Leaning in or out?

During my last visit to my mom’s, we stopped by a local library to donate some of her books.  They also sell used books and my picked me up a copy of Lean In–Sheryl Sandberg’s contribution to the “having it all” debate.  My feminist perspective is largely influenced by my mom and since this book has caused quite a stir, she thought we could both read it and discuss it together. Having read all the media accounts of the book, I was not interested.

You see, I’m not sure women need to lean in. I think both men and women would be well-served by a little leaning out. I mean, I truly enjoy my job and the intellectual fulfillment it brings. But why can’t we just be happy with what we have rather than always striving for the top? Imagine if Sandberg didn’t “lean in” and only ended up an executive at Google rather than COO of Facebook. Or consider that another prominent writer in this debate couldn’t have it all as a high level aide to Hillary Clinton in the State Department; instead she had to, uh, settle as a tenured professor at Princeton. Her version of settling is success to most others. I don’t see how something less than reaching the ultimate pinnacle of success means you are sacrificing your career for your family.

And that’s not even getting into the argument that blaming women for not leaning in completely ignores all the factors that put up major barriers to women reaching those high posts.

So that was my frame of mind when my mom handed me the book. And then I read it. It is too simple to say I ate a bunch of crow, but her argument is more nuanced than the media accounts portrayed. I guess that’s always true about the media. It wasn’t the best book by any means. Still, I found three main things that really hit home.

One–what would you do if you weren’t afraid? I think this advice can apply to everyone no matter where they fall in the work outside the home, work inside the home, stay at home, child free spectrum of choices. The thing about these choices is that it seems lots of women find themselves in one of them without actually feeling like it’s a choice. This isn’t exactly what Sandberg meant, but this advice could apply equally well to a lot of decisions. Maybe you feel you have to work outside the home because you are scared of trying to live on one income. Maybe you have a great business idea but are afraid to take that risk. Maybe you want to retire early but are worried about how your far your investments will stretch. Too often we hold ourselves back because we are afraid of what might come.

So lean in. Or lean out. Heck, lean sideways if you want. But leans towards what you would do if you could do anything.

Two–don’t leave before you leave. The idea here is that even before women have kids, they start making decisions that reduce or limit their career options with the expectation that sometime in the future that decision would interfere with a family. So we might choose a career path that is supposed to be more family friendly. Or we don’t put ourselves out there for a promotion because we want to start a family. But after several years of infertility, I can see how short sighted this perspective is. If I had put myself on the “mommy track” when we first started trying to have a baby, I would have sacrificed 5 years before I was even a mother. Growing our family through adoption further emphasizes the difficulty of leaving before you leave. Just last week, I was talking myself out of leading this potential new project because it would require a lot of work next May. And what if I was on parental leave then with a new baby? We’ve really just begun the wait for our second child and already I’m turning down opportunities because of some potential that may never actually materialize.

There are so many unknowns when it comes to family building. When it will happen, how you will feel when it does happen. Let’s wait until the conflicts are already here before figuring out how to resolve it.

Three–act like you belong here. Sandberg describes how she sees lots of young women (and did this herself) choosing a seat on the outside of a table rather than sit down at the table. But if we’re not at the table, we are sending a strong message that we don’t belong and our voice doesn’t need to be heard. That’s the surest way to ensure that your ideas are not heard or that someone else takes credit for them. Recently I was at a conference and my morning session happened to have an extremely small crowd. As in 8 people. For a room that could fit 25. The room was organized in rows but with such a small crowd, some of us started rearranging it into a small circle. When we were done, two young, female graduate students took seats outside this circle. Since I’m now a Lean In guru, I encouraged them to join the main circle, but they refused. These women had some really interesting work to share, but insisted on sitting behind some of us. If we don’t act like we belong at the table, no one else will either. This plays itself out in other ways where women always defer to others or put themselves last. My grandmother, for example, used to always insist that she preferred to eat her dinner standing at the counter while the rest of us sat around the table. Whether it’s the kitchen table or the conference room table, take your seat and know that you deserve to be there.

