My mother and the art of belonging

Mami’s life came with many lessons, many of which I learned after she left us. Today is the May 7th — the 30 month mark (where did 2.5 years go?) and next week is Mother’s Day. So… she’s been more top-of-mind than ever.

Recently I’ve been exploring imposter syndrome with the beautiful souls on my email list, and the question of “belonging” came up for me. So, I thought I’d tell you about the time Mami — my mother — took me to a fancy party.

From 7th to 12th grade, I commuted from the South Bronx into Manhattan and attended fancy private schools with the children of NYC’s wealthy and elite. As a kid from a working-class household, navigating private school often felt like walking a tightrope. And at the beginning of 10th grade — sweet 16 season! — one of my classmates invited our entire grade to a big 16th birthday bash at the swanky New York Athletic Club.

The party was on a Friday after a short school day. I was able to go home from school to the Bronx and stop at the salon before getting home to pack an overnight bag (post-birthday bash slumber party!) and throw on one of my sister’s party dresses — a gold-flecked black slinky number — it was the 80s!

I was a latchkey kid, which means I got home and got myself ready for the party. Once Mami got home from work, I had a little bite to eat. At that time I took the subway by myself to school, but it was a totally different story to allow me to travel that way in the evening in a fancy dress. My parents agreed that it was best for my father to drive me downtown instead of having me take the train by myself.

So I waited. And waited. And he never showed.

This happened sometimes.

Mami was pissed off. But she decided to sacrifice her relaxing Friday evening to take me into Manhattan in a cab. This was before Uber and cell phones and even now, there are no yellow cabs in the Bronx.

Getting a safe taxi in an outer borough at that time meant you needed to call a local car service. So she did.

And off we went.

I was excited for the party but worried about my mother. We didn’t have money — she worked a clerical job at a public hospital. The train was too dangerous to take back up to the South Bronx. How would she pay for the cab ride back home? Mami assured me that she would be able to drop me off and then take a taxi home, and that I shouldn’t worry.

When we arrived at the New York Athletic Club, she insisted on walking me into the building.

I felt very self-conscious.

Mami was older — 57 at the time with a silver head of hair — and she was usually mistaken for my grandmother. Plus she had a thick Spanish accent. And not for nothing: how would it look for my mom to walk me into a party?

We didn’t belong.

Panicked at the opulence of the place and how much I — how much WE — didn’t fit in, I insisted on walking to the elevators without her and told her I didn’t need her to walk me.

I think that hurt Mami. But she respected my decision despite her worry (even the doorman assured us in Spanish that it was really easy to get to the party). So she said OK and after reassuring me again that she would take a cab home, I thanked her and walked through the lobby that was something out of The Gilded Age.

As an adult, I think about that night in that lobby as I walked away from my mother.

I felt:

  • Fearful that I I’d get lost and not find the party,
  • Embarrassed that I needed to be dropped off by my mother,
  • Self-consciousness about what people might think of me — could they see I didn’t belong?
  • And finally, I felt a little proud because I knew I was afraid, but I walked in anyway.

And I also think about what Mami must have felt.

Because she lied. She couldn’t afford a taxi home, so after she left me she made her way to the subway and rode home.

Mami had a terrible sense of direction, so I imagine it was not easy for her to figure out which way to walk. I know she was uncomfortable being in that position — getting into a cab and then on the train after a long day at work on her Friday night, and then walking through our rough neighborhood in the evening as it got dark.

She didn’t admit any of this to me for over 20 years.

Mami was the most well-read person I’ve ever met AND she was an immigrant who spoke broken English.

Those who knew her were impressed at her knowledge, her sense of humor and her intelligence.

But there were always the outliers, people who couldn’t see past the broken English or her support-type job, who made assumptions and comments.

As a teenager, I was keenly aware of how she was perceived.

And I know it made her feel bad. I was born here and I still didn’t feel like I belonged in certain spaces.

Imagine Mami — she got her visa to come to this country on November 22nd, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By the time she got here, Camelot was over and the tumultuous 1960s were in full force.

