“No,” I hear myself say. “No. Look, no. I’m sorry. Wendy Charles Consulting is a terrific company, and there is no doubt that she—I—can do great things for you. But no, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you can have ‘it all,’ whatever that means, or even that you should want to have it all. Not all at once. Yes, there are people out there”—I lock eyes with Wendy, see her expression of concern, but push on—“people who maybe have found themselves pushed too far to one side of things or the other. Women who haven’t had time for themselves or their families, or women who haven’t had—or even wanted to make—time for a career. And let me tell you—I know whereof I speak. I’ve been one of those kinds of women. I’ll let you guys guess which kind.” There’s a polite, if hesitant, titter in the audience. They’re not sure where I’m going with this. To be honest, neither am I.
“But you know what? I’ve given it a lot of thought lately, and I’ve realized that’s totally ok. Yes, maybe my life isn’t in perfect balance at this moment. Yes, there’s a whole lot more many of us can accomplish, now or in the future. But do we really have to achieve every single goal and dream right this second? Aren’t we all just kind of exhausted?” I look up, and to my happy surprise I see the audience setting down their scones, watching me carefully, a few heads even nodding. “Wouldn’t some of our time be better spent figuring out how to do less, how to stop taking on more than our fair share of the hardships, how to free up just a little bit of extra sleep rather than pushing ourselves yet further into the land of the tired, the guilt worn, and the weary?”
I take this moment to run my gaze over the tables, locking eyes with my listeners whenever I can. The audience looks back at me, surprised but definitely engaged. Some people look genuinely stunned—maybe people who know Wendy personally. One of them may charge the stage if I don’t make my point soon. So I’d better figure out what the heck my point is.
“I came here today ready to tell you the six steps to getting more done every day, and I even have a clever mnemonic for it in my box of tricks here”—I switch to the DO MORE slide to prove it—“but no. I’m just not going to do that to you. Not today.” I click the slide to the next one, a woman on a beach looking thoughtful. It will definitely do the trick.
“Later, when the time is right, you’ll all get your chance to learn how to do more. Believe me when I say I can talk for hours about how to do more,” I say, and then I let myself smile directly at Wendy and, to my relief, see the beginning of a smile flash over her face in return. “But for today, let’s be revolutionary. Today, why don’t you consider visiting a productivity coach to learn to DO LESS, and do it with more joy? Wendy Charles Consulting can tell you how to take over the world, sure. One hundred percent, and you don’t have to take my word for it.” I hold up my note cards and rifle through them. “The testimonials in this speech are insane.” The audience laughs. Then I open my hands and let the cards fall to the ground. “But this company can also tell you how to get more joy out of what you are already doing. We can help you find out what you should stop doing because it makes you unhappy or stressed out. I’m looking at you, science fair cupcakes, book club theme platters, and homemade coconut milk–collagen smoothies,” I say, and the whole room laughs knowingly. “And you, filthy break-room microwave that no one else will ever clean, and office birthday parties that you are inexplicably always in charge of, and”—I reach back to when I was a teacher and somehow became the Xerox-machine repairwoman of the math department—“toner cartridges that for some reason can only be changed by people with vaginas.” The audience’s laughter gets louder, and someone hoots and claps in recognition.
“Look around you, ladies,” I say, gaining more and more momentum from the positive responses. “Here we have a huge room full of smart, empowered women experiencing at least some small amount of privilege to be here with me today. Do you want to use that privilege to push yourself ever harder and harder until you collapse? Or do you want to hit the brakes and start saying no to this madness, not just for yourself but for every woman in a home or an office struggling with more than her fair share? At Wendy Charles Consulting, we can help you find out who needs to step up to give you the space to do what you’re born to do.” I try hard not to look at Seth and Wendy when I say this . . . and fail. Her eyes are locked on me, but she’s not frowning. In fact, I could swear she’s giving me a barely perceptible nod.
“Do you feel me?” I ask, turning back to the larger audience. “Who in your life comes to mind when you hear me talk about these things? Who did you instantly visualize when I say that you’re probably doing more than other people, just because you were born with ovaries and a strong sense of responsibility? Let’s hear it!” A couple of people answer me back, shouting the names of guilty parties. The boss. The coworkers. The kids. Some listeners just start clapping. A couple of cheers get loose.
