My Story of Struggle as a Woman in the WorkplaceMar 10, 2023
Just a few short years ago I remember a very specific conversation I had with my boss at the time about my development. I had asked for feedback on how I could keep growing to get future promotion opportunities. Being the head of talent management, I’d completed the requisite development plan template, provided all my own insights into my development and asked for the conversation. When he eventually decided to have the conversation, it was at the end of a tactical cadence, not a pre-planned separately scheduled meeting.
I’ll never forget the suggested area of development he provided feedback on…my social media leadership presence. What posts was he referring to? Why was he giving me this feedback? His feedback highlighted to me one of the challenges women face when asking for feedback and development opportunities.
Background Leading up to my Social Media Post
Let me paint the picture a bit. In May of 2019, I was 8 months pregnant with twins and my son was physically abused by our nanny, the one I had trusted my son with for the past 3 years. The day I saw the camera footage is one I’ll never forget – my heart nearly stopped. We had to let her go immediately, I couldn’t allow my son to experience one more day of her abuse. I had to find a new childcare plan both for my son and for my twin girls. I scrambled to find someone before they came. I tried to stay calm, I had two little baby girls in my belly and I intended to keep them in as long as I could. And I did!
I made it to 38 weeks with my twin girls before my doctor insisted, I have a c-section on June 27, 2019. My babies were born healthy but struggled to gain weight in those early days. I was breast-feeding them and doing everything I could to give them what they needed. After 4 days in the hospital holding my belly so my guts wouldn’t fall out, tandem feeding twin babies, trying to squeeze in sleep, and still recovering from the bleeding, they discharged me. My twins were little – just under 5lbs when we left the hospital. On the day we were discharged I took the mental health assessment (the one they give every mom). I answered the questions truthfully. I failed the assessment.
The nurses weren’t going to allow me to leave the hospital. Thankfully, my doctor (also a twin mom) insisted I was ok to leave and overrode their decision. As you can imagine, twin pregnancies have significantly more hormones and after birth the drop can create serious post-partum symptoms. I cried all the way home from the hospital.
When you feed two babies there isn’t another breast to empty and save as pumped milk. As a result, I didn’t have any extra milk, no one else but me could feed the babies. They continued to gain weight and were eating well but it was very stressful in those early days. Because twins are born early and typically smaller, they take longer to make it through the night. It’s a bit foggy now but I am pretty sure I was still waking up to do middle of the night feedings when they were 8/9 months old.
For weeks on end, I got at most 3 hours of sleep at once. At some point, my mental health became more serious. I felt as though I were losing my mind, the waves of overwhelm and sadness were unbearable. I was a positive, high achieving, happy, loving life person before the babies. After, I was a person almost unrecognizable. My husband called my family and told them all he needed everyone to persuade me to get medication from the doctor. They did, and I began taking anti-depressants. They were truly a life saver and I am so grateful I had that option.
I remember attending a sales meeting in October, I stayed in the hotel and brought my twins (my new nanny and mom) so that I could feed them throughout the day and overnight. I was also sick from stress and not sleeping but I felt I needed to be at this event and no one told me I could skip it or stay home. I ended up losing my voice and getting mastitis as a result of coming back at this time. Later that month, the first time I tried to return to work, my dog suddenly got diagnosed with bone cancer and three days later I had to put her to sleep, she died after 14 years with me.
My maternity leave ended after four months (I claimed an extra month since I had two babies and not one!) I started trying to return to work that November. The stress was unbelievable. Trying to feed two babies, getting ready in the morning, preparing to pump at work, actually pumping at work – it was all just too much. I still had not slept a full night (maximum sleep I had at once was 4 hours). Out of desperation, I declared it was time to supplement with formula. I needed a break and I couldn’t pump as much as my girls needed when I was away from them.
The first time my mom and husband gave them formula was while I was at work in a leadership team meeting in November. I started getting texts 30 to 45 minutes later.
“Don’t panic but the girls are vomiting.”
I did panic.
The first time we thought maybe it was a fluke.
I shared on social media that day my struggle with explaining my challenges returning to work to the rest of the leadership team. I had to explain why I wasn’t returning to the office full-time and had to adjust my schedule. It was hard and humiliating and I felt like I was failing.
The second time my husband decided to try formula again while I was leading a training. Once again, the texts. Once again running home to feed them.
This time I was growing suspicious we had a problem. I was familiar with FPIES (food protein intolerance) because my niece had it very badly as a baby. Essentially, its an extreme allergy to dairy where exposure causes projectile vomiting for many hours. We tried multiple different formulas to see if any of them would work…no matter what we tried the girls through up for hours.
I had to accept that my babies could not have formula. I would need to keep feeding them and I probably couldn’t do it alone (especially with having to go to work). I thankfully found women who were willing to donate their breastmilk to my babies. Their donated milk saved my life in so many ways. Without it, I am confident my career would have ended immediately. I couldn’t not give my babies my milk when they so desperately needed it.
After the holidays in January is when I really started trying to get back into the office more regularly. I did my best to pump and juggle work. I even wore Elvie wearable breast pumps and pumped during meetings and while leading trainings (without anyone noticing).
I still wasn’t sleeping.
I was beyond stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
But I was pushing myself back to work.
The former president had just retired, and the new president (my new boss) was now the leader. I knew he would be making promotion decisions soon and that how I performed and got back to work was really important.