Belonging was difficult for Mami in a lot of spaces and places in New York, especially around people with money, or people who judged accented English, or people who just forgot that the U.S. is a country of immigrants.

But despite all that, she sure as hell was determined to give everything she had so that her children could feel at home in situations that included luxurious surroundings and fancy people and wherever else we wanted to be.

I didn’t appreciate her efforts then, like most teenagers. But years later, I thanked her and I still do today.

Because whenever I’m feeling those uncomfortable feelings: imposter syndrome, being a fish out of water, NOT BELONGING… I remind myself that someone loved me enough to get really uncomfortable so that I could go to a nice fancy birthday party. And I had fun while she braved the 2 train home.

This month — the anniversary, Mother’s Day — is reverberating in my head and I miss Mami terribly. She was brave and willing to try new things even though they were scary. So now, I have to forge through uncomfortable feelings and allow myself to grow, too. Because someone loved me enough to make it possible for me to belong at that party.

How about you? Are there places or situations you’re shying away from just because you worry whether you belong or whether they’re “for you?”

I believe that what you are looking for, is looking for you. And whether or not you believe it too, I want you to consider that it might be true for you, too.

There are people who love you, sacrificed for you, and paved the way for you, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not. So feel your fears and move forward anyway, just like I did in that enormous marble lobby and just like Mami did when she got dressed again to take me downtown while knowing she didn’t have enough money to get home comfortably.

Belonging is a verb. So take heart and go do it. You got this.

The high cost of staying put

The high cost of staying put

Growing up, I saw my mother unhappy at work. There was a lot of political stuff at her office (it's perennial, I know), people one-upping each other and plenty of discrimination.

There weren't many protections in the workplace like we have now, and even if there were, she was a single mom and wouldn't have risked rocking the boat – anything to avoid retaliation or worse – unemployment.

I would ask Mami (Spanish for "Mommy" – pronounced the same way) why she didn't find another job and go somewhere else. But she always put me off.

Mami was stuck.

For 17 years, she languished at the Community Affairs office at the local hospital, underpaid, exploited and overshadowed by people who weren't blessed with her quickness or intelligence.

But they did have better English skills and more importantly, the confidence to wield their language and positional power to stay on top, all while depending on Mami to run everything.

She would say she stayed because of the job security and the proximity to home (across the street!).

But years after she retired, she confessed to me the real reason she stayed.

She was scared. And it broke my heart.

Then years later it happened to me, too.

There were a few years where I was in a job that was killing me… and not softly. But we were in a recession, jobs were tough to get, it was close to home and we desperately needed the money… sound familiar?

In those years, Mami lived outside of New York, so she didn't really have a sense of what was going on. But when I confided in her, she reacted quickly!

She said I needed to stop settling, get going, start looking, and see what was out there. I needed to MOVE.

Because she knew what happens when you don't move. You get stuck.

You know this to be true. Remember the first year of the pandemic? Where you didn't move for months and then all of a sudden everything hurt? You know exactly what I mean.

It's inertia, plain and simple… "a disposition to remain inactive or inert."

Inertia takes over your body, your mind, your relationships, and your career.

Unless you move or take action.

So what does movement or taking action mean in your career?

It means your career is active, not passive.

It's about more than just waiting for your 3% raise every year – if you get a raise at all. It has to do with keeping up with trends, understanding where your industry is headed, and maintaining or increasing your skills and your engagement in the work.

It also means knowing when you're disconnected and need to walk away to do something new, whether that means you get a new employer or enter a new industry altogether.

And it means you do scary things in the name of YOU and for your own sake.

Because success is when preparation meets opportunity and the most frightening acts you can make are making the decision to prepare yourself and then saying yes to opportunity.

Mami wasn't prepared.She was too frightened of the unknown. And for a while, I was, too. But she knew to push me, and it worked.

I was so blinded by my desperation and hopelessness around my work that I didn't realize it would take courage to move forward.

So I took it one step at a time: preparing myself by getting my resume together, applying to positions that fit and some that didn't, and asking around to see if anyone knew of any jobs.

Eventually I was able to move on and up, and Mami was really proud of me for doing what she couldn't.

