THE BLOG
03/14/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated May 14, 2013

'Leaning Back' Is Not Always 'Holding Yourself Back'

The pre-media buzz around Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In has sparked a barrage of essays about women and ambition and career. In this one on the Daily Beast, journalist Mary Louise Kelly describes how and why, after considerable distress, she left a very high-powered, full-time career to be mainly with her kids while writing part-time.

She comments:

And yet -- with sincere and enormous respect for the accomplishments of superwomen like Sheryl Sandberg -- I wonder if there isn't room for a more expansive definition of female professional success. So many of the women I know are blending work and family in ways our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed possible. This seems to me worth celebrating, not sniffing at. Dare I confess that I feel I'm accomplishing something just as meaningful now as when I spent my time scurrying between Pentagon press briefings? Or, to use an example from Sandberg's world, should we automatically assume that the woman running the company is doing more with her life than the woman who has negotiated a three-day week?

Indeed.

There are many ways to succeed professionally over a lifetime, just like there are a lot of things you could call a "great dinner." Personal taste, access to resources, time and skill are all factors; it's silly to compare them.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to discuss. The larger point is, if you're not "leaning in" to your current career, why?

  • Is it because you've been conditioned not to take yourself seriously? Not to take risks? Not to grab the spotlight? Not to "go for it"? Only to worry about the logistics? Never to say you're great at something?
  • Have you been taught to take criticism so hard that you lose sleep over it, even when the person criticizing you is clearly in the wrong? To feel like a fraud and an imposter when you do well?
  • Has everyone failed to teach you how to negotiate, how to ask for a raise or how to identify the person in your work community who is most likely to shepherd your career? Have they, instead, taught you that negotiating and asking for a raise is "pushy," and that looking for help is "weak"?
  • Were you indoctrinated to forgive a spouse who is better at getting out of domestic and childcare tasks than you are at saying, "share this stuff with me or leave" because "that's how men are"? Do you and your spouse tacitly agree that if he takes a job that leaves him no time for home and family, that's "sad for him," but that if you take the same job, it's sad for all of you?
  • Have you been taught, over and over again, that if you don't feel guilty or inadequate, you probably ARE guilty and inadequate?
If those are the only reasons you are leaning back, they are a shame, and there are things that help.

That these are the motivators for so many of us reflects systemic problems that began to color our views in childhood. They lead to women holding themselves back and men holding women back. It's time to push back against that, hard, starting with what we teach young girls and boys, and I hope that the "movement" afoot is about that. And to the extent that any of it can be re-learned in adulthood and allow women to take more control of their lives, I am all for it. Not just for mothers. Not just for women. For all of us.

But let's not conflate any of that with something separate. For reasons that have nothing to do with the above, many people feel a very strong pull to be substantially with their kids while they are little. They want to be with their babies not because they've been taught to hold back by a sexist culture, not because their work isn't interesting enough, but because they want to be with their babies. And that's a good thing.

Although leaning towards our babies when they are babies is not what feels right for everyone, is not practically possible for everyone, and is not a profession, it's right for many and it should be possible for more of us, just as access to affordable childcare should be possible for more of us who need that.

A mother who feels called to be with her young is not anti-feminist. In fact, it's misogynist to suggest that there's something wrong with her for wanting to use her body to do female things: gestating, birthing, lactating and nurturing the baby she has grown with her body.

It's also not a permanent state: babies grow, and when they're big kids, most people have moved back to the workplace.

Meanwhile, whether you're staying in or leaning back from the career path you thought you were on before your kids were born, learning to negotiate, take risks, partner with your spouse and develop appropriate confidence will help you dive back in to whatever it is you do in the next chapter. It will also help you parent your children.

I hope we're at the beginning of a flood of thoughtful discussions that lead to real changes for women, not a slide into the old, divisive, unproductive arguments that folks call the Mommy Wars. There's no war, and it's time we stopped using that term and built systems that help more of us succeed.

The author teaches classes for working mothers in New York City. A version of this piece appeared on her blog at www.amotherisborn.com

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