05/23/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Leaning In... Without Toppling Over

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My long-time and cherished assistant went on maternity leave for what, at times, felt like an eternity. Upon her return, I was understandably thrilled and she was, understandably, less so. She put a picture of her new daughter on her desk, grabbed a tissue and made a stunning declaration.

"I have to fill my own shoes."

I looked at her quizzically. "Ah, I know you've been gone for a while, but the blog is actually called "Yes, I Can Walk in These."

"No," she said. "I have to fill my own shoes. I have to be like I was before I had the baby. I have to live up to my own reputation."

The honesty and insight of her statement lingered with me. I wondered why we women seem to be so hard on ourselves. In an article appropriately titled "Why ARE Women so Hard on Ourselves?" from the Daily Mail, Professor Kristin Neff made an interesting observation: "Research shows that women are generally kinder, more nurturing and empathetic to others than men. At the same time, they're meaner, more dismissive, and critical of themselves."

Returning to work after maternity leave is an emotionally-charged life moment and companies, like Edelman, are working hard to make the transition back easier... and better. We've adjusted our Leave of Absence policy in the U.S. to now include a phased return to work schedule, enabling new moms to return part-time for the first few weeks back on the job. Yahoo! recently extended their paid maternity leave, doubling the time new parents can take after the birth of a child.

In a recent review of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, Forbes reporter Susan Adams offers:

In my own experience, carrying my son on the subway every day so that he could go to a daycare that was a half block from my office, and I could run over and nurse him when he got hungry, was both exhausting and satisfying. I wanted to do it but there was no way I could work flat out and advance my career much while I was pursuing that schedule. Fortunately, Forbes kept me on while I kept my hours in check. I couldn't have imagined "leaning in" while my son was a baby, nor did I want to try.

Adams added "My assumption was that Sandberg wanted women to tough it out and push ahead with their careers while their kids were young... but now that I've read Sandberg's book, I see that she is much more sensitive to the pull of mothering and how it conflicts with the demands of work"

Sure, the now famous book and call to action may be up for debate, but in my opinion, women could -- and should -- lean in more. Yet, like all else in life, timing is important. Managing a career and motherhood is challenging and the journey can be filled with slight detours, altered plans and both missed and captured opportunities. Finding the right time to lean in -- without toppling over -- is key to success.

'Leaning in' is not a constant state of being, but one that ebbs and flows with the other elements of our lives. For me, that balance has always been best exemplified by a stovetop -- sometimes things must be on the front burners, while others simmer slowly on the back. It's hard to have everything going at the same time without something boiling over.

I recently heard Alison Miller, Ph.D. challenge an audience of women with the following question: "If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to yourself, would you have any friends?"

If, like many, you'd end up friendless, consider going a bit easier on yourself, especially at times when a pot or two may be boiling over. Most importantly, create a list of people you can lean on while you're leaning in... and put yourself at the top of that list. As for my assistant, I hope she includes me, too.