THE BLOG
03/06/2013 06:07 pm ET Updated May 06, 2013

Lean ON: Lets Have Nuance and Support, Not Only Slogans

A graphic went around Facebook a while back saying, "Good moms have sticky floors, messy kitchens, laundry piles, dirty ovens and happy kids."

Cue a zillion defensive responses ("Why are you criticizing me for having a clean kitchen?" or "I'm a good mom even though my kids aren't always happy!") But in actuality, the picture doesn't criticize anyone. If you can take a cool step back, it's a good message. Yet, it evoked all kinds of mishegas.

Something similar is going on with Sheryl Sandberg's new book and the "Lean-In" movement she hopes will revolutionize power and feminism. The movement has already garnered a lot of criticism.

I've been running groups and workshops for working mothers in New York City for almost a decade and there's almost certainly some overlap between my groups and Sandberg's ideas, so I've been interested to see what it's about. I'm not so interested in the personal criticisms of Sandberg; it's possible to be rich and white (and like shoes) and still be a visionary, and many leaders are able to understand the limitations and idiosyncrasies of their personal experience. We'll see whether that's true of her.

I am more concerned, though, about criticisms that the movement lacks nuance; that Sandberg suggests that it's never right to "lean back" or "opt out" at work, that our national dilemma can be reduced to the phenomenon that "all" working mothers feel guilty and "no" working fathers do -- and so on. These are the tired tropes of "Mommy Wars" and I would rather have dental work done than sit through another discussion of them. Please let her book not just be more of that.

But this week's New Yorker had an interesting piece responding to the criticism and noting, wisely, that most of the reviewers haven't read the book before trashing it. (I haven't read it either -- its pub date is still a week away).

Reviews of a book by folks who haven't read it are like that Facebook image -- necessarily lacking nuance. If you haven't read something, you can't tell whether there's more beneath the headline-generating blurby bits. But when it comes to this topic especially, it's not just about what the book itself actually says, but about being sensitive to what you can predict in your audience's response to the "buzz." When you are writing for an American audience used to tweets and Facebook-circulated jpegs and comments wars that never get deep -- and especially when you're also writing for new parents -- you have to be especially careful. Here's an example.

Sandberg recently tweeted that:

"If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask which seat, just get on."

Which looks inspiring and very re-tweetable.

But it can't be that simple. The answer to "should women jump at a unique opportunity to advance in their careers" can't simply be "yes" any more than it should be for men.The questions have to be -- is it the right career for you? What are your other choices right now? What else are you trying to accomplish right now? Who can help you? What do you feel? What do you want?

Do you want to be on this rocket ship?

Sure, in the abstract, the answer should be, yes, in life, you should "reach for the stars." And, yes, we have cultural tethers that hold women back from doing just this. At best, I think Sandberg may be saying, "don't let those tethers be the reason you don't jump."

But we don't live in the abstract. The best question is: What does it mean in your life to reach for the stars? If you do not literally aspire to be an astronaut, maybe you shouldn't get on the rocket ship, even if you are currently working as an astronaut.

What if you fell into astronauting through a kind of random series of choices, and you've been doing it for a while with mixed success? But now, the deluge of new experiences around Having a Kid has caused you to look up and see your options differently -- and you're now realizing maybe astronauting isn't right for you, or you aren't sure.

If that's where you are, the fact that the shuttle is about to launch should not be the sole reason you climb on board.

Does it sound like I'm being too concrete about this? Is Sandberg's quote supposed to simply assume that you know you want to be an astronaut, and it isn't talking to people who aren't sure they are in the right job, the way the kitchen picture isn't trying to talk to people who have clean homes?

Well, it's easy to say that, but saying it ignores the complicated lives of the people who read this stuff.

I asked the women in my working moms' groups to talk about what they'd heard about Lean In. Most of them are women with babies, who work at demanding jobs full time (or "part time" which, for many, means being in their offices "only" from 9-5:30 and then going home, spending time with their babies, and logging on for another several hours of work starting at 8 p.m.). These are women who come together twice a month to discuss the messy slog of real-life choices that happen while working and parenting. These are women who aspire to have interesting, fulfilling, driven, powerful lives, but who -- month to month -- don't always want their current job to be the main ingredient, and aren't always sure what their career should be, and think an awful lot about the quality of their relationships with friends, families and kids. They want way more than career success: They hope to feel happy. And they're trying to get there not always (or only) by leaning in to their careers, but by leaning on each other.

About half of my students had not heard of Sandberg and responded, basically, "I haven't heard about it and don't care, because I am way too busy right now doing my work and parenting and trying to have some fun occasionally."

Among the rest, some were enthusiastic about a national discussion about this topic, and reassured by the existence of powerful corporate mothers, even if they personally didn't want the same "right now." For others, the predominating response was:

"Good lord, I don't want anyone telling me I should be working harder."

See how personal the reactions are? New moms who are newly back at work are in transition, and transitions take up energy and creativity and, if we have brains at all, make us question things we once felt sure we knew. Babies are, by definition, dependent, needy, demanding -- not always in ways that can be farmed out to others. These factors make folks less able to deal with abstraction. They are more likely to hear ideas like:

• "ambition is good" or
• "entrepreneurship keeps you invested in your work life," or
• "just a small amount of training can have a life-changing impact on your career"

(all recent tweet topics from Sandberg)

and imbue them with cartoonish criticism:

  • "you should feel more ambitious in your work even while you're nursing your baby 3x a night and still bleeding from the childbirth"
  • "you should have your own business by now."
  • "it was weak of you to skip that training conference across the country just because it was being held X weeks after you gave birth"

In the New Yorker piece this week, Anna Holmes finds it confusing that:

In much of the commentary, I've encountered the erroneous assumption that the book is... should speak for all women, which it shouldn't.

But when the audience is new parents, so often, they'll think it does.

What helps them is patient, nuanced discussion in a safe environment, where they can get the support without the burden of the imagined criticism. Some things can't be reduced to a tweet and if you're tweeting, you have to find a way to be mindful of that.

I love the abstract ideas I'm seeing in the "Lean In" concept. I long for us to get to a point where we see family-work balance issues as human issues, not as women's issues. I dream about changes in American culture that would allow more people to feel -- over the course of their lives -- stimulated, challenged and engaged with their work and also deeply, humanly connected to each other and their families. I wish that "work" and "life" were parts of each other, not mortal enemies. And I am sick to death of conversations about this stuff that return to the old, clunky tropes. But I also think it's easier for me to talk in abstraction now without taking it personally than it was a decade ago, when my kids were babies and these questions were new to me. Anyone who embarks on this stuff has to be mindful of their audience.

We have a long way to go. I hope that Lean In enriches the discussions. But it will fail if it imagines that people who are growing into parenthood engage only in logical, dispassionate discourse without personalizing what they hear. It's not enough for Sandberg to not mean to speak for all women. I hope her book and all that comes with it are clear as can be, deep, rich and nuanced. We could use the help.

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