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Lean In, Sometimes

Throughout my childhood, my parents emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life. Dinner discussions often centered on social injustice and those fighting to make the world a better place. As a child, I never thought about what I wanted to be, but I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. As sappy as it sounds, I hoped to change the world.
- Sheryl Sandberg, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead"

I read Sheryl Sandberg's "call to battle" memoir awhile ago. It has taken me time to process the mixed emotions her book, co written with Nell Scovell, raised in my thinking. I am a midlife feminist and older than Sandberg, so much of what she has to say (and liberally quotes throughout her book) is old hat. Inequalities in pay, in support available to single parent families, in shared domestic duties in double income families, in the availability of decent childcare, maternity leave policies, balancing the child-bearing years with promotion ladders... All very familiar. And frankly, after all these post-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem decades, disheartening to admit such issues continue to burden the plate of the working woman in America.

Sandberg grew up, as she says, wanting to make a difference. Not to be, but to do. Others have pointed out, and Sandberg herself admits, it is easy to say "give your ambitions a full go" if your family also has the financial resources to deploy meeting the twin demands of childcare and running a household. A good deal of Sandberg's story comes across as lucky girl cheerleading. "Heh, don't envy me, be me!" Women are always choosing how to change the world - a pot roast at a time (Julia Child), refining radium (Marie Curie), writing a child's first book (Beatrix Potter), rallying a nation in dire straits (Margaret Thatcher), and on the list goes. Artists, scientists, teachers. Women who work at life within the circumstances they are dealt. That Sandberg leveraged a stable advantaged upbringing and education (Harvard) into a position in the ranks of corporate leadership should not amaze. Nor do most of us hem and haw over whether to leave one stellar job for another. Sometimes what is big is changing a nursing shift from day to night to sit at the breakfast table with your preschool child and make school lunch. To those to whom much is given, much is expected, as the saying goes.

The real nugget of trouble exposed by Sandberg's book is her acknowledgment embracing "the committed career" remains relevant for the twenty-first century woman. As it was twenty, forty, sixty years ago, a meaningful home life/parenting commitment still butts heads with the high demand promotion years in a successful career. Women are still splitting themselves in pieces to cover the bases. To have children while they are still fertile and somehow put in the necessary after hours to make partner. To make ends meet as a single parent and build a family life in the limited hours of the day. While some may feel accomplished in some areas, none feel satisfied in all. Sandberg's children are still too young to let her know how it's working out for them; she remains happily buffered by abundant personal resources from the exigencies in the average woman's life that shift choice from the personal to the essential.

I believe women should give themselves as wholly as possible to what they believe in, to the lives they intend to lead, to the families and careers they desire to build. I just know from my experience and that of my mentors and friends that such choices rarely easily cohabitate. Commitments demand attention from women, as Mary Catherine Bateson wrote in her seminal work, "Composing a Life," sequentially. We move through phases of life and phases of work that intuitively correspond to our reality as women. There may be phases of single childlessness when we earn educations and build careers, a period or two where family - from children to aging parents - take precedence. We dodge and weave our way through choices and commitments, composing a life unique as a necklace of handcrafted beads, each bead something of ourselves then and when.

The real value in Sandberg's book for me was her rallying cry to continue what generations of women before us began - the push for true economic equality between the sexes. Until expectations for men and women and career versus family are crafted on equal terms, we create liabilities and roadblocks for both sexes in seeking fulfilling lives as individuals and in families. "Lean In" is not so much the takeaway for me from Sandberg's book as the subtle importance of "freedom of choice." Until every woman has the education, support, and resources needed to build the life she wants, we have work to do.

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