In the sport of rowing, the coxswain is an important figure. Rowers face backward to the path of the boat and are required to push their bodies to the limit; the coxswain steers the boat, orchestrates the bodies, and soothe the rowers’ psyches.
The word “coxswain” comes from the Old Norse term sveinn, meaning “servant.” Boat servant or boat mom, had I known about coxswain functions as a rising college freshman I’m quite certain I would not have had interest in anything related to the job.
I was ambitious and ready to take young adulthood by storm when I headed for college. And I was scared. I had attended an all girls’ school and co-ed settings were a red-faced/sweat-inducing/teen-angsty experience for me. My wise older sister had already made her way into the land of mixed genders and suggested I pursue becoming a men’s coxswain in order to conquer my fear of boys. I latched onto the idea as a college survival lifeline.
At the rowing orientation I boldly approached the head coach to offer myself for the role and began my foray into a cultish world where pride comes in the form of callused hands, enormous quads, and a willingness to forsake traditional college life for 5 a.m. wake-up calls.
In many ways I was suited for the role of coxswain. Despite no prior rowing knowledge or experience in being on a team of male athletes (though somehow it was I who received the nickname “Smelly Yaelly”), I effortlessly slipped into being the best friend/mascot to my novice men rowers.
Rowing offered a sense of satisfaction like nothing I have ever experienced. On the water when everything was in sync, you could feel the oars click into place, dip into the water and press the boat forward; you could hear my voice echo through the boat and the rowers respond. I could sense how integral I was in the machinery that was our synchronized entity.
Yet I felt deflated at the end of successful races and devastated at the end of the ones that didn’t go well. It seemed that boat successes didn’t actually belong to me—because my sweat and blood was only metaphorical while the rowers’ sweat, blood, and vomit was literal. And I often felt that our failures rested mostly on my shoulders, because of poor steering or because I couldn’t synchronize or motivate the men sufficiently.
Eventually I concluded that the role of coxswain didn’t suit me after all. Why would I choose a support role when I had ambition of my own? A fulfilling life would be one where I used my own muscles to yank on my own oar. So I left the job and began to pursue roles where my ambitious energy could net successes for me alone.
After college I sought a PhD in clinical psychology with goals of becoming a successful academic. I planned to lead a lab, conduct innovative research, and make a notable difference in the world of mental health and relationship treatments. I dreamed about the kind of success that would earn me so much recognition that I could get invited onto “Dancing With the Stars.”
After my initial years of striving and achieving some successes (though none that prompted dance invites) in academic psychology, I became a mother. I was overwhelmed with happiness in this new role, yet I had bigger plans. I wanted to achieve and not get wholly wrapped up in a role whose main goal was to raise healthy offspring that would grow up and leave me.
But there was a snag. When it came time to return to work I felt a deep foreboding. The feeling wrapped itself across my heart and stomach and persisted no matter how hard I fought back with logic: Being a stay at home mother wasn’t a good choice for someone like me. I tried to ignore the feeling so I could continue pulling on my professional oar. But I worried that my ambitious drive had fragmented.
As I reflect now, though, I see that my drive has always been fragmented. Sociologist Émile Durkheim explained that humans are organisms driven by self-oriented needs and desires (like pursuit of success and reward) while simultaneously being driven by group-oriented desires instilled by love, affection, and a sense of belonging. The satisfaction that I found in being the “boat servant” was real, but so, too, was the fulfillment I found in striving for successes in the professional world.
In fact, inside of most of us is a self that embodies “selfish” drives to put our independent mark on the world; and there is also a self with “groupish” drives who finds deep satisfaction in serving an entity greater than ourselves.
The trouble is that we get sucked into an either-or mentality and assume that individuals are exclusively consumed by either ambitious pursuits or caring pursuits. We throw around terms that are black and white in nature like “leaning in” and “opting out” and in so doing neglect the vast opportunities for toggling back and forth between the selves that reside within most of us.
“Happiness comes from between,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes. “It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.”