You don’t always have to raise your hand

When I was raking leaves in our front yard at six years old, my grandfather rested his large, heavy hand on my shoulder and said, “I like that you’re a hard worker and that you never quit.” I adored him, so his comments warmed me while we were outside in what I’m sure was 55-degree weather. More than three decades later, that South Dakota memory remains vivid, which illustrates how much his philosophies continue to shape my life.

 

During my early 20s, I was the sole employee of a weekly newspaper in the Black Hills. I created story ideas (and assigned the stories to myself); photographed events; sold advertisements; tracked new subscriptions; designed the newspaper; and yes, delivered the newspaper to area businesses. The newspaper publishers, who lived in a nearby town, learned I was staying up all night to complete these tasks. One evening, they knocked on my apartment door and asked me to consider a reporter role at one of their other newspapers. I was horrified. I asked, “You want me to QUIT?!” They responded, “We don’t want you to quit; we want you to try an easier job. We think maybe you don’t have enough experience for this job. You’re young, and this is a big role.”

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When she succeeds, we all do

When my newsroom cube mate, Jomay, turned to me and said, “Girls have to stick together,” I smiled and did not think much more about it, except that her phrasing reminded me of Cindy Lauper’s, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” I was 24 years old, and Jomay, who had significantly more reporting experience, also knew how to navigate the often male-dominated newsrooms of the early 2000s. 

 

So, why did Jomay tell me this? I was working on a complicated news story about military base realignment and closures. I was not—at all—passionate about the story, and she could sense it. Without any prompting from me, she approached my cube and asked if she could help. I was surprised and extremely grateful because had she not helped me, I would have missed my deadline. Being one of the youngest reporters in the newsroom, I felt too insecure to admit I found the writing assignment overwhelming.

 

Since that time, I have worked with a lot of collaborative, progressive thinkers, both women and men. I have also benefitted from a multitude of mentors, most of them women. However, I’ve also experienced discouraging interactions. When I was a public relations professional in my early 30s, I served on a planning committee. I observed—more than once—female colleagues reporting on their respective departments as some women occasionally rolled their eyes or even whispered. While I hope I didn’t participate, it is possible I did. But why?

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More than a vessel: take care of your postpartum health

Gasping for air, I jumped out of bed at 3 a.m. during my seventh month of pregnancy with my firstborn. Before this jolt, I had been sleeping. Now fully awake, I forced myself to sit on the edge of my bed. Breathing was difficult, my heart was racing, and I felt an overwhelming urge to escape my house. I nudged my husband, and said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” My husband had never seen me like this, and he agreed we should seek medical attention. We rushed to the ER as I reclined in the front seat, filled with panic.

When we arrived at the hospital, the staff immediately treated me, connecting me to various medical devices and asking me questions. The ER doctor soon approached my bedside, laid a hand on my arm and said, “You’re going to be just fine. While the symptoms are similar to those associated with a heart attack, that’s not what happened tonight. You suffered a severe panic attack.”

I instantly felt ashamed. I apologized for wasting the doctor’s time, and he said, “The heart racing, the shortness of breath—all of those symptoms are very real. You suffered tonight. Don’t apologize.” I asked him how I could suffer a panic attack while asleep. After all, I was asleep, so what could have scared me? He explained that pregnancy hormones—mixed with a predisposition to anxiety—never sleep. I experienced several more panic attacks during that pregnancy, once while happily watching my guilty pleasure, Dawson’s Creek. While I was preoccupied with my television, my subconscious was cooking up a different kind of episode.

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Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness

As a young professional, I found it easy to ask for help. Soon after I became the media relations director at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I joined an email listserve for public relations professionals working in higher education. Each month, I sent hundreds of questions to colleagues all over the country. A former journalist, I had no experience in public relations, and I wanted to learn how to manage every challenging scenario. The research—in the form of invaluable advice from experienced professionals—made me more confident and better at my job.
I found it easy, even instinctual, to seek help when I began my new career. However, as the years progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to admit that I needed guidance. I suddenly felt pressure (self-imposed) to be the expert in my field. I did not want to appear weak or ill-informed. Fortunately for me, I worked with a wonderful team of marketing and PR professionals who immediately volunteered when they saw me struggling. And it was easy to advocate for those staff members. I enjoyed promoting their strengths and talents because I wholeheartedly believed in their abilities. If they needed support, I tried my best to connect them with the relevant resources. But, I struggled to do that for myself.