So…. do you need a push to move?

If so, consider this your call to action. If you don't like where you are, move. If you're not in a good place, move.

Just take that first step. Mami is not with us anymore, but she believed in me, and I believe in you.

Quiet Quitting – or, the decline of the Go-Getter

Quiet Quitting – or, the decline of the Go-Getter

Everyone is talking about Quiet Quitting, with many people feeling puzzled that the phrase is even a "thing" because it means people are doing their jobs and nothing more.

Basically, a quiet quitter is someone who's lost their "go-getter" energy – if they ever had it. There are lots of reasons all over the web as to why this is happening, but I think a disturbing trend I'm hearing from friends and clients could be a major factor in this movement.

Some background: as we – the collective "we" – navigate the collective trauma brought on by the pandemic, political upheaval and climate change (to name a few emergencies), most companies are talking about employee wellness.

Often, employee wellness looks like this:

  • You're getting information about your EAP in the mail or your email,
  • Your insurance company is sending out wellness resources, or
  • Your HR department is reminding you to take your PTO for your health.

It's terrific that organizations seem more conscious of how important it is to take care of ourselves. Right?

But… here's the disturbing trend I mentioned.

With people leaving (#theGreatResignation) and companies taking a long time to replace them, the ones left behind are doing the work of two, sometimes three, people.

With no raise in pay, no extra incentives, and no end in sight.

Despite the exhortations to take time off, to utilize the resources offered, work life is harder than ever for many people.

I'm hearing stories about people doing double and triple duty who are just exhausted. And then when they speak up and ask for help, they are met with a whole lot of ugly.

I'm talking about professional women who have been working 15 years or longer, who have proven themselves, who have gone above and beyond historically and in their current positions. They are tired. Spent. Burnt out.

These are people who asked for help and were met with verbal abuse and subjected to retaliatory actions such as threats, internal investigations, requests for confidential medical records and coercion. Ugly stuff.

Work is important, but lives have and are changed. LIFE for everyone has changed. Dramatically.

Your brain has changed, as has mine, because chronic stress has serious consequences, literally changing our DNA. Our bodies and minds are affected on every level. We have changed.

And my friends & clients? Maybe like you or someone you know, they have too much to do on any given day because they're carrying entire departments. I’m not sure if they consider themselves to be "quiet quitters," but at this point, yes. They might be.

And yes, these people might be "phoning it in" as they polish up their resumes and get back on LinkedIn to check out what's out there.

Because their organizations offered lip service and couldn't or wouldn't back it up with real action.

Is it really a wonder that some people are doing the bare minimum just to get along at work? That they're not "engaged" when they just might be feeling like everything – the weight of the world – is on their shoulders?

Why don't we wonder about the people making such a stink about this #QuietQuitting thing?

They're referring to people who've lived through a massive planetary pandemic, deaths of loved ones, wars, mass shootings, severe weather disturbances, and cultural chasms that may lead to civil wars, among other things.

Really? Is this what the world of work has come to now? Is the response to these times going to be, "why can't people be go-getters anymore?"

Organizations need to read the signs.

And you, dear friend… if you're having trouble engaging with your work, it might be time for you to read the signs, too.

Perhaps you need to go deep and figure out what your next action will be around your career. Are you with an employer you trust? If so, amazing.

If not, maybe it's time to take a look at what you're experiencing and figure out next steps. You can re-engage, look for something new, stay on track, or figure out something else. I'd be very interested in hearing about what your experience at work might be like these days.

Isn't it cool that this #QuietQuitting topic has brought up all these unspoken truths? Hopefully, it makes you think about how you want work to be for you.

Simple practices to keep the “W” in WFH from taking over your life

Simple practices to keep the “W” in WFH from taking over your life

Something that’s been coming up consistently in the last year with clients and professional colleagues is the overwhelm around the “blessing” of working from home.

Don’t get me wrong. For a lot of people, WFH is terrific – a great way to keep closer tabs on your kids, throw some laundry in between Zoom meetings, and save time and money on commuting and office lunches.

But there’s a dark side to this way of working, and it's something that can wreak havoc on all your efforts toward balance.