I still don’t agree with everything Sandberg has to say. And I certainly don’t think we need to see an elite executive as the only vision of success in life. But I’ve come to appreciate some of what she has to say, even as I apply it in somewhat different ways. Whether it is embracing your career, embracing a minimalist lifestyle, or embracing your role in your family, do what you are afraid of doing and act like you deserve to be there.

The perils of public parenting

One thing about having my child in daycare is that I feel my parenting is very much a public act. I guess in many ways it is always a public act, since much of what I describe can happen anywhere–grocery store parking lot, friend’s house, etc. But with the daycare providers also being so very familiar with my son, the public nature of parenting is encountered on a more daily basis.  I first realized this on one of my many visits to his class. He always had trouble going down for a nap in daycare and many days I went to visit him and found him overdue for a nap. Of course I felt the pressure to perform my motherly duties and get him to sleep. And of course he almost never complied. And I would leave feeling like I failed some parenting test.

Now my son has become a champion sleeper. But the perils of public parenting at daycare continue. And now it’s extending to the parking lot. Which is even worse for me since his daycare is at my work. Yeah, I am beyond grateful for my employer subsidized and on-site daycare. Talk about a major perk of working there. Except when my son throws a temper tantrum when I’m trying to put him in his carseat. Given the size of my employer, I don’t work directly with (or at all) with most of the parents that I see through the daycare.

But my closest colleagues are all walking through the parking lot. And I imagine all of them watching us (and judging me) every time he screams. And he’s a toddler, so that’s just about all the time I put him in the car. I’m sure it is just in my head. I rarely actually see anyone else in the parking lot when I’m trying to get him in the car. But still it feels like all eyes are on me. This is not unique to daycare mamas; having a toddler tantrum in the grocery store seems pretty normal for any parent. But since it is happening at my place of employment, it mixes up the professional and personal aspects of my life even more. It’s hard to maintain that professional demeanor when my toddler is screaming about getting into the carseat.

How I have it all

I’ve written previously about how it’s not really possible to “have it all” and that work-life balance is about not getting too off-kilter in any single direction. There is no silver bullet to walking the tightrope without swaying to one side at times. Still, if it’s a strategy that you want, I have two I can provide. With the caveat of course that these are not silver bullets. First, my main stress-reducing (or rather, guilt-reducing) strategy is to tell the daycare not to tell me when my son hits a big milestone. I want to know what he does during the day and that he is attempting to wave bye-bye, but please don’t tell me when he actually does. This eliminates a lot of my guilt and stress of missing his “firsts” because I get to experience all his major milestones. Now maybe he was standing by himself at daycare for weeks, but when he did it for me at home, it was so much fun to celebrate with him. Of course, this strategy is not working as well now that he’s in his second year and the major milestones are more scarce.

My second stress-reducing strategy is to be clear with yourself and with your spouse about the trade-offs you are making. I had a lot of guilt when I first returned to work, even though I knew I would not be a good SAHM. I still made sure I looked hard at our finances to see what the right decision would be. Both my husband and I make more than enough to each cover the cost of daycare. But if you are both working, do the math and see how much more your after-tax income is compared to the cost of daycare. There is no single threshold for determining whether it makes to stay at home or not as it varies by many factors, your own preferences being one of them. But actually calculating that number helped me prioritize and own the choices we are making. For example, once we knew what the difference was, we had a conversation about what we were doing with that money. Was it just to have a bigger house or fancier clothes? Those things are nice, but not that important. One thing we decided to do was invest in our son’s college fund. He may only be 17 months old and college is a ways away, but part of the trade-off we are making is that he will spend time away from us now so he can have a great start in his adult life and not have to worry about how to pay for college. You might make different decisions, but the key to be conscious of the decisions you are making and own them. Because when you own your choices, they cause much less stress.

Doing it all?

