Sheryl Sandberg‘s popular book Lean In makes me want to go back to work.
I know, that’s a big 180 from my post a few weeks ago in which I publicly admitted that I am a stay at home mom right now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not actually going to run out and get a 9-5 office job just from reading one book. In fact, it was only parts of the book that made me dream about running a team, changing the world, and wearing Chanel bolero jackets to my sleek corner office at Yahoo! Oh wait. That was a Vogue article about Marissa Mayer.
The rest of the book just overwhelmed me.
By the end of Lean In I was actually tired enough to take a nap and let Sheryl and her colleagues run the world, or at least Facebook. The truth is that even though I suffer identity crises pretty regularly, I know for certain that motherhood slammed physical limits down on me like nothing before it. I have only so much energy, and if I don’t listen to my body, I suffer and so does everyone around me. Over the years I slowly gave up work in favor of family. That doesn’t mean I never work, but it does mean that I have to balance where my energy goes. And if I run out of energy completely, I shut everything down to rest or my body does it for me.
Once upon a time I was an ambitious, creative, thoughtful person who loved making something out of nothing. I worked long hours with other creative, ambitious people, took exercise classes before the evening traffic rush, and stayed up late at night just hanging out with Stewart or going out and socializing. This was before pregnancy and age set in. By the fall of 2004, I was done overachieving.
I remember reading about the career of Kathy Conrad, who produced “Walk the Line” while pregnant, and crying because I knew I would never be able to do something like that. Sandberg herself describes working her butt off while swollen at the end of her pregnancy. There are plenty of women who can do this, but it became clear during both of my pregnancies that I am not one of them.
And so I made my choice, little by little. Here I am, the at-home mother of a third-grader and a first-grader. Yesterday was the first full day of school plus an after-school thing the boys do called The 27 Minute Club, during which they play or do homework. I didn’t have to pick them up until 2:30. Around 9:45 AM I realized that I had SO MANY HOURS left before my “day” was over. The thought popped into my head for a nanosecond: “I could go back to work, couldn’t I?”
And then I looked at the laundry, the dust, my list of writing projects, and the enormous pile of old photographs that I keep swearing I will organize when I find the time. This is what I’ve always wanted! Isn’t it? I joked about all this “free time” to a colleague and she answered: “in my experience, you will quickly adjust and begin filling all that time in the blink of an eye.” Honoring my new commitment to be kinder to myself, I am not jumping into anything new. I’m giving myself time to embrace this time.
Which gave me time to read Sandberg’s book. In an event of cosmic significance, Lean In became available for me at my local library right around the day that “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” hit the internet (prompting my navel-gazing essay, “The Number One Danger of Being a Stay at Home Mom“). It’s been a while since my blogging friends and the rest of the media world first started reacting to Sandberg’s book. I remember wondering what the fuss was, and I put it on hold at the library so I could at least understand why people loved or hated it so hard. I guess a lot of other readers in Los Angeles wanted to know, too. I was number 352 in the queue.
All these months later, I can say this: I liked it. I don’t know Sheryl Sandberg, but from her work history I can imagine that she’s probably a force of nature. I would probably need a nap just from hanging out with her for a few minutes. We need people like her in the world. Not just women like her, but people like her. They get things done.
Sandberg’s message is inspirational – women can and should have a voice in the shaping of our culture, not just the workplace. Sandberg isn’t telling you what to do in Lean In. She’s telling you what she did, and what she wishes more women would do. She’s describing things that happened to her as a smart person looking for meaningful work, looking to make a difference, and how her woman-ness influenced, for good or bad, the direction of her work and life. She cites a lot of Data and Science to prove that there is a societal bias that has made it harder for women to make an impact on business and academics, but that we are, slowly but surely.
These societal biases surprised me, even though I am forty-one years old and I have worked in the world since I was 14. Sandberg recounts a 2003 Columbia Business School study about perceptions of men and women in the workplace. Overall, the study found that success makes men more likable, and women less likable. When women stand up for something on behalf of others, that’s fine, but if she stands up for herself, she’s seen in a negative light.
The rest of the chapter “Success and Likability” that follows from her description of the Columbia study highlights that there a million different ways that a woman can make a misstep at work, ways that she could never even fathom. Looking back on my own career before children, I know that I made my way without giving my femaleness a second thought. I wanted what I wanted, so I went after it. I believed I was talented enough to get the job so I applied. I worked hard enough to get the promotion, so I asked for it. I knew my ideas were good, so I fought for them. I didn’t alter any of my applications or interviews or requests for promotions one bit to allow for the fact that I am a woman.
Imagine how I must have screwed it all up for myself. Who knows what assertions of mine made me look like a power-hungry bitch? Instead of maxing out as a lowly producer, I could have gone on to run shows, series, or even production companies. Maybe I could have actually gotten to the point where I had creative freedom, and produced media that made a positive impact on the world, which was what I always wanted to do.
Sandberg’s point, of course, is that none of that should matter, but it does matter now so we should be aware of it. Her solution is that “women can enter these negotiations with the knowledge that showing concern for the common good, even as they negotiate for themselves, will strengthen their position.” In other words, go after what you want, but make it look like you’re doing it for the benefit of everyone.
More than the studies, I truly enjoyed reading Sandberg’s personal anecdotes about the times people in her industry supported her and about the times she was smacked down. What she learned from these experiences, she passes on to the reader. That is the best kind of personal writing, in my opinion. “Here is what happened to me. Here is what I learned from it.” The reader can choose to learn from it too, or to put the book down. There is no need to be offended by her language.
In fact, Sandberg is very diplomatic, sure to include messages of approval for women, and men, who can’t or choose not to work in favor of staying home with their kids. She even concedes that it’s okay to be a woman who chooses not to surpass a certain level of power. I recognize her tactics in my own writing – wanting to make a bold statement without pissing people off. It’s basically saying “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” when you point out that someone else’s way of doing things is different than your own.
I’ve been mostly home with the kids for a while now, having quit my “day job” (which I did while at home…with the kids) almost a year ago. The ambitious part of me is dormant. I’d much rather take my kids on a spontaneous camping trip than be present for a day of strategy meetings. I love not having to race off to work after dropping the kids off at school, worrying about the afternoon traffic and whether or not I can make it to the YMCA childcare center by 6 PM, or even cramming a last few minutes of HTML editing in before I shove a hot dog bun in my face as I run out the door of my home office to be late for pickup, again. I am enjoying the freedom of time.
While reading Lean In, though, I felt stirrings. I found myself fantasizing about being a role model of a happy working mother for my children. I felt like I, too, can help the world make progress. I can bring my ideas to the table. I can speak up for myself and others. I can insist on sane working hours and set clear boundaries between business and family. I can lean in.
But not today.
I have to pick up the kids in an hour, and after that I’ll probably doze on the couch, because doing homework with my reluctant first-grader takes all of my available energy. There will be nothing left over for work.