I probably didn’t even need to read Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In,” because by the time I actually picked it up, I had read so many reviews, and had seen so much commentary about the book and about her everywhere – and I mean everywhere – that I felt like I already knew its basic premise (but for the record, unlike some bloggers who have written about her, I did read it.)
It’s essentially a 4th wave feminism theory. It’s not that we need to burn our bras for independence (1st 20th century wave.) It’s not that we have to dress like men with floppy bow ties and shapeless suits to make our way up the corporate ladder (2nd wave.) It’s not that we have to be superwomen, balancing work and family seamlessly and pretending that it’s all rose petals and perfection, and at the same time, fight the backlash against women in the world, a la Susan Faludi (3rd wave.)
It’s that we are still trying to find a way to be the working women we want to be, the moms we want to be, the spouses and partners we want to be, and the people we want to be. And we need tools and support to make that happen.
It’s actually a really good message, despite its detractors. Sure, many have criticized Sandberg for being elitist, for being wealthy and white, for being high up on the corporate ladder where few women rest and therefore not being able to see down the rungs behind her, for being hetero-normative, for being married to a partner with the ability to be flexible and allow her to stretch her limits with a safety net, etc. etc.
All of this is true. And there is the whole nagging other side of the question that she doesn’t really address – how the work world does (or does not) support and accommodate women and men and families. But none of this makes her message any less resonant in my mind.
Sheryl Sandberg advocates for women to be as committed to their careers and that for which they were trained as men. Period. Regardless of family responsibilities, regardless of structural challenges. Her message is that we are in a country and at a time in history where women now are born into the privilege of being able to go to college and plan a career as normally as their male counterparts. And so they should.
They should be able to “lean in” to their work lives and their careers, rather than step back, when they have children. They should heed their ambitions, and find ways to make it work. The days of backlash should be behind us. We should be able to climb in any way we want.
In fact, the most compelling metaphor in Sandberg’s argument is that our work lives should not be perceived as a ladder, with only one way to go up or down. Instead, they are a jungle gym, with many more creative ways to climb. Ladders are limiting; jungle gyms are expansive.
I love this description, and actually, it’s the way I have always seen my work life, as it was the way my mother lived hers.
My mother was an unlikely role model for me, and yet, I think about her career path often. She dropped out of college to marry my father, finally getting her BA only after returning over many years via night school. When I was young she worked part-time, in interesting jobs (publishing and non-profits) but without any real direction.
She didn’t see her work life as being the center of who she was until she was older, and it came together in a job that fed her in a new way. She was hired to run a small community development corporation in Coney Island, Brooklyn. These were the awful, difficult years in our family, when she left our father, and essentially abandoned my sister and me, a pre-teen and a teen, for long periods of time.
But as I think about her work life, I derive inspiration. That little CDC wound up developing the first affordable housing built out in Coney Island, on the edge of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood with little economic vitality. The houses allowed long-time local residents to own and afford clean, decent homes for the first time. It’s an amazing story, and one that I know was one of her proudest moments.
She continued her good work with her next job at a foundation, giving away grants and supporting good works in many communities in New York City. By the time she was a seasoned, late middle-aged professional, she was defined by what she loved – her work. When she died, relatively young and unexpectedly, over 100 people came to her funeral – it was a testament to her work as a community activist and funder to see how many of her grantees came out to say goodbye.
I think about my mother’s unorthodox career path often. She worked when most women, especially mothers, were not working. She always worked part-time, probably in the early days because that’s what was available, and it enabled her to be home for us in the afternoons (although our dad was a school teacher, so he, too, was home on the early side.)
She climbed a different sort of jungle gym. She moved from publishing to foundation work to non-profit advocacy and back to grant making. She found excitement and enthusiasm in working with the community. She involved herself in volunteer neighborhood activism where we lived, and in city politics later in life. She may never have graced the door of my elementary school for a bake sale or field trip (and I sort of wish she had) but I think she followed her passions in a true and honest way.
She leaned in long before it was accepted and popular to do so.
I have always felt that in my own two-career marriage, I have had the advantage in my work trajectory. Once our children were born and it was clear that at least one of us needed to have more flexibility to manage our lives, it was easier for me to take that step. It was in the shadow of 9/11 that I decided not only to work part-time (which I had already been doing) but to give up the perks of an office job and start an independent consulting business, which I ran successfully for 11 years. It allowed me to be almost wherever I needed to be both for work and for my children at any time.
This year, I was able to move – not quite seamlessly, and in fact with some kicking and bucking about losing my flexible work life – back into a full-time job in a senior position in an organization I love.
To be frank, I am still trying to figure out this next move on the jungle gym. Will I creep up to the top? Falter? Sidle sideways? These are all questions I ponder. But they are questions that exist because of the legacy of my mother’s career path, and all my friends and colleagues – mostly women and moms – who have had to think creatively about how they work.
I think it’s a gift.
So, like my mother before me, I am leaning in. My work is a huge part of my self-definition. I am not interested in capitulating to a traditional ladder model, but in scaling the curvy, topsy turvy jungle gym of my life. Perhaps without a safety net, without a clear path, but with strong bars supporting me and a determination to find my own way.
I am grateful for Sheryl Sandberg’s conversation. And I am grateful to live in a time and a place where my daughter and sons also will be able to determine their own path to the top – or the side, or the edge – of that jungle gym of life and work.