Leaning In, Bailing Out: Thoughts on Sandberg's New Book

Sheryl Sandberg is center stage again this week as she promotes her upcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead.  As I understand it, the concept behind “leaning in” has to do with women pushing forward in their careers rather than bailing out as they approach the child bearing years.  This notion came from Sandberg having seen too many women opt out of promising careers before they were even pregnant, for fear of not being able to hack the mother/leader/wife balance game.

But what’s really making headlines is the fierce criticism she’s facing for it.

Some feminists are bashing Lean In because it is filled with advice addressing a rich girl’s dilemma – “Gee, should I get the nanny, have an amazing career and use my Ivy League education, or just stay home and focus on my kids?” Others feel that Sandberg is putting too much blame on women, letting corporations and government off the hook - not to mention the husbands - who should be working towards more affordable child care, family friendly policies, or a more fair division of house-holding labor.

Honestly, the more I read the criticism, the more annoyed I become.  Sandberg isn’t writing for low-income women.  She’s writing for women who have arrived at a place of financial and/or professional success either by hard work, planning, intelligence, charisma, dumb luck, or some combination thereof.  But apparently, that's not allowed.

Aren’t these precisely the kind of women that feminism has been hoping for? Women who could set the course for their destiny and not just succeed, but succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings?   Is feminism only for the poor and marginalized?

My inner feminist is angry that Sheryl is the recipient of this kind of vitriol. My inner feminist is mad as hell that, yet again, women are being censored as they tell the truth about what matters to them.

But if I’m being completely honest, I was also angry when I first heard Sandberg’s assertion that we women should just suck it up, and push ourselves hard throughout pregnancy… have the baby and then hurry back to work.  The not-so-subtle message seems to be that if we didn’t take this approach, we weren’t trying hard enough.

Having had three children while running my own business, I can honestly say: “leaning in” is one of those ideas that we can all rally around, but in practice can be a nightmare.

I was on bed rest with two of my three children because I did precisely what Sandberg is recommending: A full pedal-to-the metal pregnancy strategy.

And according to Sheryl Sandberg’s world view, I’ve made all the right choices since then. I’m back at it after just 9 weeks or so of maternity leave.  To be fair, my schedule is more flexible than most.  But regardless, “leaning in” has very real consequences.

After one marathon client session, I remember pumping breast milk in a disgusting bathroom stall at La Guardia Airport, with the automatic toilet flushing at erratic intervals, scaring me half to death each time.  After 30 minutes of pumping, the milk situation just wasn’t happening.  I was so sore, I could barely move. But between the filth of the bathroom, the war zone flushing noises, and the vague terror of knowing that I could miss my flight, or suffer excruciating pain on the flight home, I couldn’t make headway.  I stared at those plastic bottles and WILLED them to fill with milk.  Nothing.  I wept and wondered “What the hell am I doing? Whose idea was this?”

But I also remember the exhilaration of that great session with kind, smart, funny, self aware clients, and I remember the joy of knowing that I was using my talents in a way that helped people.

I haven’t yet read Lean In (it's not out for a few weeks), but I’m hoping Sheryl is honest about the fact that yes, women of a certain income and education level do have more choices, and that yes, we can choose to “lean in.”  We can choose  to take full advantage of those precious opportunities to change the face of business leadership.

But the truth is that it’s bone crushingly difficult.   In fact, the only way to make it work is if you love what you do.  If you don’t love the work, “bone crushingly difficult” becomes “soul crushingly difficult.”

I tear my hair out on a weekly basis trying to make sure I give my children what they need, so they will rise to their greatest potential, while simultaneously making sure that my work gets the TLC it needs to thrive.  The stakes are high.  But I’m nourished by both my children and my work.  There’s no question I would choose my kids over my job if push came to shove, but isn’t the hope of feminism that women are no longer forced to make this choice? After all, this is not a choice men are often asked to make.

So while I'm on Sandberg's side in theory, I sure hope Lean In doesn’t sugar coat the reality of what it really means to be a Mother/Leader/Wife for the next generation of women business leaders.  Otherwise, the next thing getting Occupied might be Sandberg’s office.