As I write this, it is 9:07 am on Thursday morning. I was catching up on my blogs while feverishly trying to finish my son’s Christmas stocking. I read the PAIL monthly theme and decided I had to respond because doing it all with a growing baby is what I struggle with all the time.

So let’s take stock of what is on my plate right now. I am still at home this morning because my son has trouble sleeping at daycare. He woke up a bit early this morning (and twice during the night-I think he teething because he is not sleeping well and is a drooling machine) and so was ready for his morning nap very early. This has happened the past two days as well-he desperately wanted a nap even though I needed to leave for work. Unfortunately, the past two days I had meetings where others were expecting me and so, with a heavy heart, I ignored his requests for sleep and packed him off for daycare anyway. I have no meetings today and, with the fortunate situation where no one checks when I come in, I decided to let him sleep.

I am crocheting him a stocking because, well, my husband insisted. Despite my love of crafts, I was planning on buying him a stocking. But my husband said I had to make one. And of course I had to make him a Rudolph hat. And bake cookies with him (or rather, with him crawling around my feet). And buy presents and decorate the house and mail cards and all the other Christmas related activities. So here I am, December 13th, and still only about a third of the way done with his stocking. We are celebrating with one set of grandparents this weekend, so I anticipate a late night coming up to finish it before then. And let’s not mention the giant stuffed Santa I started in June that is not going to get completed and the cute Christmas jumper I bought at a consignment sale but need to move the buttons down so it will fit.

If I didn’t have to take off tomorrow for his 9 month doctor’s appointment, I might consider staying home all day. But two days out of the office (actually three since my meetings yesterday were all off campus) is a bit much for one week. Although I could really complete the work I need to do anywhere. You see, I am a college instructor and, this being finals season, my main deadline is grading 29 papers that showed up in my in-box this morning. So, yeah, another late night for me there. At least my trip across the country for next week was cancelled. Well, not cancelled, but postponed to January when I will have two other work trips. Ugh.

Doing it all. Is that what I’m doing? Sometimes it feels like I am half-doing it all. Not doing half of everything, but doing everything but only half way. I try to give my son my undivided attention when I am at home and he is awake, but there are often issues that are occupying the back of my mind while reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear.

Of course, I really shouldn’t be complaining. I realize how extremely fortunate I am to have a bunch of supports which allow me this sense of doing it all. I have a professional job with a lot of flexibility. Every time we fail to make it out the door at my target time, I wonder how people in other types of jobs manage this. I hit the jackpot and have my son in an employer subsidized daycare facility that is a two minute walk from my office. I can visit him every day during lunch. We can afford to hire someone to clean our house, taking a few chores off our backs.

But still, it’s an on-going task to manage it all. I’m only 9 months in and don’t have it figured out. There are things that don’t get done or don’t get done to my standards. Here is the little secret I’ve figured out about achieving the right balance – it’s impossible. There is no ideal balance that we can maintain and no surefire trick that is going to help us find it. Instead, balance is an ongoing task. We do a little bit in one area on one day and then compensate in another area the next day. There is no end-state of perfect balance, but a constant process of self-correction when we are leaning too much in any direction. There are a few “tricks” I’ve picked up, such as outsourcing my least favorite activity of cleaning the bathrooms, planning the meals and major events for the week each weekend, and making sure my husband does his share of the work (which he does-another way I am fortunate) but these are, at best, marginal improvements. Sure, I’ve learned to love the crockpot, but when I see all my friends on Pinterest highlighting time-saving and family organizational tips, I know that if there was a silver bullet, surely we would all know it by now.

Unfortunately, that response always leaves one feeling a little deflated. But I think we have to be honest about what is held up as the ideal and what is realistic. That, to me, is the secret to managing the stress that comes with a young child. Being realistic about whether what we are striving for is realistic outside of movies or extreme cases. There are some true cases where someone seems to do it all, but we have to be realistic about whether that is an outlier. For example, Einstein is a real person who was a great scientist. But that doesn’t mean that every physicist who doesn’t invent something akin to the theory of relativity is a failure. It just means that Einstein was a unique case.

