Lean In For Some, But Most Need Something Else

1362113363313-1.cachedSheryl  Sandberg's new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is getting lots of press, and like all the commentators, I haven't read it yet. I probably won't read it, because it's not terribly relevant to my life. Let's talk about it anyway. 

In the past year, Sandberg has spoken a great deal about the central message of this book. She says that there aren't enough women leaders in politics or business, because women give up too early. They are so worried about balancing life and family that they purposely don't try hard enough in the workplace, even before they have kids. Sandberg says that women should put on the steam and not worry about the family stuff until they have to deal with it. 

Critics say that Sandberg is blaming the victim. Women aren't achieving more, because they aren't working hard enough? Really? Sandberg's defenders say that she gives plenty of attention to the deficits in policy and plain old sexism. Joan Walsh in Salon gives examples of women in her office who didn't ask for raises, while the men did. 

One of my pet peeves is when social critics lump all women together in one group. Women have different preferences and abilities. Some want to make millions and run a Fortune 500 company, Others want a job that pays a decent amount, but doesn't consume their lives. Others want to devote all their energy into their families.

For those that want the CEO office, then Sandberg's advice is most useful. Well, my advice would be even more extreme. If you want the CEO office, then don't plan on having kids at all. 

Dolly Parton was interviewed on NPR last week. She said that if she had kids, she probably wouldn't have been so successful as an singer. She didn't regret her decision. She had a lot of neices and nephews and she got her kid fix from them. 

A friend of mine and I were gossiping last week about fellow academics who were getting promotions and all that. The commonality? They didn't have kids. Some weren't even married. 

My kids are nearly 11 and 14. I always imagined that this would be the time when the parenting responsibilities would ease up. In some ways they have. I can leave Jonah to babysit Ian, when I go to the gym or whatever. Ian, my special needs kid, is simply delightful. He's incredibly happy and content at the moment and requires very little parenting energy. The school bureaucracy is still time consuming, but I'm no longer spending hours and hours teaching him how to talk. Jonah is another story. 

Jonah hit puberty like a brick wall last month. He didn't ease  into his teenage years gradually. It was a sudden and abupt change in body and mind. My formerly laid back, sweet boy is now moody and sullen. It's a boy version of PMS. The change is so textbook that I have a hard time not laughing when he moans, "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" He requires vast amounts of time and patience right now. I now understand why some parents choose to work through the younger years and then stay at home when the kids hit high school.

Since we could use some extra casheroo these days, I've been poking around at the job market. I'm not sure what I want to do, so I've been exploring all the options from retail to academia to policy think tanks. I ran across a position as a Policy Director at a major foundation helping activist groups with their social media policy, but didn't apply, because it was going to be 60 hour a week job with a three hour commute. If I leaned into this job, I would be dead from exhaustion, and my teenage kid would be left to navigate some very choppy waters by himself. Couldn't do it. 

My problem with Sandberg's book isn't her advice. For women who want the top levels of business and politics, women do have to be more aggressive. The problem is that most people don't want that. There are too many sacrifices. 

I also wish that I had mapped out a better career plan in my twenties. Unlike the women that Sandberg encounters, I didn't make strategic career decisions. It would have been better for me to work in my twenties and squirrel away the cash, rather than squander time in graduate school. I should have chosen a career that would let me cycle in and out of the workforce seamlessly. 

So, I suppose that "leaning in" is good advice for a very small group of women. But most people need something else. 

25 thoughts on “Lean In For Some, But Most Need Something Else

  1. “Jonah hit puberty like a brick wall last month. He didn’t ease into his teenage years gradually. It was a sudden and abupt change in body and mind. My formerly laid back, sweet boy is now moody and sullen. It’s a boy version of PMS. The change is so textbook that I have a hard time not laughing when he moans, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” He requires vast amounts of time and patience right now.”
    Welcome to my life for the past 2.5 years. I swear, S woke up on the morning of her 11th birthday like this. Girls do it faster than boys. I dread E hitting puberty.
    I was out of town most of last week then I got home and we bought a house (long story, new construction). And this morning I realized my son had not done any of his school work for the past week. Just got off e-mail with his teacher. I told her to let him have recess today and I would put the screws to him today after school. Buh-bye, DS. I’ll also be putting a new password on the computer. I like to make the password hint “Gee, you should have done your homework, huh.” Anyway, it was an eye-opener that my husband basically spent the past week while I was gone, even though he took half-days from work and did not have German class at night, doing absolutely NOTHING. Sheesh.

