Five years after moving to New York to become a writer — only to accumulate a mountain of debt — I got a job as a personal assistant to a billionaire and his family. It was then that I learned the true power of those three magic words: “Happy to help!” A personal assistant is a professional time-saver, and I became the best time-saver I could possibly be. I sat in rush-hour traffic so my bosses didn’t have to; I took three trains to deliver items they could easily have found for themselves at the corner store or even in their own closet; I proofed emails and reports carefully, obsessively even, because typos are the worst waste of time. A billionaire’s time is worth far more than money, but what about my time? Mine was worth precisely what they paid me for it, so I figured it mattered little what I did with it when I was on the clock. There was no career trajectory with this job, no professional endgame, just the need to be favored and kept on staff. Every time, I said, “Happy to help!” I performed a valued type of humility so convincingly I almost forgot I had bigger dreams for myself.
They were grateful; I was gracious. That was our deal.
The job paid well, and there I was with my two degrees (in biology and creative writing; even in college, I was already in the midst of a mid-life crisis) and my heap of ambition, none of which could pay the rent. More than just an expression, “Happy to help!” was my secret weapon against the cognitive dissonance of the situation. I hadn’t bargained on working in the intimate space of strangers, it just happened to make it possible for me to stay in a city where I was sure would fulfill all my dreams. If only I was cheerful and game.
After a decade or so of service, I finally slid out of that assistant job for good and into a new one in human resources — then the pandemic hit. When I wasn’t answering work emails, I was hunting for N95 masks or washing the dishes (again) or teaching myself how to cut my husband’s hair. Some days, it was a scramble to get anything done, and a last-minute delegation from my boss could send me from feeling like I was basically treading water to arms-flailing, choking-down-big-gulps-of-ocean feelings of doom.
“Sure thing, happy to help!” I’d say, buying myself some goodwill the best way I knew how. “It’s the posture required for participation in capitalism, that you’re always eating shit and grinning about it,” says Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home.
Obviously, I didn’t invent the grin-and-bear-it approach. “Women are not really supposed to make any kind of waves if we’re going to be ‘proper’ women,” says Kanesha Baynard, a creativity coach who works with nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and individual clients to improve productivity and manage mental wellness. The majority of her clients are women juggling multiple ambitions — for their careers, families, and creative pursuits. By contrast, the men she works with are wholly focused on leadership. “Emotional labor, the quiet workload, the second shift — that doesn’t even come up. Men don’t have to negotiate those things because they’re not asked to.” In other words, they don’t have to be happy to help because no one expects it from them.
Women, on the other hand, learn to optimize. We free up slivers of time, whether or not we actually have it, to juggle ever more obligations — advancing our careers while planning birthday parties, scheduling doctor’s appointments, checking on our elders, and volunteering, all with a smile — until one day, we just can’t anymore.
Was I “happy” to drop data into a pivot table (whatever that was) or to join my tenth Zoom call of the day? I was not. The only task that could’ve made me “happy” at that point was throwing my laptop into the East River and finding a hole in the space-time continuum that prevented me from being needed by anyone ever. It’s not that being a personal assistant made me happier, or that those three little words had lost their magic — it’s that I was too burnt out to hide behind them anymore. They were a reminder that my ambition was still displaced. My writing career was finally taking off — I’d sold my first novel (about a personal assistant in Hollywood) and was hard at work on a second — but I was posturing as a corporate team player.
I developed a reputation as hard-working and egoless, a reputation I was proud of, but it meant I was “rewarded” with more and increasingly complex projects. Grateful as I was for the job, I was betraying myself. I was exhausted and impatient on all fronts, especially as a mom, where I had little energy left over to parent the way I wanted to.
Is “Happy to help!” the RSVP to an invitation to help or a deflection from the shame of needing it? Two years into the pandemic, I feel like Luisa in Encanto, shouldering a pile of donkeys with only the powers of plain, unmagical Mirabel. And I’m not alone.
“Particularly amongst bourgeois women,” Petersen says, “there’s this understanding that you have to be able to do it all yourself. You can ask immediate family for help, that’s okay. You can help other people, that’s how you show you’re a supermom. But no asking for help on your own part.”
Bourgeois woman, c’est moi. But privileged Gen-Xers aren’t the only ones buckling down, Petersen says: “It’s at the heart of millennial success too. The economy’s shit? I’m gonna work harder. Everything’s stacked against me? The system’s broken? Not if I work harder and prove myself. We are no longer a nation that’s set up for families the way that it has been before? I’ll just work harder. And it’s miserable.”
For me, the breaking point came during a goal-setting exercise at work. I looked at all the projects laid out for my team for the upcoming year, and I didn’t feel energized or challenged. I felt empty. Those were the organization’s goals, worthy but not mine. When would I write or spend time with my daughter? The old instinct was still there to fake it ’til I made it, to plaster on a smile and marshall enthusiasm for the work ahead, but deep inside, I knew I was out of gas. I only had so much energy and attention, and if I gave it to someone else, there’d be none left. I had to choose who to help, and I chose me. This spring, I quit my day job. Now that I’ve made the break, I’m even more sure that being honest about my capacities and the work that matters most to me means saying no, sometimes. No, I will not take care of that for you. No, I can’t right now.
In her practice, Baynard sees women who’ve finally had enough. “We’ve slowly and quietly been coming to terms with these confines, and we know it’s not working. So we’re just not doing it,” she says. Despite her fears that her own business would be wiped out by the pandemic, she’s been busier than ever in the great resignation, coaching women who want to know why they haven’t stopped being nice sooner. How do we break a habit that’s been socialized in us since birth? “I always tell women ‘Don’t link your niceness and kindness.’ You need to be kind to yourself before anything else, and kindness does not allow you to say yes to these things that won’t work for you,” she says. For Baynard, that meant no more major life discussions after 8 p.m., when her brain turns to mush. For someone else, it might mean trading Zoom meetings for a phone call you can take while you walk. For me, it was realizing that spreading myself thin — and smiling about it — doesn’t work for me anymore. “No, I can’t” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?