I have constant worries about whether I am doing what is right for my son. I know I would not be a good SAHM, but am I still managing to give him everything he needs? And I focus mostly on his emotional and developmental needs, because certainly he has all his physical needs taken care of. But is he appropriately attached to me? (to be honest-I partly care about that for selfish reasons yet I am also aware that attachment is critical to emotional and social development). Would he be a better eater if I wasn’t trying to juggle all these things and could make sure we were home during meal time? Am I reading to him enough? Do I provide enough stimulation for his learning?

These questions have no real answer and I think we have to stop asking ourselves “enough” questions. There is always more that could be done and so “enough” is never really achieved. I don’t know how to stop asking myself these questions, though. What is needed is a shift in mindset, not a specific strategy of stress or time management.

Women and Mothers: No Conflict

I am participating in the PAIL book club. This month we read “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” by Elisabeth Badminter. I was really looking forward to reading this book because there is something about the expectation on mothers these days that ratchets up the stress and anxiety and I wanted to explore. But I think the author completely misses the bigger picture. The cynical part of me thinks she was so eager to blame feminism for “ruining motherhood” that she overlooked larger social forces that I think are driving these changes.

Here’s how I see the situation. There is a large general trend of raising the stakes and increasing the expectations on parents, and mothers in particular. Since my son was born, I’ve had many conversations with my mom and grandmother about decisions we are making. Their response was always along the line, “yeah, we did that, but it was no big deal” or “I remember that, we just didn’t have a term for it.” Just think of all the time new mothers or mothers to be spend researching parenting styles (attachment, free range, baby wearing, babywise, etc). How much time have you spent trying to make the absolute perfect decision about some aspect of raising your baby? When in the large scale, these decisions really don’t matter. But they seem such high stakes and so important to get right! This is the rise of helicopter parenting, where even those who disavow helicopter parenting, do so on purpose by adopting a contrasting parenting style. But yet it is all part of the same tendency to believe we can engineer perfect children.

Another symptom of this societal trend about motherhood is the rise of mommy bloggers (of which I guess I am now a part). I think women (at least some of them) have always stayed at home taking care of the home and children. Maybe doing some crafts or other activities. But it seems now the pressure is not just to do these things (even if you also work outside the home) but to do them online to showcase your achievements. I say this not to criticize mothers (I do all these things, too!) but to point out that even though we haven’t achieved the elusive family-work balance, mothers are expected to get home from work, decorate some cake pops, feed their family an organic meal, “help” their child write that college essay to get into Stanford, all while driving the other kids to Olympic development sports activities, cloth diapering, and blogging about it (and in heels!).

I view the cause of this change not on feminism or naturalism, but in larger social forces that emphasize individual achievement, competition, and mass consumer goods. As a culture, we prize competitive individual achievement so that you are only valued for your latest achievement. Or the latest achievement of your kids. We are over busy and over scheduled, striving to distinguish ourselves. It is hard to just be happy with simple pleasures. Do you enjoy running? That’s great, when are you doing a marathon? Do you enjoy writing? Terrific, there’s a national book writing month so you can get that book published. You mean you cook and you don’t blog your favorite recipes? These are small ways that our culture is sending a message that we can’t just enjoy things. We have to excel at them and rack up accomplishments. And with consumer goods no longer being enough to distinguish ourselves (who doesn’t have a Gucci purse, or at least a good knock-off these days), I think of children as the new status symbol.  We pump so much effort into our children because they become extensions of ourselves. Their achievements become our achievements. Badminter even acknowledges this on page 13 when she says “‘I want everything’ becomes ‘I must do everything for my child.'”

Naturalism, which the author devotes a lot of time to in the book, is to me a subtheme of this larger trend. The pressure to be natural is one that puts a lot of pressure on people in general, not just mothers. And even not just parents. Just look at all the organic food stores in  urban hipster neighborhoods that tend to have more single people than families.