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  2. Btw, I would never take a job with a 3-hour commute. Ever. No job could be that good. Right now I live 7 miles from work and am moving slightly closer. My husband will be cutting his commute from 6 miles to 4.5. I may even start biking to work.

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  3. “It would have been better for me to work in my twenties and squirrel away the cash, rather than squander that time in graduate school. I should have chosen a career that would let me cycle in and out of the workforce seamlessly.”
    Your twentyish-old self wouldn’t have listened to this advice if you had given it. Neither would mine. The problem, is that a childless person in their twenties can’t even grasp the complexities of work-life balance until they start contemplating having a family.
    When kids are young, there is so much more physical labor involved, but it’s at least easier to delegate the work to someone else. I don’t think delegation works with pre-teens and teenagers. With an almost five year old daughter on one end, and an eleven year old daughter on the other (with a third in between), honestly, I just don’t see an end in sight.

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  4. My problem with Sandberg’s book isn’t her advice. For women who want the top levels of business and politics, women do have to be more aggressive. The problem is that most people don’t want that. There are too many sacrifices.
    You know who does get to write advice books? The woman whose life story is, “I put my personal relationship on the back burner, did not get married, did not have kids, so that I could pursue my career. Then, in my early 30s, after climbing through the ranks, I was laid off in a corporate downsizing, and couldn’t get a comparable position. Now, I am in my 40s, making less than I earned 10 years ago, and have no family or close friends outside of work to fall back on.”
    It’s the flip side to “Don’t be a housewife, you might get divorced.” There’s no constituency (outside of your grandma, maybe) for “Don’t focus on your career. You might get fired.”
    Sandberg took the path she took and was successful. Good for her. If a hundred women did the same thing, how many would be in her shoes, and how many would be writing the lonely, unemployed book? I honestly have no idea. But it’s a reason I hate the entire genre of “I’m a success! Do what I did!” books.
    There are probably more living million dollar Lotto winners than Fortune 500 COOs. The shelf of books by million dollar Lotto winners would all say, “I bought a ticket every week, even if I had to skip dinner. And then, one day, it paid off!” Even if its in 100 books, that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy.

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  5. Sympathies: parenting the special needs kid and the neurotypical teen can both be hard work. Right now we’re in a pretty good spot but it’s never smooth sailing for long!
    The key issue is that parenting is unpredictable and isn’t something where you can just swap out to someone else the way you can with many work duties. Worse, if you say “let’s lean in!” and things do go south, you have no support system ready to help you out. What might be addressed with some simple accommodation takes ages to manage and, even then, maybe not. You leave your job and the cloud tags along when you job-hunt elsewhere. “Sure, she was good at that but in a crisis. . . .”
    All of these advice books and interviews are predicated on absolutely everything going well. But when it doesn’t, especially when it comes to family, solving the problem can take months. Even if you are covered by the FMLA, how much time does that give you? Let’s say you work at Yahoo – good luck getting a work-from-home accommodation! The modern western workplace is not default people-friendly: in the U.S. moreso than other places.
    In my family, we’ve put the priority on my career while my partner’s career has been stalled at less than half-time in order to ensure that Autistic Youngest always has someone available when the school phones about another minor or major crisis. Even so, there are some issues with her that only I can manage. The result is that my research agenda’s been hobbled horribly as I can’t travel away to do extended archival work without risking her descending into some suspension-worthy drama or worse. And there has been worse. . . .

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  6. There are probably more living million dollar Lotto winners than Fortune 500 COOs. The shelf of books by million dollar Lotto winners would all say, “I bought a ticket every week, even if I had to skip dinner. And then, one day, it paid off!” Even if its in 100 books, that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy.
    Exactly. It’s basically selection on the dependent variable.

