Monday 26 June 2017

The case for dropping the ball at home

Stressed by the demands of trying to 'do it all', Tiffany Dufu realised she needed to expect less of herself and more of her husband, she tells our reporter

Bigger slice of the pie: Sarah Jessica Parker plays a working mother in I Don’t Know How She Does It
Bigger slice of the pie: Sarah Jessica Parker plays a working mother in I Don’t Know How She Does It
'Home Control Disorder' Tiffany Dufu, author of drop the ball

Celia Walden

'Every woman I know is familiar with the corner of the blue couch," says Tiffany Dufu - and it's hard to disagree. It may not be blue, but that proverbial living-room sofa has hijacked many a husband for many a decade, and when the 43-year-old New Yorker describes the domestic scene in her forthcoming book, Drop the Ball, we recognise it only too well.

"As I heard the TV click, a tinge of resentment tickled my toes," she writes. "By the time it reached my knees, it had become jealousy, which turned to anger inside my stomach. By the time the anger crawled up my chest, it was full-blown rage."

Dufu - a renowned voice in the US women's leadership movement and mother of two - was working long hours at a non-profit organisation aiming to increase female representation in institutions at the time she describes. She was also doing most of the housework, cooking and child-raising at home.

A meltdown was long overdue and one day, spotting her husband relaxing in the corner of the blue sofa she had always loathed, Dufu lost it. It was the crash before the epiphany she shares in her book. Part career manual, part marriage guidance treatise, it picks up the conversation where Sheryl Sandberg left off and has got ringing endorsements from the Lean In author, as well as Lena Dunham, Arianna Huffington and Gloria Steinem, who has written the foreword. "I was my husband's solution to having it all," explains Dufu. "What would be mine?"

In all fairness to Kojo - the Ghanaian student Dufu fell in love with at the University of Washington and later married - the strive for perfection that had served her so well over the years had become a problem.

"I even invented a term for it," says the preacher's daughter, with a smile: "Home Control Disorder." Read the book and you'll see that this isn't hyperbole. I like to align the right angles on magazine piles as much as the next person, but when Dufu shares the email she sent her husband prior to his first flight with their one-year-old son, you can't help but feel for the man. "During the flight, keep Kofi engaged in your lap by offering him one toy at a time from his grab bag" and, "Never intentionally wake Kofi when he is sleeping", are two points on her plan. "I sounded crazy!" laughs Dufu now. "I had become such a control freak in a very unhealthy way. But when I go on speaking engagements and tell women about my HCD issues, a lot of the audience will be nodding and saying: 'Yes, I definitely refold the towels so that they all look the same. And yes, I move the hangers around so that they all face in the same direction in the closet', so I'm not the only woman with these quirky obsessions. But in hindsight it was eroding my sanity and my wellbeing."

It was also driving a wedge between her and the husband she loved. However, wallowing in resentment ensured that she'd remain "the uncelebrated martyr in my own story", she writes.

After "the crash" - which involved a tiny bathroom stall at Dufu's office, an ineffective breast pump, a drenched silk blouse and a vision of the future "in which both career and home had been obliterated" - this working mother made a decision: she was going to drop the ball at home.

First, Dufu sat down with her husband and explained in as non-confrontational a manner as she could, how she'd been feeling. "Men don't pick up on clues like us," she warns. "And it's not as hard as you think to spell things out, but so many women think that they can get through life without ever having that conversation." Then Dufu went through her to-do list, working out what "represented the highest and best use of my time" and what could reasonably be outsourced, either to Kojo or professional and familial help. From that moment forth, her husband was put in charge of booking babysitters, opening the post, prepping the meat they'd eat for supper and a series of other tasks that had been sapping the lifeblood from her.

"And he was perfectly happy to support me in my endeavours," she says, still visibly irritated with herself for not having had the conversation that saved their marriage earlier. "He will tell you now that although he doesn't enjoy doing many of those things, he sees the difference that it makes in me and our life together."

The epiphanies kept on coming. We've always known that society's expectations of women are too high, but as her husband took on more duties at home, Dufu realised how unfairly low society's expectations of men were. "'He can't manage details, isn't here, and doesn't know what's best for our children.' These three messages, rooted in stereotype and woven through our culture, block a range of creative approaches to home management to which men might otherwise contribute," she says.

A woman's way is not the only way, as Dufu discovered, when she came home one day to find her vomiting baby naked in his bouncer with a bin bag tied around his neck like a giant plastic bib. When her husband explained that it prevented him from having to wash bed linen and baby clothes continuously, Dufu had to admit that although not a solution she would have dreamed up, "it was brilliant".

"You can have it all so long as you don't do it all", is Dufu's mantra today - and it seems to have worked for her. Now chief leadership officer at Levo - a technology platform to help millennial women elevate their careers - and an adviser to Fortune 500 companies, the author is thriving and desperate to spread her message. "My to-do list is now 50pc of what it used to be. And it's not like I don't feel guilty any more; I've just decided what I'm going to feel guilty about."

It's not the hospital corners in her linen. It's not even knowing about her children's school plays. When one mum came up to Dufu at the school gates during Black History Month to congratulate her on her daughter getting the lead role of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, "I must have looked like a deer in headlights," she admits. "And there was a time when I would have been mortified, but not any more. What matters most to me now is engaging my kids in a meaningful conversation. If I don't do that every day, I feel guilty - and I should."

Once women align their to-dos with what they're trying to achieve in a broader sense, all becomes clear, insists Dufu. "So it's not just my career that's important to me but advancing women and girls. It's not just my marriage that's important to me, but nurturing a healthy, all-in partnership with my husband. It's not just raising my kids that's important, but raising conscious global citizens."

And if more of us thought in those generous terms, she believes, society would be much improved.

But I have one last question: what did Kojo think of the book? "He was quiet for a moment after he'd finished it. Then he said: 'Is this what has been going on in our home this whole time?' And when I nodded, he said: 'This is going to be an important book for men. And now I'm going to go and buy us a new couch'."

Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu is out now (Penguin Life, €20.99)

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