The Performance of Hard

Here’s something I rarely talk about, because a) the very subject makes people uncomfortable and b) I am still carrying a little bit of shame about it. After she was born, I nursed my daughter for three months. Then I gave up, because I hated it.  

I will obviously rush to qualify this, because in my insecurity I need you to know how hard I tried to make this work. I consulted the consultants, who told me to just hang in there. I read the books and the La Leche League message boards, which affirmed that it would be monstrous to prioritize my comfort and sanity in any way over getting my child on my boob. I bought items recommended by said message boards, and I tried different positions recommended by said message boards (they were mostly things I had already tried, but I tried again). In the end, none of it worked. It took somebody else saying “enough” after watching the way both me and my three-month-old baby would cry and cry every time we tried to nurse. I stopped. Life got infinitely easier, and that comparative ease made me feel deeply ashamed of the choice I had made. It wasn’t so much the breastfeeding itself – I went on to pump for several months, so my daughter was still getting primarily breastmilk – it was knowing that I had consciously made raising a newborn less hard on myself.

Could I have worked harder? Then I didn’t work hard enough. Was there a harder way to do this? Then I took the easy way out. Am I miserable? Then I must be doing it right.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we need to train ourselves as parents to breathe through hard moments, and that we need to practice the mental skills necessary to do so. I also said that sometimes, the very hardness itself is the sign that you are doing it right. Example: setting appropriate limits with toddlers and holding to them (without yelling). Resisting the urge to break down is hard – resistance, by definition, is hard – and doing the hard thing is sometimes by definition the right thing. 

Here’s the other side of that: sometimes doing the hard thing is by definition the wrong thing. Choosing the hardest way of doing everything all the time is going to exhaust you, such that you have nothing left to give when the time comes to resist for the right reason. Example: a parenting choice that never – not once in a 24-hour period – gives you a break. So, are you following me? Sometimes the hard thing is the right thing, and sometimes the hard thing is the wrong thing, and you have to know which is which.

In my running circles, we say, “I never go hard unless there is a very good reason.” In training for endurance athletes, the science behind this is strong and the consensus is growing: people need to do most of their training at a verifiably easy effort so that when the hard days come along they can really give the maximal effort needed to make the session productive. What is harder for athletes to accept, however, is that more hard running, whether in the form of speedwork or frequent racing, is not better. It’s more likely to put you in injury’s way than it is to make you stronger. Clean up your nutrition and get more sleep, and you will likely see your performance improve at literally no risk to your health. Neglect those things and instead opt to lift heavy weights and add more track sessions, and you are likely to, at the very least, find yourself burned out and disappointed in the results you reap from all that effort. 

If you ever took an Italian literature course with me in college and you worried about whether your Italian was good enough to do all the reading, I probably advised you to use a translation for some assistance in getting it done. You probably looked at me with surprise, and I probably told you that what I wanted was for you to enjoy the text and get something out of it. I didn’t want you to slog through it in literally the hardest way possible; you were taking a literature course, not a language course, and your goal was understanding, enjoyment, reflection, and the ability to participate effectively in class discussions. Therefore, why wouldn’t you use a helpful tool to facilitate your reading and ease the demand on your time? Believe me, I can tell when students read only in translation and don’t touch the original; if I hadn’t told you to just use the translation for some assistance here and there as needed, that’s probably what you would have been doing by the end of the semester. Either that, or you would be spending twelve hours a week reading for my class, and you would be hating me and hating my syllabus. Those are both bad outcomes. I don’t need you to show me you can do hard things; I need you to do the work I assign and have the energy to receive and engage with what the texts are offering you.

But choosing the hard thing is so often about performance. My students would bend over backwards to show me how hard they were working and how little sleep they were getting, especially if they were trying to explain a sub-optimal result (in other words, a B+). We take care to curate the image of ourselves as driven, hard-working, type-A, the people who will work themselves as hard as they possibly can. We wear the misery this causes us like  a badge of honor, a credential that admits us to the club. We buy into the myth of its nobility.

In a mom’s group that I attended for several months during my daughter’s first year of life, we would always “check in” at the beginning of each meeting with “something we’d done for ourselves” that week. I remember how gross these check-ins made me feel. Tearfully, one mom related how for the first time since the birth of her child (older than my child by several months), she had taken a shower without him right next to her. Not even his dad had been allowed to take full charge of the kid for a ten-minute stretch so she could take a solo shower. APPLAUSE! The woman who had previously talked about hiring a sitter for date night stared guiltily down at her hands. The check-ins would always turn into a contest over who could be the biggest martyr. One woman who had an 11-month-old had finally resumed exercising again, something that she had once loved to do. She had gone to a Zumba class! Well, kind of; the gym’s childcare provider had had to interrupt the Zumba class and pull her out halfway through, because her son had been so distraught over her leaving him. She once again put her son’s needs before her own – the group applauded her. I couldn’t even bring myself to admit to this group that my husband took my baby to his office sometimes for an entire morning so I could go to yoga class, let alone confess that I had quit nursing because I hated it.

Parenting choices are extremely personal, and everyone has a different threshold for hard as well as different beliefs about how to do things. I hope that within those beliefs, every parent feels empowered to ask him or herself why this hard choice is so important. When my coach says “I never go hard without a very good reason,” I think what most people hear is “I never go hard” and immediately discount the value of that pronouncement. That’s not me; I love to go hard. Give me the hard work, coach! Hear the complete sentence. What is the very good reason? Can you articulate it? Does the choice you are making actually line you up to achieve that outcome? Or are you performing the part of the one who can do everything in the hardest possible way? At least consider that some of the time, easy is the greater virtue. I won’t ask you to qualify it.