Thursday, May 19, 2016

Breathing Room

I am determined not to let another week go by without a post, so I'm going to try to finish this draft that has been sitting in my drafts folder for several days, even though the reason it is sitting in the drafts folder is that I'm having a hard time solidifying my thoughts. You've been warned....

A couple of weeks ago, Sheryl Sandberg wrote a long post (on Facebook, of course) about how she hadn't realized how much harder it is to "lean in" as a single mother.

There are, of course, a bazillion pieces of writing about this, some rolling their figurative eyes at her, some more sympathetic.

I fall on the more sympathetic side, probably because I have recently been confronted with my own example of the limits of empathy. It is hard to understand what we don't experience, and I've yet to come across someone who doesn't have some blind spots. Yes, Sandberg could have done more to include the extra challenges faced by single mothers in her original book, but I give her credit for admitting her error so publically.

Probably my favorite reaction to her announcement was a piece I only got around to reading today, from Andie Fox (some of you might know of her from her Blue Milk blog). Fox writes about her own early years of single motherhood, and how precarious it all sometimes was.

I have no experience with single motherhood - my husband is very much still here and present and doing things like being in charge of dentist appointments - but something resonated with me in her piece, and I think it is helping me draw together some disparate threads I've been thinking about for a long time.

Sandberg's post and Fox's piece about it both highlight how much of how we experience life depends on how much margin we have to absorb the unexpected. Call it buffer (as we do when we talk about finance), call it slack (as I do when I talk about kanban and time use and project management), call it breathing room. I've come to think we don't have enough of it, in any aspect of most of our lives.

Through most of human history, this was almost inevitable. We were struggling to find food to survive, and shelter to keep us safe from the elements. We do not need to operate in that paradigm anymore. We have learned so much about how to master our world that we could all live without fear of starvation, and with a roof over our heads.

We haven't figured out how to do that, yet, but that is largely a problem of figuring outh ow to share resources effectively and negotiating the politics. It is no longer a technical one. Of course, as is so often the case, the technical challenge turned out to be the easy part. The remaining challenges are hard, and I don't underestimate that.

I don't know how solve the political problem of poverty, and that's not really what this post is about.

It is more about how a lot of people don't have enough breathing room, really, even if they have enough money for food and shelter, and how unevenly this breathing room can be distributed, even within a single family. (Some families do a better job of distributing the breathing room than others, of course.)

I've long thought that this lack of breathing room in our way of life is not healthy, even for those of us who aren't dealing with extreme situations like poverty. I think that for some people, it may contribute to both physical and mental illness. I think it takes something from all of us, even if it doesn't make us clinically ill. I wonder what our world would look like if we could figure out how to give everyone a little more slack in their lives.

When I'm operating without enough slack, I'm less kind. I don't parent as well as I can. I don't take care of myself. I don't make the best decisions. I'm more likely to let my asthma spiral out of control. I am less likely to notice the beauty of a sunset or a crisp, clear night.

I think there are aspects of our culture that steal breathing room away from people unnecessarily. Our focus on material wealth as a sign of success. Our "always on" work culture, that I firmly believe is counterproductive even for its stated goal of achieving more productivity with less money. Our tendency to judge other people's choices (and feel defensive about our own), which I think leads to "competitive parenting" that creates pressure to be seen doing things that don't actually add that much value to our children's lives.

I could probably go on, if I thought about it some more. I think there is a lot of good in our modern culture, too- see the above point about making enough food to feed people. Also, there are little things like how I had two wonderful conversations yesterday with people who support me and believe in me - and who I would never have met without this online space we've created.

So I'm not arguing for returning to a "simpler life." I don't think earlier ages were any kinder to people. In fact, in many ways, they were probably less kind. Instead, I'm arguing for us to stop and think a bit more carefully about how we want to use the resources we have. Can we add more breathing room in for people, and if we do, can we distribute it a bit more fairly?

I don't know how to do this. I think being more deliberate about our own work is a start. I think that if we find ourselves in a position in which we manage other people and their work, we have a responsibility to learn how to do it well, so that those people can have more breathing room, too. I may even think this is a moral responsibility, although I'm hesitant to label it as such.

I don't delude myself into thinking that helping more people do these things will solve all the worlds problems, but I very much believe that it will make the world a little better. This is why I'm so passionate about work hours and better management.  I really do think it makes a difference, at least in the local environment around the people who are making more breathing room for themselves and others.

And maybe, if we get enough little pockets of breathing room, they'll start to merge together, and we really will change things for the better.


  1. I agree. I have a supportive husband, a flexible work environment, and generally good kids. We make enough money that we can fix some problems by throwing money at them instead of time.

    It feels like all of these things should contribute to breathing room, and yet it feels like I struggle for it.

    And if someone with my privilege struggles, I can only imagine what others deal with.

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