Can You Hear Me Now?

Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Life lessons on speaking up when embarrassment wants to shut you down. A working mom’s story of getting egg on her face before she learned how to successfully bring home the bacon.

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Illustration by: Alex Martino
Illustration by: Alex Martino

Dear Diary September 2010

It’s been a year of milestones and mishaps since returning to the workforce. After a career hiatus as a stay at home mom, I’m back on the job. Balancing kids and work is challenging, it’s essentially hit or miss. Most notably, a school bus miss when we don’t hit the ground running. Today however, we’re ahead of schedule. There’s time to eat breakfast together before seizing the day. It eludes me how women who bring home the bacon, find time to fry it up in a pan. Instant oatmeal saves the day. I reach for two bowls on the shelf, my back facing the children. My helpful tot has taken this opportunity to remove the cap from the orange juice carton. Oblivious to this important fact, I give the carton a few vigorous shakes. Splish. Splash. Orange mango tango dances its sticky sweetness all over my suit jacket.

This particular morning is also the Board of Directors marketing presentation. I’m dressed in my “lucky” suit which isn’t living up to its name. Before I can mutter a single profanity, my son swoops into action. He leaps off his stool and gives me a tight hug. Giggling he says, “Mama, you’re fresh squeezed!” He diffuses the situation and I can’t help but laugh. I’m squeezed but also screwed. There isn’t a backup suit and time is ticking. A wet cloth removes pulp from the fabric but I smell like an orange grove. Undaunted, I wear citrus and confidence out the door.    

The conference room is full and it’s go time. I’m the only female in attendance and youngest by several decades. Neither fact phases me as hard work stands on its own. The Board extends their full attention and I deliver the exciting news: Publicity and media results have tripled year over year. Goals have been exceeded three-fold! Coverage ranges from feature stories to front pages. Internal communications are in phase two, including a mockup of our first-ever employee newsletter.

The presentation is successful, noted by loud applause. I open the floor for questions and am quick with answers and anecdotes. There is hand shaking and goodbyes.  As I extend my hand to a particular member, he instead kisses me on the top of my head. He further disarms me as he adds, “Good girl.”  This interaction immediately challenges my position in the room as an equal. It’s the equivalent of a grandfatherly pat-pat on the head for a job well done. I feel like a helium balloon loudly hissing as the air lets out. I am equal parts furious and deflated. My credibility has gone out the door faster than the exiting members. There’s egg on my face to join the juice on my jacket. Not the breakfast of champions I had in mind. 

My cheeks go flush and the uncomfortable situation renders me silent. I say nothing. I don’t find my voice again until I arrive home that evening. My patient husband is on the receiving end of a work rant. I learned a valuable lesson about having a voice both in and out of the Board Room. My colleague meant no malice nor deliberately intended to diminish my position. Yet I allowed embarrassment to steal away my voice and the opportunity to educate a peer. A simple dialogue would have assured future professionalism and validation.   

This knowledge continues to help me navigate through the years. Personal and professional life conspire and create more circumstances to “talk the talk.” It’s a never ending lesson of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. There are countless opportunities to flex my vocal cords although I can always practice on my Italian relatives.  They’ve made talking over one another an art form. The animated dialogue is playful and notorious for interruption. The concept of taking turns when speaking, is loosely applied at best. There is a boisterous and ready-made audience to practice holding court. My daughter has already learned how to speak louder than competing relatives to finish a thought. I am impressed with her self-awareness and storytelling. I’m confident she will master projecting both ideas and her voice through adulthood. Insight and self-confidence comes through loud and clear.

Life is full of diverse personalities and characters, from the endearing to the infuriating.  Yes, “Ignorant Idas,” “Loud-Mouth Louies,” and “Patronizing Pauls” are in the mix and a tough crowd.  However, they provide tension and opportunity, which are the catalysts for growth and empowerment.  If we allow our discomfort to keep us silent, we can’t affect change. Growth often requires our feet to the flame. Anyway, how would we master bringing home the bacon and frying it up, without it getting a little heated first?

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