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  7. I think the problem with saying “I should have done X in my teens” is that there are an awful lot of things about our world today that we couldn’t have predicted.
    When I started grad school, the internet didn’t exist, so I couldn’t have factored the possibility of working from home via the internet into my career planning in my early twenties. Many of my friends have jobs (like Director of Social Media) that didn’t exist when they were in grad school.
    You also can’t predict the kind of kids you’re going to have. I remember feeling horribly guilty when my kids were little when everybody else’s kids were great about going to daycare and I had sensory-issues kid who screamed for 45 minutes every morning as I attempted to get him dressed. Don’t think we could have done the drop off at daycare, take public transportation to get there, etc. routine. (We too had to pick up a kid from school for meltdowns at least twice a month for several years. There’s no job in America that builds that into the equation).
    I didn’t plan on marrying someone who was deployed for most of the first five years of my kid’s lives — again, couldn’t have had a 50/50 job relationship with taking turns picking kids up from daycare even if I had really wanted it.
    I remember when I was in the foreign service you would meet these women who had it all, and then when you started talking to them you always learned that there was more to the story: There was one whose elderly, retired, widowed mother followed her around the world raising her kids while she got promoted to ambassador. Good for her, but not exactly workable as a lifestyle blueprint. There was another who married a guy who was a lot older than her and got her ‘kid fix’ by being a step mother to older teenagers. Again, it’s a solution but I’m not sure it’s for everybody. The woman who married the guy who was an artist who followed her around. Not sure that would have worked for me either.

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  8. “And this morning I realized my son had not done any of his school work for the past week.”
    Congratulations on the house! Will you post some photos?
    I was recently having the talk with my husband about the proper response to C saying she doesn’t have any homework (C’s understanding of “homework” is much narrower than mine–it doesn’t include quiz review or assignments due later than tomorrow). I explained to my husband that minimally, we need to have her unpack her backpack (lunch bag, water bottle, dirty clothes in PE bag, etc.) and have a look at her assignment notebook and her folder. My husband struggles a bit with what “have a look at” the folder entails. When I do it, I look at each and every piece of paper in her folder and 1) see if grades look satisfactory 2) recycle old papers 3) look for quiz review sheets (and review the material with her) 4) be on the look out for anything that looks homework-y (and have her do it). That doesn’t entirely cover the full range of possibilities, either.

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  9. I should have chosen a career that would let me cycle in and out of the workforce seamlessly.
    Yeah, well, that’s kind of everyone’s holy grail, isn’t it? Other than nursing, and even them to a limited extent, those jobs don’t exist. In every career, once you’re out for a few years, the technology moves on while you don’t. The licenses lap, and your network falls apart.

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  10. Has your teenaged boy discovered Axe bodyspray/deodorant/etc. yet? I find it hilarious to ask teenagers their opinions on the topic.
    The Raggirls have all come down as “anti-” on Axe body spray and Justin Bieber, and “pro-” Taylor Swift and Aeropostale fashion.
    While I guess the choices are fine, I am more amused that it is required that one take a side. “I don’t think about Justin Bieber” is not acceptable.
    In my latest iteration of “Bad Parenting 101,” however, the entire family is hooked on the newish song “Thrift Shop.” Bad language and all. I keep thinking “this is soooo inappropriate to be singing with pre-teens.” But we can’t stop listening to it!

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  11. the entire family is hooked on the newish song “Thrift Shop.”
    My 3 and 5 year old love that song too. There is a clean version on Spotify if you have that.
    My parents only lightly censored our music, tv, and movies once we around age 10 or so and I think I will probably do the same for my children. I’d rather talk to my kids about what they are seeing and hearing rather than forbid it and have them see it on their own.

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  12. “If you go to Ikea to fill it, don’t eat the meatballs.”
    Nay, I won’t.
    Amy, no pics because it’s still just a lot. We probably wont move in till August or September.

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  13. “Amy, no pics because it’s still just a lot. We probably wont move in till August or September.”
    In that case, I recommend Marni Jameson’s book “The House Always Wins.” It has corny girl humor, but it has very nice step-by-step advice. I’ve read my copy several times.

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  14. I don’t think that’s a good idea, to be reviewing your child’s school papers. What will happen when there is no parent present? What the child needs is to internalize a stern and distant father figure who will be immensely disappointed, even angry, if the child does not on his or her own study for and do well on quizzes, start term papers more than one day in advance, etc.
    This internalized, stern and distant father figure is the basis of civilization and morality, but that is a topic for another day.

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  15. “What the child needs is to internalize a stern and distant father figure who will be immensely disappointed, even angry, if the child does not on his or her own study . . . .”
    These would be the children who kill themselves in their dorm rooms at MIT, like Satto Tonegawa (Sosumu Tonegawa’s son). It’s kind of funny in theory, but in practice has a bit too much danger for my child-raising choices.
    I do agree that there needs to be a transition from checking your kids’ homework to their being responsible for it, and I’m guessing it occurs at different times for different people. My 6th grader has been pretty much on top of everything forever (and, I suspect, is now fairly more responsible than me about keeping track of everything — though she does think she’s too busy to unload the dishwasher). My 3rd grader didn’t turn in his Spanish homework last week and needs to be reminded. But, he doesn’t have much homework, and does remember, if we remind him on occasion. He’s also amenable to being told to think about his whole week’s schedule in planning due dates.

