There are stories I never tell at work, and that no one else tells, either. I don’t mean salacious stories, or really even stories of ourselves outside of work – those maybe are best left untold. I mean the stories of our selves at work, when we are at our most vulnerable and raw. Who we are at those moments, and how our colleagues respond to us at those moments, define a work culture, I believe. Here are two of the stories I never tell.
Many, many years ago my boss died as I knelt powerless and horrified beside him. He collapsed at work, in the hallway, and I ran to him and held him until someone who actually knew what to do came to provide CPR. I went to the hospital and met his family, because no one else had and it seemed the right thing to do. He was a kind and loving man, the kind of person who really saw and heard you when you spoke with him. What I recall most of that time, aside from the sadness and shock, is the feeling that I was alone with my story, and that it was too sad – or simply too intimate, too close to death – to tell. And so after a period when we talked about our organization’s loss, we didn’t talk about it anymore.
Years later, as a senior person with a heftier title and more authority (enough, you would think, that I’d be secure enough to tell any story I needed to tell) I had my son. I was given tremendous gifts when I had him – time, flexibility, understanding, an abundance of onsies. Because my workplace was so good to me, I felt deeply that any failure to make it all work – to somehow balance – was mine alone. I remember a day when my boy was maybe six months old and I hit traffic on the way home. Normally the commute at rush hour would have taken 45 minutes, but it was a bad day, and it was heading toward an hour and a half. I sat on Route 95 south, milk leaking through my shirt, and wept in frustration. My son was fine, at home with my husband, well supplied with love and bottles. But I was not fine. I was a mess of desperate longing and very sore boobs. In that moment I would have traded anything I possessed to fly home to my son.
Why didn’t I tell these stories? I’m sure other people were traumatized by my boss’ death, and surely it would have helped us all to acknowledge that. And I now know that every mother I have spoken to in the years since has a story of that feeling of desperate need to reach her child when she is away working. But I didn’t tell these stories because they are stories of my weakness, my ambivalence about myself at work. I didn’t want anyone to question my strength, my ability to take on the world, to do anything I was asked to do and do it well. There were probably opportunities to talk that I passed up because I didn’t want to show weakness. And in truth, I still maintain that it is important to take care who we share our vulnerabilities with – no one at work has a right to our full stories. I will not tell you my full story here. But those particular stories – even though they are of death and birth – are work stories. They belong, in a sense, to the workplace because the workplace has created them and the workplace must help us through them – even if all we can offer, sometimes, is an awkward side hug and a whispered “I know how you feel – I’ve been there, too.”