A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to stay the course – to not abandon their corporate careers. To lean in to their professional identity. I’ve been thinking about this rallying cry, as it pertains to my own happiness and achievement, lately. If we all collectively lean in to success and ambitions will we be happier? Will we be more connected? Is that what it’s about?
I agree that women should be as able to pursue their passions and success as men have been in the past. Feminism is a deep and abiding value of mine – the belief that women are equally able to achieve and not achieve as men and that their choices should in no way be dictated by their gender. But in some ways this seems to mean that women can be as divorced from their family life and unhappily absent from home as men have been.
I loved my job as a corporate lawyer. I loved the travel, I loved the work. I loved the challenge and the people. I was good at it. I was promoted and put in charge of transactions and complimented and requested by past clients for future deals. It was the driving ambition of my life to be good at my job and to become a law firm partner.
Until it wasn’t.
Could I have stayed and built a career? Maybe. I would have had to overcome some preconceived notions that some of the partners I worked for harbored not-so-secretly about the ability of women with children to do the work. I would have had to employ our lovely nanny and probably a second one. I could have done that. My husband certainly didn’t stand in my way. I could have leaned in to my professional identity and still been a good mother.
I’ve done the research to make sure. A good mother doesn’t have to be constantly present as her kids grow. A good mother, like a good father, just needs to offer love and shelter. To listen when around her kids and avoid abusing them. A good mother is really just a good enough care giver. A good mother can provide them with all that they need without being there all the time. The best mothers fail their children and admit to their failings. Acknowledge their missteps and teach their kids that the perfect isn’t possible and not to let it be the enemy of the good. Would I have been a perfect mother? No. I’m not now. But I would have been a good mother even if I were working full time and employing two nannies to cover all the time I could not be physically present.
My husband certainly wouldn’t have stopped me. We met in law school and he has always been a partner willing to engage in the negotiation of which career takes precedence this week because one of us should remain in the same country as our children when we were living an ocean away from family. He will reschedule work calls to pick up if I have a client meeting, despite my current job being scarcely as lucrative in a month as his is in an hour.
But sometimes it seems that leaning in isn’t always the answer. That professional ambition is not the end all be all that we’ve made it out to be.
That ambition can change. I realized that mine had when, shortly before we left the United Kingdom, I was offered a dream legal job in Paris, France. If I had accepted it, we would have moved and it’s possible that my husband would have left his job and stayed home with the kids (he does NOT speak French and French law firms remain committed to only working in French). I didn’t even discuss it with him. I said no. My ambition was not to miss out. My ambition was not to be a good mother who hires help, but to be a good mother who is physically present (even if sometimes distracted by writing and working with clients).
My ambition was no longer to be a corporate success. Do I have some regrets? Yes. I sometimes miss the feeling I would get in the heat of a transaction at midnight when everyone’s negotiating and arguing and striving to succeed.
But I think I’m calmer and more settled now than I was then.
My girls went back to school in person today. Well, one went back on Monday, but today was the first day of driving them to and from two separate schools and then getting homework done before driving one to dance and waiting for the carpool to pick the other up. I’m tired from spending two hours in the carpool line and from getting up at 6AM to scrounge up a breakfast and clean uniforms for both before running to the drug store for a forgotten USB drive needed for the first day of class. It’s been one day and, while I love watching them reunite (or in the case of my 6th grader, unite for the first time) with friends and peers and to continue pursuing their interests and passions, I find myself missing the slower pace of quarantine.
We only have them under our roof for the next 4-6 years and I wonder to what extent leaning in to their passions and ambitions will make us a happier, more grounded family. To what extent seeing clients at night and during the day before driving and cooking will make me happier and more fulfilled. To what extent being back in his office will make my husband more energized and enthusiastic about his job. We do enjoy the things that we do, but the slower pace that we were lucky enough to have without financial consequences during COVID quarantine was actually pretty enjoyable.
Should we all actually be leaning out? Should we be finding ways not to work more, to pursue more, but to do less? To work more efficiently so as to have more time for our hobbies and care? More time as a family? Less fatigue and irritability?
Less time in Houston traffic?
I’m not sure of the answer and obviously I’m not rushing to cancel my kids’ activities and clubs. If they want to lean in, I want to support them. But I am pushing back on the idea that we HAVE to do everything. That we have to attend everything. I’m trying to work in a more efficient way so as to work less. I’m allowing myself breaks in the schedule to take care of myself and my interests.
This raises some anxiety about whether I’m missing things or doing the right thing for my family and myself and my clients and my boss. But I’m realizing, now that I’m coming up to being halfway through my life, that our ambitions can be small and personal. Yes, I want to contribute to the world, but my ambition is not to be a CEO or the President. It’s to be happy and fulfilled in my life. To advocate for the things I believe in and the people I care about.
We’re so focused on leaning in to work, to being present and engaged. To showing that its our priority that we forget that work is a place they pay us to be. Work is a thing we do so we can live. Sometimes leaning out is the answer to finding that life apart from work. To slowing down and finding happiness. To working better and more creatively. I realize now that sometimes I worked long rather than well. I leaned in to the identity of a corporate lawyer as always at the office, when I should have been focused on taking breaks to allow my brain to work efficiently. Exercising to build energy to go on. Seeing my kids to prevent burn out.
It seems to me that we all need that – to lean out in order to be able to lean in when necessary. To set a pace that is acceptable, even if it slows or changes our ambitions.