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  16. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, to be reviewing your child’s school papers. What will happen when there is no parent present?”
    There are a lot more moving parts to school than there were when we were kids (don’t get me started on the horrors of History Fair). I find the paperwork that school generates daunting, and I’m getting to be middle-aged. Even when I was a 5th grader, I had a lot of trouble with my paperwork (I don’t know that my mom EVER asked me about my school work). I don’t think I was capable of managing my school papers until I was a 7th grader and 1) my 5th grader has way more going on than I did at that age and 2) she struggles much more with disorganization and spacing out. If she had any more trouble with attention issues than she does now, I would have to seriously consider medication.
    Eventually she’ll have to do it herself, but I don’t think that it would be developmentally appropriate (or wise) to expect that now, any more than it would be appropriate to just let her room revert to “natural” (i.e. ankle deep in craft projects). (Don’t worry–she’s the one doing 80% of the cleaning.)

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  17. But I’d argue that the problem is that she’s being asked to do too much, being given a break on developing executive functioning skills in search of more content knowledge. This is the worry I have about schoolwork demands these days, that the demand that you work at your highest level in everything and then get a break on those things that are difficult, but “boring” (like keeping track of your work).
    For my kids, I feel like the school does a good job of keeping the developmental demands appropriate. I know though that my kids are pretty organized, and other parents don’t always feel that way.

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  18. Yeah, Sheryl’s advice only works for a handful of people. I also find that, like academia, we focus too much on the ideal/best job. There are plenty of satisfying jobs, even in tech (not sure about academia anymore) that aren’t 60 hours/week. And there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to be at the tippy top. That’s what’s always killed me my whole life. The shame that seemed to come with not even aspiring to the top. (Or in academia, not wanting a t-t job.) If you know that that lifestyle wouldn’t work for you, isn’t that smart? I find my career right now just demanding enough. I’m incredibly busy, but can still set aside work when I’m home–most of time (not true last night, for example). And it’s flexible enough–thanks to some good support from colleagues–that if I need to manage something at home, I can.
    On teenagers, hardest thing I’ve ever done. I did exactly what laura suggests. I quit my job when my son hit middle school, and just went back mid high school to a job that had more flexibility. Kids need you when they’re teens even though they give every indication that they want you to get lost. Despite the incredibly rocky road we’ve had, I feel better about what we’re doing as parents than I did 5 or 6 years ago. Both our careers were kind of at a peak then, which didn’t help at all. Now we’re still very active, but have the time and energy to deal with our family, too. I think we’ve gained some wisdom we didn’t have even a few years ago. That allows us to manage both our careers and our families better.

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  19. Homework. Executive Funcitoning. This is my life right now. Ian is great. He’s still flying on his ADHD medicine when he gets home and does his homework done in 40 minutes. Jonah is up until 9 or 10 every night with lots of drama. I’ve tried everything. I’ve given lots of room and I’ve micromanaged and I’ve done an in between route. And it’s all just horrible. I’ve also talked with other parents and they say that their kids are in the same boat. One parent told me that her son had developed a stomach disorder from the stress. Another parent told me that his daughter is up until 11:30 every night.

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  20. “But I’d argue that the problem is that she’s being asked to do too much, being given a break on developing executive functioning skills in search of more content knowledge.”
    To a certain extent, yes. On the other hand, I think her little brother (just like your kids) will manage it all just fine, just like he manages his room and his laundry. He does get stressed out (he REALLY wants to finish his homework before dinner), but it all gets done. The 5th grader’s executive skills are so subpar in pretty much all areas of daily living that I would hesitate to generalize about school policy just based on her (believe it or not, she can space out while brushing her hair).

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  21. At least you’re getting the drama out of the way. Better now than after he has a driver’s license?
    I’ve heard good things about _Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall_, by Anthony Wolf.

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  22. “Kids need you when they’re teens even though they give every indication that they want you to get lost.”
    I hear this from my students all the time, even though I know they are probably not saying it so clearly or lovingly to their parents!

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