My younger professional women friends urged me to read Lean In, by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. I hadn’t planned to read it, since at 71 I’m past climbing any ladders, and since the media deluge left me thinking I knew what the book was about.
I was surprised to find that the reviews didn’t do it justice. It is a terrific book, wise and compassionate. But what surprised me even more was that an hour into reading it on a plane trip home, I found myself crying. It hit me hard that I hadn’t leaned in, and instinctively I was aware I hadn’t done so because I feared what it would do to my marriage.
I found myself mulling over this leaning-in business a good bit and engaging my peers in lean-in conversations. My good friend C, wise therapist and coach, shocked me (and I her) when she said she also cried. My estate attorney looked at me like I was nuts. “Of course you leaned in!” she insisted. D, who is now 82 and developed a professional life only in her forties, after a divorce, wondered why I was spending any time at this stage fretting about it. “In your eighties,” she counseled, “you will find that none of this matters a hoot.”
Extensive mulling, fretting, and talking—among my most well-developed skills—have brought me, slowly, to three conclusions:
First, most of my peer group (whom I consider women now 60ish to 80ish) did, in fact, lean in, but we leaned into the work we were doing rather than to building a career. Most of us didn’t even think of career building. Many of us were just grateful we had work we liked and found interesting. We worked hard, and, as some young women still do, believed that virtue would bring rewards. Many of us were, in fact, rewarded—but not in ways that gave us much power or visibility. As I read Sandberg’s book, I thought I regretted not having worked for more power to change the work world and more visibility for my points of view. But in fact, there would have been a price. It wouldn’t, I think, have been my marriage. We would have adjusted and adapted. But I think, looking at the young women I know who are leaning in, my life would have been harder and the rewards not so satisfying.
Second, while I assumed I was a post–women’s revolution kind of gal, not hampered by the constraints my mother so clearly faced, I was not as post– as I thought. It is always possible to jump the barriers the culture puts in the way, but they do slow us down, and, in so many cases, prevent the rewards that talent and energy might be expected to bring. Some of what happened was not about me but about the soup in which I was swimming. I look back and realize that, in my thirties, as a young working mother, I didn’t seem odd to everybody, but there was still huge resistance to working women. When our children were very young, we lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My oldest, about 3, went to a half-day preschool at a local church. I don’t recall such a thing as an all-day day care. One of the women I car-pooled with explained that “I don’t want to work because I want to be a good mother.” It seemed odd then. It seems even odder now, but, in fact, with the wisdom of hindsight, I get it. There were certainly role models—just not nearly enough yet to make working women seem entirely normal, to women or to men.
The third awareness came more slowly. I kept focusing on my regret for not having worked harder at building a career, for not trying to live into my fullest capacity. Then I had a bit of an epiphany. I’m thinking maybe I was lucky, lucky to have been located just in between June Cleaver and Sheryl Sandberg. Because I didn’t know I was supposed to do more and try harder, take more risks, step up for the toughest jobs and execute brilliantly, mentor and be mentored, all of my life was not consumed by work and child-rearing. As an A-personality high achiever, if I’d thought I should have been striving more, I probably would have. Instead, I did have time to volunteer and to write books (which seemed then and still seems to me like something I do for pleasure, not for work. It certainly pays more like pleasure than like work.)
Sure, I sometimes felt guilty for not having enough attention for my children, for bringing work home—but that was guilt, most years, born of working part-time. Wow, what would I have felt if I had been leaning in harder at work? Would I have, to balance that, felt better about my accomplishments? It took me a bit of time to decide that I hadn’t missed out as much as I thought on that plane ride home.
What if I had worked harder, gotten to supervise more people, traveled more, struggled with more difficult decisions? Would I be happier or wiser? Probably I would be richer, but I’m not unhappy with the economic fruits that came mostly from supporting my husband. Maybe he would have done just as well without that wifely boost. Who knows? But we are in a good place 45 years down the line. and that feels fortunate. Certainly there are many routes to happiness, but maybe it is a good idea to say a blessing for the one that got me there.
It is hard to tell when we are simply spinning rationalizations for why what we did was right. I suspect some of that must be going on, but my first impulses were just the opposite: to regret, not rationalize. I was moving in a different direction, but my conversations kept tripping me up.
I’m glad Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In. I have sent a copy to my daughter-in-law and recommended it many times. But I have stopped feeling sad. My second surprise from reading this book was to find that, in the end, it made me more appreciative of the life I’ve led than I felt before reading the book. Now THAT is a great read.