I recently finished the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and, as expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have even referred several friends to read it and I even joined the Facebook page. In many ways I do think of myself as a feminist, supporting much of what the feminist movement worked so hard to provide me and I want to instill in my daughter the idea that she can be anything she wants in this life. When I think about both of my children, I want to make sure their world is bigger than mine ever was. I want them to make their world anything they want it to be and not to be afraid of what the world has to offer. I agree with the book in many, many ways and I recognize in myself the exact things she is warning us about. I see how we, as women, can be our own worst enemy and hold ourselves back. (I’ve been there!) I see the conflict we face about juggling motherhood, parenthood, partnerhood, and workhood. (Done that!) With all of that said, and all of the acknowledgements and praise, I am still hesitant to lean all the way in. In some small, but critical ways, I see Sandberg’s story as a bit of a cautionary tale.
I am a woman. I am not a man. No matter how many suits I put on or how short I cut my hair, I will always be female. While we all want equality in the workplace, the fact remains that men and women are different. Part of our struggle as women is this ridiculous notion that somehow men and women should somehow be the same or at least similar. The way we think, feel, speak, interact will always be different. And thankfully so! If we were all a bunch of men, civilization as we know it would end. There is a ton of positives having both two very different genders. No matter how many support systems you put in place for me in the workplace, I’m still going to function as a woman. The greatest difference between the sexes is my ability to bear children. Women have children for a reason and in turn, the way we function as a human is a result of us having children. The two are infinitely linked. There is no man on the planet able to have a child. You can say what you want about the ‘pregnant man’ but as long as he had ovaries, a uterus, and a vagina, he is simply a woman with a beard. Childbearing is the reason men were the hunters and gatherers. They were not made to stay home and raise the children. They do not have the emotional, innate compass that tells a mother that her child is constipated just by looking at her. AND THAT IS OK.
In the book, Sandberg makes a few blanket statements that I have to take issue with. Before I start, I have to clarify that I am a working mother. I am well-educated and bring home a pretty fair salary. I earned a doctorate and have had my professional writing published. It is safe to say that I have a career. I am truly blessed with terrific co-workers and a tremendous amount of flexibility. But, as a working mother, I have to pause and wonder just how far, do I actually want to lean in.
Clearly, I am not, nor will I ever be on the same playing field as Sheryl Sandberg. Make no assumptions here. I have no ‘staff.’ But we both work and we both have kids. I would venture to guess that most kids don’t really care how much money their parents make. The priority with kids is actual face time. And I don’t mean the kind on your phone. I wonder, is there any job worth taking my face time away from my kids? In the book, Sandberg recounts the time she dropped off her child to school and unbeknownst to her it was St. Patrick’s Day. She didn’t notice until another mother reminded her that her child was supposed to wear green that day. Her child was dressed in blue. She blew off the blunder and made a dismissive comment about who really remembers St. Patrick’s Day anyway. Agreed. Yes, as a 38-year-old woman, I don’t really care that much about St. Patrick’s Day. But that’s not the case with my 5-year-old daughter. Wearing green to school is fun and who wants to be left out of the fun? Who doesn’t want to find a hidden trick left by the leprechaun like green milk for breakfast or green bath water at night? Seeing these events through the eyes of my children is what makes this life so incredibly wonderful. Not only do I not want my children to miss out on these memories, but I don’t want to miss them either!
So I have to ask, should I be leaning in to my job so much that I don’t lean in to my children? This is what I signed up for, right? When Brian and I chose to have children, it meant that something had to give. We all have 24 hours in a day and kids take up quite a bit of that time. Should I find meaningful work that also allows me ongoing connectedness to my children or is it ok to drop the ball on things that count? I’m not sure I want to take that risk.
My kids are beyond important. That goes without saying. But, truly other people’s children are actually pretty important to me, too. I’m referring to my kids’ friends. The people my children are building relationships with are actually pretty important people to get to know. I was floored when Sandberg admitted to not knowing any of her children’s friends (or their families). This makes me assume there are few play dates shared over grilled cheese sandwiches and cupcakes. I am not a stay-at-home mom so I don’t have the luxury of spending days volunteering at my daughter’s school. I do, however manage to serve lunch once a month and Brian and I make an effort to be at every major event like the holiday party or splash day. Otherwise, I do my part in what I like to call ‘mommy networking.’ I make an effort to forge relationships with the parents of the my kids’ friends. I can’t imagine parenting any other way. It is important for my children and it is healthy for me. Having relationships with other mothers supports healthy relationships for all of our children – it’s a win-win for all of us. I just wonder if it really is valuable for us as mothers to lean in so significantly to our jobs that we end up disconnecting from the lives of the little people who rely so heavily on us? Is having everything really worth having?