Another broad social force that she overlooks is the well known psychological burden of choice. This has been shown to affect men and women, about even mundane things like what type of toothpaste to buy. Even though we think we want choices, often we have too many choices these days, and it creates a psychological paralysis. Going from one to three options for something may make us happier because we can buy something that better suits us. But now we’ve moved from three to 12 choices and it is overwhelming to know how to choose.

Also, I found the argument pretty thin and hard to follow. And the evidence was rather spotty. France was held up as an example. But of what, I was never clear. She made a big point about how the birth rates in France ran counter to trends in other countries, but the table she presents puts them very much in line with several other countries. It just seemed she was trying to pin a lot on a thin evidence base.

OK, now the PAIL questions:

  • Would you call yourself a feminist (either publicly or as you think about yourself), and do you think that choice influences how you read this book?
    • Yes. I am most definitely a feminist. What that means to me is that I believe in equality between women and men. I believe that women should have the same options as men. It also means that I see women and men making different choices, I question whether there is an underlying tension that is shaping these choices. I am also sensitive to statements made about women without also thinking about whether they apply to men.
    • I also think this influenced how I read this book because I had a gut reaction to the assumption that motherhood and woman-hood are fundamentally at odds. I don’t believe that any desires I have as an individual woman (such as to succeed in my career) are at odds with being a good mother. There is not something inherent in wanting to do something outside of raising kids that makes you a bad mother, any more than doing something outside of raising kids makes my husband a bad father. In fact, I think having interests outside of motherhood make me a better mother.
  • What was your motivation for having a child? Badinter seems to think that most women do not really articulate their reasons, and those who do think it through often decide it is too onerous to have a child, at least in many societies. Did your experience of infertility force you to evaluate your motivations and expectations for motherhood? Do you think this influenced your experience of motherhood?
    • I admit I can’t give a detailed reason for having a child other than a desire to nurture a child. But I don’t think that is a problem. Why do we need a reason? Are some reasons better than others?
    • It is onerous to have a child. Maybe onerous is not the right word. But it takes significant financial and emotional resources to raise a child. Not to mention the resources it takes to have/adopt a child in the face of infertility. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.
    • But I also don’t question women who look at the pros and cons and decide they (and any potential children) are better off if they become mothers.
    • The reason I think most women don’t have “good” reasons to have a child is that it is not a conscious choice for many women. Yes, there are plenty of people who decide one day to try to get a baby; some are successful right away and others are not. But there are still many women who find themselves pregnant without intending to and so start the journey to motherhood. The NY Times recently had a story that highlighted that most births to women under 30 are to single women (not married couples). Many of these women go on to be wonderful mothers, but that doesn’t change that they probably didn’t spend any time thinking up reasons for or against having a child before becoming pregnant.
  • Badinter condemns the movement towards breastfeeding as forcing women to make themselves available to their babies constantly. How have you experienced breastfeeding (or not breastfeeding)? Are you someone who is happy to be at her child’s beck and call, or have you found ways to be an individual and a mother? How have societal expectations influenced your decisions?
    • Not being able to breastfeed was one of my biggest concerns about adopting. I know many women relish being pregnant. But pregnancy was never that big a deal to me. Breastfeeding was. I did go through a lot of effort to do adoptive breastfeeding. For a while, there was nothing that made me feel more like my son’s mother than breastfeeding him. That is, until he got a little older and started attaching to ME and not just my breast. I do think my experience with adoptive breastfeeding made me less militant about breastfeeding than I would otherwise be. I didn’t let breastfeeding stop me from getting out and about with my newborn. In fact, I think being a mother through adoption more generally has influenced me from feeling too “tied down” with the baby. I have friends who isolated themselves with their babies, too overwhelmed to do anything. But we were living in a hotel, lacked a basic support system those first two weeks, and had to figure things out for ourselves. Staying inside all day wasn’t really an option.
  • Do you consider yourself a “naturalist” when it comes to motherhood and child-rearing, and if so did you feel hurt/offended by this book? Did it make you question your decision to be a naturalist parent or stir up feelings of regret? Do you feel the author made some good points, topics for discussion, or did you just want to hurl her book against a hard brick wall?
    • Yes, I am a naturalist. I eat organic as much as possible and want to be as natural as possible. I was not offended by the book as a naturalist. I do think she misses the mark in many ways about it. My husband is very much a naturalist as well, yet there is no acknowledgement that men/fathers may also value being natural. As I note above, I think naturalism is just a part of a larger societal trend.
  • Do you feel the author is right to assume that there is always a struggle or negotiation for women between their role and desires as women and their role and desires as mothers?
    • Not at all. This was one of my biggest complaints with the book. I don’t see my desires as an individual as in conflict with my role as a mother. At least not inherently. I see larger societal forces that ratchet up the expectations on women and on mothers that creates the illusion of conflict only because demands are for perfection.
  • Did you find yourself agreeing with Badinter’s assessment that if you fail to be a natural parent who eschews drugs during birth, breastfeeds, cloth diapers etc. society deems you an unfit mother?
    • Yes, but I think society’s judgment also comes down on people as bad parents for things other than not being natural. Think your kid should write his own book report? Don’t want to spend every day transporting kids to sports practice? I also think these are mostly problems by more affluent parents.

