By Meg Myers Morgan
In this 3-part series, Dr. Meg Myers Morgan, best-selling author and professor at University of Oklahoma, shares three rules every woman should remember as she lives her life story. Meg shares these excerpts from her upcoming book, Counter Offer: Negotiating the Life You Want, “a work and life guide for women.”
I am surrounded by the presence of women and their stories. And I’ve noticed that often, we, as women, don’t do the best job as storytellers. I find women spend the least amount of time crafting their own stories. I see them get swept up in other people’s narratives, or playing a secondary character in someone else’s tale, or—even worse—giving up on their own stories. But if you see your life as a story, you can use three rules of storytelling to weave a tale you are proud to tell.
Rule #1: Don’t Just Be the Hero
I constantly hear the phase: Be the hero of your own story. I see it on posters, on memes, on home décor. And that is fine advice. We should be the hero of our own story. But I’ve seen enough Disney movies with my daughters to know that even when the princess is the hero of the story, it’s always narrated by someone else. An omnipresent voice telling us the hero’s journey and, often, how to feel about it. It’s not enough to be the hero of your story. Be the narrator. Then, write yourself as the hero.
I remember the first time I lost my narrative. It was after the birth of my first daughter, and in the middle of my doctoral degree. I was able to secure two days of childcare. This meant that on Tuesdays and Thursdays I would need to attend class, do any of the university work to fulfill my scholarship requirements, as well as schedule any dentist or doctor appointments. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I was with my newborn, taking her to story time at the library, Mommy and Me gymnastics class, or to see the elephants at the zoo. While she napped, I worked on my dissertation. When Jim came home from work, I made us dinner and then left to drive an hour away, to another university, where I taught two night classes that lasted until about 11p.m. The next morning, it started all over again. This was my routine for two years.
At the time, when people would ask what I was doing now that the baby had arrived, I enumerated all of that. And most every person I told this to responded in one of three ways: 1) Gasp and express how unbelievably lucky I was to find a man who would support me in all of this; or 2) Bring up the financial ramifications of my choices; many were quick to point out that the expense of graduate school must have put undue pressure on Jim to support us fully on his salary; or 3) Lightly suggest that I could be on the verge of ruining all of it.
The narrative was: here’s a woman being careless, selfish and irresponsible with her family. And after frequently hearing that story told about my own life, I bought into that narrative so completely that it became the story I told. I’d sheepishly say I was in school, but express that it wasn’t a big deal. Or I’d lead by saying how lucky I was to have a husband like Jim who supported my school work. Or I’d undersell how overwhelmed I was because I didn’t want anyone assuming my stress meant stress in our marriage.
One morning in the shower, while scrubbing my hair, I enumerated all I had to do that day—get Jim off to work, feed and change the baby, get her to day care, get to class, go into the office to run data for the grant I was working on, get my hair cut, pick up the baby, get dinner ready, grade papers while we ate, and create my lecture in my head while I drove an hour to class. And it suddenly hit me: the narrative was all wrong.
The true story was this: I was and am lucky to have Jim, sure. But not because of the reasons people kept saying. If the rationale is that I am lucky because my spouse supports me in my personal and professional goals, then Jim is lucky, too. I supported him every bit as much as he supported me. I was also not a financial burden at all. I was caring for our child nearly full time (saving us thousands of dollars); I was on full scholarship for school (again, several thousands of dollars); and I was bringing in money from adjunct teaching (let’s not split hairs here). Further, I wasn’t on the verge of ruining my marriage with all my stress. I actually handle stress really well. And it was insulting to imply I wouldn’t be aware of it if I were.
Wasn’t any of my journey impressive? Wasn’t anything I was doing worthy of admiration, or respect? Why was it that everyone only saw my story as it related to my seemingly poor, put upon, stressed-out, financially struggling husband? How had he become the hero of my story? It was because I had let go of the narrative.
So, after that shower, when I was good and steamed, I took back my narrative. Sometimes in overt ways—like writing about it—but often it was just in how I responded to people who asked about my life. I stopped downplaying it, or hiding it, for fear I would seem selfish and reckless. I was proud of my story, and I took pride in the narrative. I reveled in my story because I realized I was the hero.
I see a lot of women who let their narratives go to someone else, be it a parent, a child, a spouse, even strangers. And the problem with that is that no one else is ever going to write you as the hero.
Recently, a young woman who had just graduated college asked to meet with me. She was interested in applying to the graduate program I administer. She told me that she absolutely wanted to do the program, she just didn’t know when. Her problem was she was waiting to see where her boyfriend got a job. Then she would probably move with him, as they were probably going to get married, and then she could make a decision about starting graduate school.
I have no problem with women embarking on an adventure for—or because of—love. But in that conversation, she was talking more about her boyfriend’s career, opportunities, and desires than her own. She had given him the narrative and was living as a secondary character in his story. And if she gave over the narrative that time, making the boyfriend the hero, she’s more likely to do it again. And again.
Life is about compromise, sure. But that doesn’t mean giving over your narrative. Be the hero of your own story. But more importantly, be the one telling your story. And dare to write yourself as heroically as you can.
Dr. Meg Myers Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of Harebrained: It seemed like a good idea at the time. The book was awarded a gold medal in humor from the Independent Publishers Book Awards, and was recognized as a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year.” Her upcoming book Counter Offer: How to Negotiate for the Life You Want—a work and life guide for women—comes out 2018 from Seal Press. Meg may be contacted at megmyersmorgan.com.