On January 23, 2020 I was in a very dark place and I posted this on my Facebook social media account:
“Everyday is a battle to just survive. And lately I’ve been losing.”
I was struggling in a major way. This was one of the social media posts my boss would later refer to.
Then of course the pandemic hits in March of 2020.
As leader of legal, HR, & IT, it was extremely stressful adding to what was already an extremely stressful situation. Months of not knowing what was true and what wasn’t and the struggles with deciding what to do about childcare. We lost our nanny and my parents began caring for my twins while my sister took my son. My sister, a nurse practitioner, quit her job so she could protect her kids and stay home.
I can’t even talk about all the stresses that occurred during those months as I’ve tried to forget about them.
Then, my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer and we started looking at surgery and what would happen next.
After all of these many months of stress, on July 25, 2020, I wrote this post on Facebook:
“I’m just really not good right now. I try so hard to keep it together and stay positive and it all just feels black right now…this is a dumb social media post but I don’t feel like there is anyone to call or anywhere to turn. I just needed to feel a little less alone.”
This was one of my darkest moments.
The stress I’d been under for over a year was intense and overwhelming.
Even with antidepressants and all my mindset skills, I was an overworked, exhausted, lonely mama surviving in the middle of a pandemic.
That day, I truly wanted to give up and find a way out of it all. The support I received from that post literally saved my life. The people who responded did make me feel less alone. The other women (and mothers) heard my plea and knew it because they too were feeling it.
Back to the Development Conversation
Let’s return now to that development conversation with my former boss. As a reminder I was looking for feedback on how I could continue to grow and develop into more opportunities in the future.
His only feedback was on “my social media leadership presence.” He expressed concern that my posts were not indicative of a leader and that I should “find other avenues” for sharing my struggles and challenges. Someone had brought my posts to his attention and expressed concern. He felt my personal sharing of challenges were inappropriate of a leader.
In the moment, I received his feedback as professionally as I could (he was my boss after all). I accepted and expressed I would not share such personal sentiment on social media again.
But holy hell did I struggle with his feedback.
His complete lack of empathy or concern for what was happening that led me to write that post.
His being totally oblivious to the many struggles I’d been trying to mask and downplay for months.
His judgement of my desperate plea of help.
His disregard for my life and lack of "other avenues."
Not to mention, the lack of feedback on what could help me truly develop and take on new opportunities.
Our Choices as Women
As women, we are often caught between two very hard choices.
- Share our actual state of stress, overwhelm, and current circumstances with our male bosses who likely won’t fully understand and risk their judgement or decision to ‘cut back our responsibilities’ to reduce stress.
- Or keep quiet, make everything seem like you have it under control, your fine, you can do it and maybe, just maybe they will find you competent for the promotion or opportunity you’ve been wanting.
These choices are terrible.
We shouldn’t be faced with only these two options.
Millions of women left the workplace either during 2020 or in 2021 due to similar challenges as I’ve outlined in my own experience and many far greater than mine. Even if we’ve returned in some capacity to the workplace, we are not the same. We've suffered so much trauma either due to the pandemic or the other many challenges women face in their lives.
We want so desperately to have our careers and be successful in them.
We want to perform well and make a difference in the world and our workplaces.
We want to know how to develop and grow.
We want to have opportunities for growth even amidst our struggles.
We want to be cared about.
We want our bosses to recognize and understand our struggles.
We want to not have to justify our challenges or struggles.
We want to be free to express ourselves authentically.
We want to not be afraid of our boss's harsh judgement if we share our truths.
The Consequences of our Choices
I posted an article about how all these experiences led to my burnout. To my now having health challenges that I have to deal with regularly. To the serious long-term challenges that come from autoimmune disease.
To a life that has been permanently altered by a past experience I didn’t know enough to recognize was leading me directly into my burnout experience.
On this International Women’s Day, I wanted to address just a few of the challenges women face in the workplace. Workplaces (with very few exceptions) who do a terrible job of creating an environment that optimizes performance, reduces stress, and prevents burnout. Especially for women.
If we want to see a different outcome for women everywhere, we must change the systems and structures that are causing the result.
We must evolve our workplace systems and structures to account for what truly creates performance results.
We must begin to recognize what we’ve been missing:
- An approach that truly creates more capacity by treating people as living beings rather than machines.
- An approach that optimizes energy levels not systems or processes.
- An approach that addresses root issues rather than surface level behaviors.
- An approach that creates transformational growth with a long-term impact.
- An approach that does all of this while honoring the unique experience, background, and lives of the people (and women) who are performing.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. The challenges women face in the workplace are very real and often not recognized sometimes not even by the women themselves. Women alone cannot be the catalyst for change. Rather, we collectively must acknowledge that our current systems and structures are not creating the best possible results for our workplaces, families, communities, and certainly women.
The time for change is now.
The knowledge and practices to optimize performance in our workplaces exists and now it’s time to put them into use.
For all the women out there in the workplace struggling or facing any of the issues I've mentioned or the others that exist:
I see you.
I know your silent struggles.
I honor your contributions.
I acknowledge all your efforts.
I recognize you are doing a tremendous job (even if no one else does)!
And I am always here.
Always a resource.
Always a fellow woman warrior trying to make a difference.
If you need support, please reach out to me!
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