Leaning In without Falling Over

The only thing that stuck in my head from the media chatter that surrounded the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead earlier this year was the tidbit that Sandberg refuses to disclose the details of her childcare arrangements. Oh sure, I thought, this millionaire lady encourages ordinary women with children to “lean in” to their careers, but leaves invisible the fact that having access to the best nannies (not to mention housekeepers, personal chefs, gardeners, and who knows who else) can make balancing career and motherhood a whole lot easier. By obscuring this army of laborers, she implies she’s running home from Facebook to fetch her kids from school, cook them dinner, and pick up their toys, thus perpetuating the the Supermom myth, the doing-it-all myth, etc., I grumbled.

But of course, because I can’t long resist reading anything in pop culture having to do with working motherhood, even and especially if I know it will annoy me, I downloaded Lean In from the public library and read it on my phone in the moments between work and taking care of my son. What I found was in some ways just what I expected, but in other ways surprisingly charming and relatable. At its best moments (those moments when her editor probably said, “You need an anecdote here”), it’s a memoir, a love story about a woman in love with her job. I am always fascinated by that mysterious chemistry between a person and the work she or he was meant to do, and so I can’t resist a good vocational bildungsroman.

Sandberg was clearly meant to be in the “C-suite,” a term I just learned from this book since I’m not exactly running those circles. As a girl she was CEO of the sandbox. Here’s the beginning of the toast her brother and sister gave at her wedding:

Hi! Some of you think we are Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl’s first employees—employee number one and employee number two. Initally, as a one-year-old and a three-year-old, we were worthless and weak….But Sheryl could see that we had potential. For more than ten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape.

As an adult, Sandberg rose quickly in the business world, working at Google and then Facebook. Surprisingly, however, she discusses frequently feeling insecure about her abilities and whether she deserves to be where she is. In that, I was reminded of Personal History, Katharine Graham’s amazing memoir of being publisher of the Washington Post. It’s a testament to the power of the patriarchy that even women in such high positions as theirs have to fight the same insecurities and impostor complexes as the rest of us.

From the "Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies" Pinterest page

From the “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies” Pinterest page

The fact that Sandberg frankly acknowledges dearly loving both her children and her job is welcome, as it gives us a more complex portrait of working motherhood than the media stereotype exemplified by Jessica Valenti’s collection of stock photos  “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies.” But when Sandberg leaves off discussing her own life and instead tells me what all women should do, I am less interested. She gives some innocuous advice in a self-help vein about how women can get along in their careers, but what started to bother me was not the advice itself but her focusing so resolutely on change at the personal level rather than the political level, the argument being that you should go back to work because more female leaders will help improve conditions for all women. She cites the fact that when she worked at Google, she was able to institute special parking spaces for pregnant women.

But I’m afraid we need a lot more than pregnancy parking. Paid maternity leave would be a great start, and the option to take longer than the 12 weeks off provided by the FMLA. The moment I was most tempted to quit my job was when I had to return to work when my son was still a helpless three-month-old and I was still nursing around the clock. “How can I possibly leave him?” I thought. Everyone survived, but it wasn’t fun. I would have been a lot more excited about “leaning in” if I had had the guaranteed 16 months off they have in Sweden.

To Sandberg’s credit, she does mention the desirability of paid maternity leave, but she quickly moves on to how women can find satisfaction within the existing structure. That may be just pragmatic of her, or understandably pessimistic about what can be accomplished in the political sphere, but still I wanted Sandberg to expand her horizons and imagine what it would be like if the workplace, and society, were radically different: paid maternity (and paternity) leave, more time off when babies are small, state-subsidized childcare, and truly flexible workplaces. She does say that she wants to see more women leaning in and their husbands staying home with the kids. But what if no one had to be in the role of working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with the other parent (or a nanny) having to take up the slack? What if all jobs were structured in such a way that they accommodated family life, instead of being based on the outdated model of a breadwinner who has a stay-at-home spouse?

That’s a vision I could lean in to.