Point of View: When Saying NO Is the Right Call
When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern captured global attention as the youngest female head of government at age 37, and later gave birth while in office, it was a momentous reason to celebrate. It was undeniable proof that women could do it all. So, when I heard that she was voluntarily stepping down from her position, I was disheartened. I wondered if it would negatively impact all those who look towards women role models.
Among the greatest sources of strength for women is the example of other women having walked the
path before them. Like many women around the world, I cheered for Ardern when she managed her
country spectacularly for over six years. Having experienced the added pressure of returning to work after giving birth a few months after beginning my first job in the U.S., I could imagine the kind of pressure she had signed up for.
While I had added family responsibilities to my job obligations, Ardern had taken on the role of leading an entire country. Her path would not be easy. I was in awe of her because we need more women in highly visible positions as proof of what women are truly capable of. In a world where your significance is declared by your outward success, it has become imperative to be ambitious, to push your way into the limelight and to flex your influence over a large number of people. Yet chasing ambitions and fulfilling obligations take a toll. Ask any woman who tries to excel at everything. The decision to stay in the workforce is not an easy one
In her memoir, The Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes, the acclaimed producer of shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Bridgerton describes her year-long experiment to saying ‘yes’ to all the things she had been putting off. Even with excellent household help and a supportive family, Rhimes emphasizes the point that she is constantly missing something important (at home) while doing something important elsewhere. While this may be true for everyone, women feel more pressure and guilt when they make such choices—and unfortunately, they get judged by both men and women.
Back in 2012, an article (“Why Women Can’t Have It All”) by Ann-Marie Slaughter, Hilary Clinton’s policy chief, in The Atlantic went viral (and later became a bestselling book). The subject of how even high-achieving women like her had to make difficult choices involving work and home life resonated with a large percentage of working women.
In 2014, Indra Nooyi, then CEO of PepsiCo, categorically stated that women “can’t have it all.” While these women held positions of power and spoke with great authority, the situation at all levels of the workforce is not very different. The tug of war between career expectations and personal responsibilities to the people you value most is a daily struggle for most women.
Most of my work-life dilemma over the years has been neatly summarized in a popular meme: “We expect women to work as if they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t have jobs.” While I struggled with trying to do everything and do it well, I was unaware of the toll it was taking on my body.
The word “burnout” was first coined by Herbert Freudenbergerger in 1975 and has three components—emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. Despite the significance of your work or the public acknowledgement of your efforts, there comes a time when the balance tilts against you. In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe how our inability to restore our bodies to a state of equilibrium after constantly subjecting it to mounting levels of stress can impede our lives.
Yet, we remain enslaved to the gods of productivity that demand more and more of us, even if it involves lofty concepts such as minimalism, activism, and community engagement. As we swipe our phones to order food which we consume while replying to emails, we are acutely aware of all that still remains undone. Hoping to increase efficiency by packing every waking hour has led to a culture of mindless productivity. By trying to leverage each moment to its full potential, we are caught in a vicious cycle that often leads to burnout.
In the twenty-first century, knowing when to step back may be the most life-saving technique we must learn as humans. While it may be claimed that job stress is the same for both men and women, it doesn’t play out equitably in real life. Choosing a job based on how flexible an employer is and not on what’s best for career progression, declining business travel because it conflicts with the children’s’ school schedule, and forgoing one’s own desires in the interest of greater family good when vacation plans are made, are things that women do intuitively. It may not seem like much but it all adds up. Until there comes a point when, as Ardern puts it, “there’s not enough in the tank.”
In stepping down from her prestigious and hard-earned position, Ardern is following the path that she has always chosen. A practical one. One that involves saying ‘no’ to one thing so that she can ‘yes’ to another. As ambitious women, we tend to pile on a long list of resolutions to our already expansive to-do lists. We may do it for ourselves but we also do it because we are being watched. And judged. Perhaps the key to achieving a harmonious life for women may lie in developing a bias towards saying “no” instead of always leaning in.
Ardern’s decision was brave and difficult, but it is one worth emulating.
To be true to ourselves, we need to discover that special combination of actions, emotions, and transcendence that is meaningful to us. It’s not a bottled formula to be consumed but a special recipe to be tweaked until it feels right. Like us, it is a work in progress. As I move ahead with my plans for 2023, I have decided to pay heed to saying “No!” Unlike Ardern, it should be easier for me. At least the world press is not watching.
Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After: A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery and The Coherent Writer newsletter. She lives in Singapore.
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