Undersharing Woman-to-Woman

Barbara’s parents taught her well the importance of sharing, whether it was always setting another place at the table and adding water to the proverbial soup, donating to important charities and schools of their choice, and finding time to lend an ear to a friend or family member in need. And for Barbara’s late father, a physician, house calls were part of his mantra until he retired, and then even afterward. Barbara carried the lesson foreword once she married and had her own table to share. She also continued her mother’s baking as gifts, told her daughters it was up to them now to support their high school and colleges with an annual gift, and always found time to listen or advise friends, despite her crazy juggling frenzy of work and life.

As the eldest of four children, Margaret was expected to set an example. Be kind to your younger siblings, her parents hammered into her head. Share your room, your things—makeup, clothing, shoes, friends; your knowledge, your values. Let them benefit from what you know. At times, Margaret also shared her anger. She argued over missing clothes, eaten snacks, good friends, crazy ideas, and annoying behaviors. Fortunately over time, these petty grievances disappeared like messages on Snapchat and she learned to save her energy for more important adult issues. But the message of sharing has stuck to her like a Post-It note.

No longer does sharing relate only to the lessons Barbara and Margaret learned in childhood. Now that we’re over age 50, the meaning has broadened to include woman-to-woman sharing of hard-won wisdom, time and even money (to support a cause, a nonprofit startup or a political candidate). Fortuitously, we have found many smart, generous women willing to share. Actress Parker Posey touts author Norah Ephron’s mentoring when she appeared in the movie written by Ephron, “Sleepless in Seattle.” Over lunch, Ephron would dole out crumbs of advice to Posey, which made her a better and funnier actor.

And yet there are other women who are loath to take their time to help others. They throw out such excuses as: I’m so sorry but I’m too busy. The “so sorry” is meant to assuage their guilt. But we know that “The person who really wants to do something finds a way; the other person finds an excuse.”(Source anonymous.) Madeline Albright understood this well with her now infamous line: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

It doesn’t seem prudent, however, for any woman today who has struggled to find her place in a job or in society not to help others of the same sex. There are countless examples of women sabotaging our gender in classic literature. In “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, Caroline Bingley criticizes Eliza Bennet. “Eliza Bennet is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.” In another moment, she adds about Eliza’s eyes: “…they have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable.” Where was your support, Caroline? And it happens in the real world, too, both then and now. In the spirit of women helping women, here are some guidelines that we gladly share with you:

  1. Take a minute or two to take a personal interest in any woman who seeks your expertise. No one is so busy that she can’t give some time whether on the phone or in an email or text, or sometimes in person.
  2. Remember back when you needed help and got it? Now it’s your time to pay it forward.
  3. If you are really too busy, make at least one suggestion including where that person can go for additional help—connect them with another person, a workshop, lecture, book, or website, or make specific plans down the road and don’t back out.
  4. Know that helping someone isn’t a competition, time to be jealous or even get covetous of your turf. In our cases, what we may write has nothing to do with what you might write. An approach to a problem isn’t copyrighted. You can share your editor and your agent as long as your contacts are OK. Ask first. You can share your sources, again often if you ask. And there should be no limit on sharing your ideas and advice.
  5. Understand that there are benefits to sharing, too. It feels good to share in someone else’s success, that warm, fuzzy kind of good. I was there when such and so got her first book published that I read to critique does wonders for your spirits and heart. But in certain cases alert the person: “I will take the time to read and critique, but I must be honest. Are you OK about that, too?”
  6. Accept that sharing isn’t an authoritarian process. Encourage the person seeking your help to develop her own approaches, beliefs, and hone her own personal strengths. You’re just providing some lift-off, not the total flight plan
  7. Guidance is also not a time to do all of a person’s work. Listen, provide some input and constructive feedback, then step back. That’s one of the healthiest kinds of sharing.
  8. Set boundaries. Say, “I will give you 10 minutes on the phone,” or “I will read two chapters and give you feedback,” or still another, “I will introduce you to such and so and then you’re on your own.” If the person balks, then it’s fine to say, “ really can’t do more.”
  9. Make a trade. Be direct, “I usually don’t give away my help for free, so won’t need help each other. I will help get your homemade jellies and jams placed at five local stores where I have contacts, but I’d like you to write a letter of recommendation for me to your book club.”
  10. Try to let go of your fear of sharing a recipe or a friend. It can be so liberating not to feel you have to keep everything to yourself.

Whether you agree with all our points, they are starting points to show we care and will share. We know this one point for sure: If one woman sinks, we all sink. Women supporting other women, however, will send us all afloat.

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