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Find your voice and advance your career

The story of the 1912 Titanic ship—a beautiful ocean vessel that ended in tragedy—fascinated me when I was 14. I was horrified to learn that people had been mostly saved according to their social class. So, when my school’s English speech instructor asked us to choose a topic we cared about, my selection was easy. I conducted research, created note cards, and practiced my speech for weeks.

However, when it was my turn to speak, I walked slowly to the front of the classroom. That walk seemed to take an hour; my hands became clammy, my knees grew weak, and my mouth felt suddenly dry. I do not remember anything I said. I do remember feeling terrified.

Never wanting to feel that way again, I forced myself to try other public speaking opportunities, and when my dad encouraged me to briefly address our congregation about my church camp counselor experiences in the Black Hills, I reluctantly accepted. I eventually joined my high school’s oral interpretation team, which meant public speaking in a competition format. Oral interpretation mostly consisted of reciting memorized content, so that somehow seemed less daunting. While I still didn’t enjoy public speaking, each time grew a little easier. Continue reading Find your voice and advance your career

Do your written communications sound confident or apologetic?

Take a moment, and type the word, “sorry” into the search function of your email program’s sent folder. I did, and despite all of my training on how to communicate with confidence, I was astounded by how many times I typed that word in my emails.
 

We know that women typically apologize more than men, but do we know why? Researcher Karina Schumann conducted a study in which 33 male and female university students, ages 18 to 44, maintained an online diary and noted whether they apologized or did something they believed warranted an apology. The participants also recorded how often they felt they deserved an apology from a friend. Women apologized more and reported committing more offensive acts. Women rated the offenses of others as more severe than men did, and women were also more likely to say the friend deserved an apology. But it’s not that men are hesitant to admit fault; men have a higher threshold for what they think warrants an apology. Women often have a lower threshold for what requires an apology because they are invested in the emotions of others, and they strive to maintain harmony in relationships. 

Continue reading Do your written communications sound confident or apologetic?

Reframing the motherhood conversation

My husband and I are expecting a baby boy in early July. While my pregnancy is fairly obvious, I still mention it when relevant. During a salon appointment, I mentioned it so my stylist would know to use a pregnancy-safe product. Then, in making the small talk which is typical in salons, the stylist asked my age. When I revealed I was 40, the hairdresser responded, “Wow, you started having babies late, huh?”

Late. While looking forward to my new baby, “late,” is the last adjective I would ascribe to his upcoming birth. Despite my understanding that the stylist intended no malice, I immediately felt like I needed to defend my decision to have a baby at 40. Instead, I did not say much, and the topic faded. The topic shouldn’t fade, though. The burden was on me to reframe the conversation, and I didn’t.

I did not meet my husband Tim until my early 30s. We married after more than a year of dating, and I became pregnant the following year. We were both thrilled. It happened quickly, and I soon began planning the nursery theme. But at the six-week mark, I experienced complications and was admitted to the emergency room. The medical staff could not detect a heartbeat. The doctor spoke to me in a kind tone and said, “There’s a small chance the calculations are incorrect, and you aren’t as far along as you thought. But, more than likely, this is a miscarriage. I am sorry. My wife experienced six of these.” Tim, always hopeful, thought positively. But I instinctively knew the outcome.

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See the light

*Trigger warning: This column describes a car accident.