Work from home has become a “toil from home” arrangement. And that ain’t it, kid.

Toil as a noun means “long strenuous fatiguing labor” and as a verb, “to work hard and long.” And that’s exactly it. What’s happening now could – and should – actually be called TFH or “Toil from Home.”

In the time that you would have been commuting before, you’re working.

When you have lunch – AND breakfast (!!) – you’re working.

Then after you take a break to make dinner, pick up children, do homework, do the dishes, and so on, guess what?

You guessed it. You’re working again.

Now I know some industries are more work-intensive than others and this is not a manifesto on changing the culture of certain professions. People thrive in all types of environments. But if you were thriving you wouldn’t be reading this. Because the WFH/Toil From Home problem is all about boundaries.

In order to make working from home feasible, manageable and enjoyable, we need to learn to separate the WORK part of home from the HOME part of home.

Below are some methods and tools you can use to create that separation and ideas on how to integrate these into your day.

Depending on where you work, look at ways to separate your workspace from the rest of your home.

If you have a door, this can be as simple as closing the door and putting a sign on it that says, No entry until Morning!

If you work in a dining room or open space, this might mean you close your laptop and put it on a shelf and put your papers/notebooks in a basket or tote. Tuck it away neatly in a place that’s not within view of where you’ll be hanging out for the night.

My barrier between work and home

The photo above shows my solution to this challenge. I had a spare single sheer curtain not being used anywhere, so I got the idea to try a tension rod to put them together to create a literal barrier to my workspace. This fix cost less than $20 and it’s been so very helpful, especially because I work in a kitchen nook, so I see my office ALL THE TIME.

My curtain has been a great way to focus and let others know that I’m not to be disturbed because it’s closed and I’m “inside” my nook, and then after my end-of-day rituals, I “go home” by slipping it closed. NB: if you try this, I suggest you use a grabber tool to open and close the curtain because falling tension rods are scary, especially if you have small animals in the house.

Practice boundary setting in your communications.

I know you’re thinking, “But Gladys, all these separations don’t change the fact that my laptop is RIGHT THERE. What if something happens at work and I need to get on Slack or email or send a document? That laptop is coming right off the shelf!”

Depending on what you do, the answer is variable. Is there truly an emergency? Are you in a position of having to cover business going on in Asia or other time zones far from you? If so, then you may need to handle things that come up. That’s just how business goes. But often, it’s not an emergency, it’s a person needing something that could have waited until the morning.

Here are some ways to manage intrusions that are NOT emergencies or “pedal to the metal” types of situations.

  • A note about time boundaries in your email signature: like this,
    “-You are not expected to respond to my emails after the close of your business hours or on your weekend. Thank you!
  • Don’t reply until the start of business time the next morning. If life is a dance, then we’re changing our dance. Others will find it weird at first, but they will adapt.
  • Out of office reply – these can be friendly or on the terse side. I’m super nice, but I kind of love this one because it really draws that line in the sand:
    “I do not respond to emails on weekends. If this is an emergency, please call my mobile. If you do not have my mobile number, then you do not have a weekend emergency.”

These suggestions are just ideas to get your thought process percolating on ways to make space for your home life that’s free from work. Because we all need down time.

But boundaries are not just about closing curtains and doors, they are about speaking up, at work, at home, everywhere. This culture we’re in of being constantly connected is wonderful in many ways, but sometimes you really do need to bask in the sanctuary of home, even when it’s not feeling like a sanctuary because it’s noisy or messy. It’s yours. And it’s what you make it.

You get to decide what you put your mind to and when you work, and no one would want a job that calls the practice of it “toil” instead of work. That's never in any job description- can you imagine?

Toil is exhausting. And yet … that's what Work from Home has become for a lot of people. Let's dial it back. Let's change this troublesome toil arrangement that doesn't serve you.

Work can be joyful, freeing, satisfying, but “toil” is not. Not ever.

So make your changes. Erect those boundaries, be they curtains or out of office replies. Make your WFH life the best it can be. Because as Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

I'm here to help if need be, OK? You don't have to do this alone.