I teach working moms about self-care, how to “put on their own oxygen mask” so they can achieve, well, if not “balance,” then at least sanity. Yet a year ago, I did a one-off work gig right after chemotherapy, a 10-hour day I got paid a lot of money for.
I felt like hell that day.
And I’ve been thinking about that day after watching Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia-swoon, and the rush of negative press coverage that ensued this week.
I had accepted that gig knowing I couldn’t change the date and that I’d be sick during it. It was such a good opportunity that I would even have rescheduled chemo to do it if I’d had to. Saying no, or negotiating the date, risked that they’d find someone else, or think worse of me. This was a special event; it could lead to more and better work. It was perfect for me. I could not miss out on it. I had to do it no matter how I felt.
At one point, I had to sit down on a stool. I was embarrassed that I had to rest for a few minutes, that I was too sick to stand and perform for 10 hours straight the day after being poisoned. It is not always obvious when to “lean in” and when it’s not leaning in, but overdoing it, and, instead, you need to take a break and put on your oxygen mask. I tend to think of that day as leaning in. I also didn’t have much of a choice.
One day, six months after that, still recovering from cancer treatment, I was sick as a dog and it was snowing. I had two doctors appointments with a two-hour gap between them and a work meeting in the middle, this time to develop a new and important business relationship. No one could reschedule.
The first doctor ran late and gave me really bad news, but I had to walk out on her before we were done in order to make it to the work meeting, which I ran to through the snow. Then I ran back through the snow to make it to the second doctor. That night, I was very, very sick and I took good care of myself. That was overdoing it.
And once, during chemo, I taught an eight-hour class while beset with post-chemo dizziness and hot flashes. My clothes soaked with sweat but I carried on and turned on the fan. I let my students use the bathrooms during the break, so the whole day got away from me before I was able to pee. When I got into the bathroom, I saw that my stenciled-on eyebrows and eyelashes—the real ones gone from chemo—had smeared down my face during the hot flashes. I had been teaching with brown lines down my cheeks where the makeup had run. That was just embarrassing.
There are dozens more examples from the rest of my life; this didn’t start during cancer treatment. You just go and do your work, despite the migraine or the UTI or the depression or the dislocated shoulder. Cramps? Morning sickness? You learn breath-work to hide it. Some jobs are like that. Remember Kerri Strug? She did the Olympic vault on a broken ankle. You only get one shot with some jobs.
Some lives are like that. When your income is necessary to your household, when your job provides no paid sick leave, it doesn’t have to be the Olympics or a presidential bid. You just go to work. Sanity and balance are not so simple. Sometimes you can only make the best choice of many imperfect options. I can’t imagine how much more ingrained this would be for me, if also I knew, as Hillary does, that the press will dissect every sniffle and cough, and speculate absurdly, and spew accusations of lying and hiding.
Powering through is part of the American way, whether you’re on the campaign trail, or self-employed, or a single parent (or a parent at all; who among us hasn’t forced down their own vomit so as to comfort a sick kid?), or anyone without paid time off from work. Even more so when your head is butting up against a glass ceiling.
I’d like more discussion about how to build safety nets so that we don’t end up powering through so often. Sometimes, it’s the right choice—the special gig, the once in a lifetime opportunity, the 9/11 memorial you can’t miss while running for president. But too often, for regular people, it’s not a choice at all. Powering through isn’t, however, a sign of weakness or a lying nature.