02/28/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Leaning In, Looking In

A friend of mine and a woman I deeply admire -- a down-to-earth, intelligent, dynamic, friendly, compassionate person -- was practically in tears the other day, telling me about her upcoming 72-hour international business trip. "I feel so guilty!" she lamented, "and did you see the article in The New York Times today about Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" movement? She has two degrees from Harvard and I bet she has help around the clock. She doesn't have to worry about dinner and homework!"

My friend didn't fully unpack her statement, but she didn't have to. The fact that her work was taking her, for a mere three days, to another continent, had touched that raw nerve of internal conflict so many mothers feel about whether and how much to work outside the home, a nerve which has been excruciatingly poked and prodded lately by the onslaught of articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and the impending launch of Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg's Lean In, both a book and a non-profit encouraging women to "lean in" to their careers, rather than "pulling back."

"Am I not working hard enough?" they ask themselves. "Am I not doing enough to advance my career? Am I squandering my precious opportunities?" Then conversely they say, "Am I failing my children? By being apart from them for chunks of time, am I a bad mother?"

I was so surprised by my friend's reaction, and so saddened for her. She is an unapologetic feminist, a brave advocate for women's rights and someone who believes deeply in her work. She is a semi-public figure, working at the highest echelons in her field, with a supportive and engaged husband. In short, she is the last person I would have expected to become so rattled. If her husband was going on a trip, or if she was going on a girls' getaway weekend, she wouldn't have given it a second thought.

But then again, I've been there. For the first several years after my first child was born, I was torn apart inside. I would cry to my husband that I was falling short everywhere -- as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a professional, a friend, a woman -- that because my time, my most precious resource, was so limited, I was unable to give anyone or anything what was truly warranted and deserved. I devoured articles and books like Mommy Wars, hoping to find in them golden kernels of peace and clarity. Instead, I found only more "shoulds," more reasons to feel guilty and conflicted.

And then an amazing thing happened. Slowly, very slowly, I learned to make tiny recalibrations that enabled me to allocate my time and energy where it was most needed. In the last two or three weeks leading up to the closing of a major transaction, I would shift more time and energy toward work and away from household duties like preparing dinner (which my husband did more of) and straightening up (which was simply left undone), preserving everything I could of time with my son. And when my son was going through one of those rough patches that children go through from time to time, I'd spend a few extra hours at home in the morning, bringing more work home with me at night to finish after he was sleeping. And with these tiny recalibrations, I saw that my son (knock on wood) was doing just fine and my career (knock on wood) was doing just fine. And if they were doing just fine, well, then (knock on wood) so was I.

Right around the same time, my second child was born and I became so busy that I no longer had time to read articles and books about what mothers "should" be doing. I was so preoccupied with managing the balance in real life, I no longer had time to ponder it in theory. Each day, I simply asked myself if I felt in my heart whether my choices, whether big (should we move to the suburbs?) or small (should I accept a speaking engagement which keeps me out past bedtime?), were in the best interests of my children and my family. I suppose you could say that instead of "leaning in" I started to "look in."

And just like that, my sense of conflict was gone.

Sure, there are times when I am torn about a specific decision. But that big, existential feeling of conflict has disappeared. With my children and my family as my touchstone, my priorities are clear. And all those people shouting at me in the public space, telling me what my family "should" be doing -- working mother naysayers and feminists alike -- largely, they have become just noise.

Nobody other than my husband and I know what is best for our family and our children. Nobody but he and I know when it's more important for us to drop our kids off at Grandma and Grandpa's so that we can spend a night alone or, conversely, cancel all of our weekend plans so that the four of us, as a family, can hang out at home, baking cookies and watching cartoons. Nobody can tell us when it really, truly makes sense to hop on a conference call at 9:00 at night or turn everything inside out to be home by 2:00 in the afternoon. And nobody but he and I can figure out the exact mix of ingredients -- taking into account childcare, education, economics, ethics, geography, living space, proximity to family, religion and time -- that makes our family hum.

And the same is true for every family.

I'm not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with Sandberg's "Lean In" program. Right now, I know too little about it to evaluate it fairly, though I fully intend to learn more when it finally launches. Sandberg is a highly successful woman and I'm sure there are some professional pointers I can learn from her. And I sincerely hope the critics and pundits can resist the urge to tear down the first movement in a long while aimed at broad advancement of women in the workplace before it even really begins.

But I know myself. At most, I'm only going to pick and choose pieces of the program that work for me. And I'm not going to let myself feel guilty about it.

And I hope neither will you.