Being a working mom

Through all the years we tried so hard to become parents, I always assumed I would go back to work after my initial maternity leave. It wasn’t even something we ever really gave much thought to. The discussion always revolved around how long of a leave I would take, not whether I would return at all. And now that we are finally parents and I am a mama, I find it odd to call myself a working mama. It’s not that I wish I could stay home. But applying the term “working mother” to myself puts me smack dab in the middle of endless debates between working mothers and stay at home mothers. I am usually game for a good debate, yet don’t want to be part of this powder keg.

Here’s my dirty secret. I don’t think I would be a very good stay at home mom. I am quite happy with how we have things arranged now. While I do wish I could spend more time with him, I also relish my daytime life and the stimulation it brings. You see, I’m a nerd. I like thinking about hard and complex problems and learning new things. The biggest thoughts my son has right now are around how to get his foot into his mouth. As adorable as he is, I can only blow raspberries with him for so long. That’s why I feel like we hit the jackpot with our daycare situation so I can see Seven during lunch for some fun and cuddle time and then head back to work for intellectual stimulation.

I’ve just come to this realization with the blow up over new Yahoo CEO. You may have heard that this company with huge problems just hired a CEO who is pregnant with her first child. But what was really hitting the airwaves was her statement that her maternity leave would only be a few weeks and she would work throughout it. The reaction of nearly everyone was that she is so naive and will surely change her plans or suffer the consequences. Everyone assumed she was completely off her hinges for planning such a short leave. Doesn’t she know how hard it will be? Doesn’t she know that she will just want to cocoon with her baby in a mother-baby bliss for months on end? My reaction to reading all of these reactions was defensive. Part of it was realizing, hello, she is incredibly privileged and will have every assistance a new parent might want. A nanny, a chef, a housekeeper. It’s not like this CEO will be doing any of her new baby’s laundry whether or not she has a long maternity leave.

But even more than that, I resisted the idea that all new mothers will want to spends alone with their new baby. I love my son fiercely. Yet spending time away is healthy for me, and thus for him. I realized the reason I’ve been feeling guilty since I returned to work. Guilt for a working mother is par for the course, right? Except I wasn’t feeling guilty about putting him in daycare. It is a wonderful place and after a transition period, he is very happy there. They take good care of him and I visit every day. I felt guilty for not feeling guilty. Am I so unlike all other mothers for not feeling guilty? I felt like every time I read something about how women really want to spend 6 months or a year with their new baby or sob every time they drop him off at daycare, it was society calling me a bad mother. Even though I didn’t feel like one.

In the end, I’m glad the Yahoo CEO is making the choice that she is because it lets other women admit that some of us are excited to get back to work.