“Women, we can get free from the idea that the only way to be a strong, successful feminist is to work yourself into the ground!” I cry, realizing the truth of what I say in the exact moment I’m saying it. “We don’t have to compete with each other anymore.” I think of the sangria, the cookie auction, the softball tryouts, and that stupid magazine-worthy pantry I thought would be the answer to everyone’s problems. “We don’t have to work ourselves to death! We may not have mastered every one of our life dreams yet, we may not have crossed off our bucket lists or achieved our max potential or even washed our hair in five days”—I let the laugh wave over us and see a couple of women self-consciously touch their ponytails—“but there is a season for everything, and our job today is to figure out which one we’re in and EMBRACE IT! We are enough as it is, right now, exactly where we are, no matter what or who we’re not!”
The audience goes wild. I mean, they clap, they cheer, they honest-to-goodness whistle. And my heart is thundering, but not with fear, not anymore. With freedom, joy. A sudden, crystal-clear understanding. I look at Wendy again, and now I know for sure: she’s nodding. Her eyes are wide, and she looks shocked, but she’s not mad. She’s telling me, Keep going.
I beam back at the crowd, exhilarated. “Now, isn’t this more fun than a mnemonic device?” I ask them all. There is more clapping. There is more cheering. If I don’t get control of the room soon, I think there will be some light chanting.
I wait for the racket to die down a bit and realize Davis is trying to catch my eye. He is alternating between wild double thumbs-ups and meaningfully tapping his watch and mouthing the words “wrap it up.”
“Ladies, thank you so much for coming out,” I say. “Thank you for picking up what I’m putting down today. Now let me send you on your way, charged with the mission to go out and do less!”
More clapping. In a quick spark I remember why I’m there. “And if you can’t figure out how to do it, navigate your phones to WendyCharlesProductivity dot com and make your introductory appointment right now, because WE CAN HELP!”
I basically mic drop. My heart is full and pounding. As I stroll from the stage, a newly minted Women’s Expo Rock Star, I see Wendy staring at me, mouth open, a tiny grin forming as she slowly begins to clap. I see Seth staring at the ceiling, utterly bored. I see Davis applauding me and laughing and shaking his head in wonder. I see Anna Joy eating a bright-red Ring Pop.
And finally, I see Hugh, his arm hanging loosely around Samuel, giving me the thumbs-up and a chummy nod, the look of a man who has no idea how badly his wife is missing him. My heart almost pulls out of my chest in his direction. I wish he knew it was his own wife he was cheering on today. I want to run into his arms and say, Thank you. Thank you for letting me do—what would Wendy call it? Oh yeah, “ef all” for the last twelve years. Thank you, Hugh, for letting me just love on our kids and take care of them in the way that felt right to me at the time. Thank you for being so. Damn. Patient with my pursuit of perfect parenthood.
And also: I believe, as of today, I can officially put that pursuit aside.
I swallow all of it. As long as I am Wendy, I can’t tell him any of those things. And it breaks my heart.
Up until today, until this very moment, I haven’t truly understood how much I have to lose if I can’t get my real self back soon. Davis is handsome and all, but Hugh is the man who taught me what I know about joy. He’s the man who has let me figure out everything I finally understand about my life and do it in my own sweet time. Over the years I’ve told myself stories about how I’m not worth enough in the marketplace to work, how childcare costs more than I can earn, how parenting is the only thing I’m good enough at to be truly useful, to be truly of service. But that’s all nonsense, and I don’t need that story anymore. I like staying at home. I like making fruit sushi. I don’t have to do it because fruit sushi is somehow necessary. I just like it.
That said, I do not want to make the gazpacho anymore.
I walk straight up to Wendy and say that to her.
“I don’t want to make the gazpacho anymore.”
She looks at me, stunned, and pulls me by the arm to a slightly private bit of hallway just outside the ballroom. “What the hell did you just do?” she asks.