As I admitted earlier, Brian and I don’t have ‘staff.’ Far from it. Of course it would be nice – all I want for Christmas is a housekeeper! But until then, my floors will remain dirty. Yes it is true, my son often comes running to me asking for help because he has a Cheerio or Goldfish crumb stuck to his foot. Sometimes I want to remind him that it’s his fault after all, I’m certainly not the one eating that stuff, let alone dropping it on the floor. Truthfully, I’m just thankful that I’m the one he can come running to when he needs something. In the book, sadly, Sandberg admitted to the time when her toddler went to the nanny for comfort instead of going to her. Simply reading the words broke my heart for her. I can’t imagine my child wanting another (non-related) person and not me. She wrote that her husband tried to comfort her pointing out that the child had actually developed quite an attachment for the nanny which was a good sign of healthy development. True. We want our children to have a healthy attachment to their care givers. I have no argument there. My daughter loved her preschool teacher so much she still asks to have her over to our house for lunch. She would also like her to spend the night. This is a great thing. It gave us such comfort to know that our daughter was in such a loving environment each day, however I seriously doubt she would have chosen her teacher to comfort her when her fish died. (All four of them. At once.) Don’t be ridiculous. When our children are small, we are the most important and most critical relationship they have. Why wouldn’t I want to be there for them when they need me? Do I really want someone else raising my children? Is there any job worth that? Maybe I’m wrong but I thought that was the reason we chose to have them. I’m just not certain I want to get to a place where my co-workers know me better than my children do, and I don’t know my children as well as my nanny does.
I also don’t want to wake up one day and realize that my kids don’t really care about St. Patrick’s Day anymore and somehow I missed that.
One thing Sandberg discusses at length is our hesitation as women. Don’t leave before you leave. Don’t quit before the game has begun. I always like to think as women, or as people, it is best to be in the position to say ‘no.’ Don’t pass on the interview. Put yourself in the position to turn down the offer. It’s always the best place to be. I recently encouraged a friend to pursue her career change now. I told her if she doesn’t like it, she can always leave but having the option to leave is the best place to be. If you pass on it all now, what happens if you decide you want the career later but there is nothing left for you? (Kudos to me as all of this advice came prior to me reading this book.) When Sandberg was offered the job at Facebook she was concerned about what it all would mean, logistically. Despite that, she leaned all in saying, “If someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship you don’t ask questions, you just get on.” Maybe. Didn’t I mention that I have kids? If I was 28 and single with no kids, there wouldn’t be a single question. With kids, that a totally different story! Maybe the difference here is that she has staff to handle things but if I’m offered a ride on a rocket ship you can damn well bet I will have questions. Not in any specific order, but my list of questions would be something like this:
- “How long exactly will we gone?”
- “Will there be food on the ride? I just need to know if I should pack a lunch.”
- “Should I plan lunch for my kids? Again, I really need to know about how long we will be gone.”
- “Will we arrive back at the Baton Rouge airport? I’m not really certain where rocket ships land so knowing that would be helpful.”
- “Can you give me an idea of how long we will be gone, I may need to arrange for my mother-in-law to come stay with Brian and the kids.”
- “Will there be ground transportation when we arrive back home? I’m wondering how I will get back to my house. If I need to make those arrangements that’s fine just let me know.”
- “Do I need any specific documents before we leave? I’ve never left the atmosphere before so being prepared is important to me. Would I need my passport? License? Shot records?”
I happen to be a working woman currently looking for a new career opportunity. So the thought runs into my mind…how much am I willing to give up? Let’s say I get offered a job that pays, say $1M per year. (This is just for discussion sake, of course.) But there’s a catch – my days would be 8am – 6pm every day, 75% time spent traveling, and some nights and weekends will be spent working. With that kind of pay I could easily hire a cook, a housekeeper, and a nanny to raise our children. So would I take the job? The fact that I’m even pondering it tell me that the answer is most likely ‘no.’ So what does that say about me? Am I not very ambitious? Am I satisfied with less? Am I afraid to work harder and longer days? I think it basically says that I’m really ok with having dirty floors. Brian just assured me last Saturday morning when William was once again griping about having a crumb stuck to his toe. I remarked about the floors and Brian said, “Mel, relax. We have a great life. Look how happy these kids are. Don’t worry about the floors.” After that he proceeded to vacuum the entire house.
I do believe it is harder for women. This is not to say that men don’t miss their families when they are traveling or find little time for their own interests and outlets. I don’t want any man to fire off an email telling me that I am dismissing their perspective. It goes back to who we are as humans – it literally is how we are made. Once again I stress that this is totally fine and should be embraced! What would our society have been like if we all were made with the hunting instinct? Our babies would have been left to starve while we were off foraging for food! And can you imagine if we were all a bunch of bleeding heart nurturers? We surly would have all starved to death! We are now faced with the desire to be in the workforce but also the natural instinct and desire to be with and care for our children. It is a balancing act that requires great skill and well articulated choices. As I said earlier, I don’t mind taking risks, just not at my children’s expense.
And look, I really loved the book and still encourage women and men alike to read it. I think the overall message is great but there does exist a cautionary tale that I think should be considered. Not just for me either, for my daughter, too. Finding her way through life will include trips and traps just as we all have faced. I just hope to teach her, hopefully by example, that balance can be achieved. Making good decisions and deciding what is really important will lead you there. Focus on the future. Focus on what’s important. Think about how you are spending your time.
So do I want to lean in? Sure I do. I am lucky to say that I enjoy working. But the basic laws of physics says that if I lean in the direction of one thing, I am simultaneously leaning away from something else. So if that’s the case, I just don’t think I’m willing to lean away from what really matters.