” is directly impairing women, especially mothers, from succeeding in the wider world. “Who would be motivated to run a multimillion-dollar company when she’s too exhausted from running her own house?” Dufu asks.
Drop the Ball came to me after I’d failed at just about every time management strategy available. One day it hit me that all of the books and lectures I’d consumed on the topic were written by men, and none of them ever addressed the nonstop chores and caregiving tasks that ate away at my “free time.” These duties are somehow simultaneously considered worthless and invisible (they’re not paid tasks, and when was the last time you used “I have to scrub my floors” as an excuse to your boss) as well as essential and non-negotiable (it boggles the mind how often driving kids to school and activities is portrayed as exemplary parenting).
Dufu’s book, by contrast, is all about the daily grind. That’s one of the book’s great strengths: she takes those “small details” seriously—the ones that lead to simmering spats with our partners and linger in our brains when we should be falling asleep—and shares her own, often hilarious, experiences trying to manage them. It’s a relief to know that this smart, sophisticated woman wasn’t above letting pounds of meat rot in the fridge waiting for Kojo to take on the responsibility of moving it to the freezer (it didn’t work).
Her actionable solutions and important concepts are capitalized in true self-help book style, including Delegate with Joy (don’t be ashamed to ask for help), Management Excel List (a list that tracks household responsibilities), and, of course, Drop the Ball (stop stressing over tasks that don’t meaningfully contribute to your goals). But otherwise, Dufu avoids giving her harried readers more stuff to do in terms of exercises, worksheets, and other staples of the genre.
Almost subconsciously, I’ve put some of these tactics to work. For instance, my husband Ben is theoretically happy to cook about half our meals, but somehow planning our weekly grocery run still largely fell to me. One day, after he returned from the store—but without any ingredients for meals he would prepare —I remembered Dufu’s advice to avoid “imaginary delegation” in favor of clearly articulating your needs and why they matter. I snapped out of my usual sulky death stare and said, “I feel like you assume that I’m going to pick up the slack when we inevitably run out of dinners this week, but it takes me a lot of time to come up with recipes and what we need to buy.” Ben replied, “OK, I’ll figure it out and just go to the store later in the week.” And while there was a little part of me screaming, “but that’s so inefficient!,” (a symptom of home control disease), I just let it go. We survived. Now Ben’s got us on an app where we share recipes and a grocery list, which, I have to admit, is pretty damn efficient.
But this isn’t just a book about how married women can ultimately better run their homes by better managing their spouses—at all. Dufu challenges readers to engage not just their partners, but their friends, neighbors, and other family members to pick up the balls they need to drop. For Dufu, and likely for most readers, unshackling your self-worth from the state of your hardwood floors or how often you pack your child’s lunch requires a fundamental shift in mindset. Dufu told me about a recent experience she had during a book-signing for Drop the Ball, when a woman asked to pray with Dufu. “I say ‘OK I’m into prayer, this is wonderful’… and she begins her prayer ‘dear heavenly father, thank you for sending us permission,’” Dufu recalled. “It just really hit me that if you are socially conditioned to believe that you need to follow the rules, that you need to aspire to fulfill these really unrealistic expectations of what it means to be successful, then you would need a permission slip to break the rules. Part of what this book is doing is giving women an official permission slip to say to themselves first and then to others, ‘your expectations of me are just humanly impossible and I’m going to recreate those expectations in order to fit what really matters most to me.’”
By doing this, Dufu found that she—and hopefully the women and girls she seeks to inspire—has more energy to get back on track with those big life goals, a process covered in the last chapters of the book. “The first part of the book is how you can drop the ball,” Dufu told me. “But then with the bandwidth that’s freed up from dropping the ball, I don’t want you to just go to work and do things the same way you’ve done before.” Indeed, it’s pretty incredible what you can achieve when you, like Dufu, expect more of your loved ones and less of yourself.