In the theory of leadership that I teach in my professional life, I often talk about “Hero Stories.” The idea goes like this: Each night, when we lie on our pillows, before we drift into sleep, we tell ourselves a story about our day. We think over what has happened, and we create a narrative arc, a storyline that helps us make sense of what has occurred. And, inevitably, we make ourselves the heroes of that story. The problem is, all of the people with whom our paths have crossed are going to bed on that very same night, and they’re telling themselves stories about their days. And it’s highly unlikely that we are the heroes of their stories. If we’re lucky, we’re innocent bystanders. Sometimes, though, we’re the evil queen.
I teach this to help people learn why it is so important to partner strategically with other stakeholders in their systems. But it never occurred to me that I was doing this very thing in my personal life, making myself the hero of the story, until a recent trip to New York, during which, from the beginning until the end, my hero status unraveled so thoroughly before my eyes that it made me hang up my cape.
I had such a good plan! I knew way in advance that I was going to have to travel to New York for two work obligations in February. I also knew that, given the timing of these two events, the closest they could be was a full week apart, and the furthest they could be was two weeks apart. That meant that I was either going to have to fly back and forth across from San Francisco to New York within a very short time span, or that I was going to have to be away from my family (and nursing baby) for over 10 days.
Neither option seemed good. It also happens to be that my entire extended family–my parents, aunts and uncles, grandmother, sister, and brother–all live in the New York area, and it is so hard for us to get together. And so I hatched a plan: My husband could take his paternity leave, and we could all go east together. I would work at either end of the trip, and, during the time in the middle, we would have the rare opportunity to spend time with my family, and to enjoy New York City.
What a hero I was! I would be a great professional, flying across the country to work. I would be a wonderful mom, bringing my children to one of the best cities on the planet and exposing them to its cultural riches. I would be a wonderful daughter, granddaughter, sister, and niece, creating the opportunity for our family to be together. I couldn’t have been more excited.
The first inkling that not everyone shared my version of the story came from my husband. “Are you sure it’s the best plan for us to all move into your parent’s house for 10 days and for you to disappear?” I tried my best to quiet his dissenting voice and reiterate my vision. But then I talked to my mom, who, it turns out, months before, had dropped a subtle hint that winter break would have been a much better time for us to come and visit, given that my parents both work and would really not have the time off to be with us. Then my sister chimed in, telling me she was trying her best to switch her call schedule so that she could see us at least once while we were in town.
“You’re all against me,” I told my husband. He raised his eyebrows.
Then life rudely interrupted. My oldest daughter got a terrible case of the flu and fever the afternoon before our flight. We had to quickly come up with a new plan, which turned into me flying with my 7-year-old and the baby, and my husband waiting a few days to fly with the other two kids. Which meant that my parents had to babysit without my husband’s help during my first work obligation. The frigid weather and fact that we were basically under house arrest as a result didn’t help much.
Then, after what did actually turn out to be a lovely week, on the afternoon before my husband was supposed to fly home with all of the kids, freeing me to go to my second work obligation, a conference, the baby developed a fever and was diagnosed with a double ear infection, and was told not to fly for 48 hours. Which meant that my parents had to babysit a sick baby without my husband or my help while I attended the first afternoon of the conference. They then had to go back to work, and I was stuck, in their house, with my sick baby, missing the majority of the conference that had been on my schedule for over a year, the whole impetus for this entire trip, while sitting in my sweats just an hour away.
Game, set, match. Cape retired.
And yet, part of me still clings to my original vision, perhaps because there were so many wonderful parts to the trip. My 7-year-old thrived during our first weekend, when she got to be the only big sister, and got so much undivided attention. Our nuclear and extended family enjoyed wonderful time together. We relished New York City despite the cold. We saw good friends. The kids went to a different museum every day. I did some good work.
What, though, would have happened had I followed my own professional advice originally? I probably would have learned that the timing wasn’t right for my parents or sister. I probably would have learned that it wasn’t the best set-up for my husband or my kids. I also would have had to admit that I was making everyone stand on their heads for my sake, just to ease my own work/life anxiety, and to make it easier for me to be the kind of professional I claim to want to be.
Perhaps what is so difficult for me, as I turn this experience over and over, is that it upsets not only the Hero Story of this particular experience, but my overarching Hero Story, upon which I have built my life. Namely, that you can be a fully present mother of young children and a fully present and successful professional at the same time. The bottom line of this experience, no matter how much I hate to admit it, is that I should have kept the personal personal, and the professional professional. But that threatens the very narrative upon which I’ve built my existence. That forces me to recognize not only the diverse perspectives of the people who surround me, but the conflicting perspectives within myself. And it forces me to make mature, uncomfortable decisions while admitting that I can’t do it all exactly in the way I want.
I think I’ll need a new cape, to give me the courage to stop telling my Hero Story.