 

My dad often says that it is important to find ways to turn a negative experience into positive energy. That sentiment has helped me reframe Sunday, April 8, 2018, the day my little family survived a car accident. My husband Tim had turned 40 on April 6, and to celebrate, we traveled with our four-year-old son Weston to visit Tim’s childhood friend in Joplin, Missouri. We were returning to Monroe on Louisiana Highway 425 near the Log Cabin Road intersection at around 8 p.m. I was in the passenger seat, listening to an audiobook with Tim. Weston was sitting behind me in his car seat, wearing his favorite red headphones, and watching cartoons on the Ipad. I snapped a photo of him wearing his blue shirt with white stars and yellow stripes on the sleeves and texted it to my mother, knowing she would appreciate his ensemble.

Suddenly, another driver sped through the stop sign at the intersection, struck the passenger side of our Toyota 4-Runner, and threw us 250 feet across the median into the opposite car lane. Later reports indicated our car flipped about eight times. Tim saw the other driver accelerate toward our car, but I did not. I remember a loud noise and staring at the digital dashboard, trying to make sense of what was happening as our car began rolling. Continue reading See the light

Women are resilient

As a teenager, I disliked my hands, which were not slender and feminine like my mother’s. Mine were shaped like square blocks, part of my Germanic build, I suppose. One day, my dad held my hands in his and said, “I like your hands. They are strong and sturdy.” Although that was not exactly what a 17-year-old girl might want to hear, I felt comforted by his words, and as I grew older, I worried less about my hands and even started to embrace “sturdy” as part of my Midwestern identity. Then I learned of the need to be sturdy emotionally, to deal with adversity.

My first experience with death was at 16, when I lost my grandfather, whom I loved differently than anyone else. In his kind, benevolent, grandparent mind, I was always “a good girl.” Clark Woodard was a big, broad-shouldered man, and while he was soft-spoken, he had a large personality that drew people to him. He was endlessly patient, and always hopeful, with a sense of humor that could lighten anyone’s burden. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was young, and he chose treatment mainly so he could “stick around” for his grandchildren, and he did. When he died years later, I ran to my favorite park, a few blocks from my house. I sat on one of the swings, out of breath, and looked at my hands. I remember thinking how much my hands resembled his. My hands were smaller, of course, but they were sturdy, like his.

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005, two weeks after moving from South Dakota to Louisiana. I had to wait a week before finding out whether I had the less aggressive cancer or the kind that would end my life in six weeks, according to my surgeon. After receiving this news, I sat on the bed in my new Louisiana home and stared at my bedroom’s pale yellow walls. I remember thinking, “This does not make any sense. My body is strong. I am only 27 years old. I’m not ready.” For the first time in my life, I felt truly alone, because I knew no one could experience my cancer for me, although my mother expressed her desire to do so. Continue reading Women are resilient

Express your ideas—on flowers, on everything

I must have tried on my senior prom dress—a satin sheath with a v-neckline—at least a dozen times before the big event. I was 17, but I remember thinking I looked at least 22. A few days later, my high school boyfriend stopped me in our school’s hallway and asked my preference in flowers. “To be honest, flowers kind of make me sad because they die so quickly,” I replied immediately. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt guilty and foolish. “Why would I talk to him about dead flowers?” I thought. He did not respond; he just smiled and left for his next class.

The evening of prom, I watched from the kitchen window as my boyfriend approached our driveway. I quickly met him outside, trying to avoid an audience composed of my parents and siblings. As he exited his car, I immediately noticed his boutonniere, which was crafted of felt flowers. He presented me with a matching wrist corsage, also made of felt flowers. Then he grinned and said, “These flowers will not make you sad.”

Now, to be candid, my lush bouquet of fresh peonies at my Louisiana wedding remains my favorite. But when I reflect on that moment in South Dakota, the kind of moment that has even more impact during one’s formative years, I remember how important it is, especially for women, to ask for what we want—without fear or guilt over how it might be received.

While my 1996 memory is an example from my personal life, I can think of instances throughout my professional career when I should have voiced my concerns or expressed my preferences. For example, when I was offered one of my first newspaper jobs, I accepted the position and salary without question, even though I knew the responsibilities were not consistent with the salary I was being offered. I did not want to risk offending my new boss. Continue reading Express your ideas—on flowers, on everything