As someone who believes strongly in women’s rights, I’m embarrassingly late to the Lean In party.
But finally, and thankfully, I finished Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg’s sometimes polarizing personal perspective on women in the workplace. It outlines what she sees as ways women are held back (oftentimes by ourselves), a personal call to change the conversation around equality, to stay in the workforce, and to “lean in” when we are tempted most to “lean back.”
Of course, we have plenty of differences, too. I’m not a high-level executive at Facebook or Google, after all. But I am a working woman – one with a Career (with a capital C, as Laura Vanderkam described in 168 Hours). More importantly, I’m a mom.
For anyone who knows me, it’s probably not surprising to know that I take being a mom really seriously. I mean, let’s face it, I take everything really seriously. Anything I take on, I do fully. So when it comes to what I see as the most important thing I’ll ever do – being someone’s mother – don’t get in my way.
Perhaps that’s why, despite my pro-women, statement-making pink-hat tendencies, even I have internal debate on whether to lean in or lean back.
Thankfully, I’ve had a few people in my corner to give me the nudge I needed, just when I needed it most.
Two days after returning to work from my first maternity leave in 2015, I received an email from a senior vice president in our group. It was picking up on a conversation we had 12 weeks earlier, when he floated the idea of me joining his team – in a way that only a man would suggest a job change to a woman just days away from giving birth to her first child.
I was interested, for sure, but in no way was ready to even think about a new job. I knew my whole life would be changing. And I didn’t want another thing to think about while I tried to navigate the challenging and exhausting days of new motherhood. I answered with the non-committal, “I’d be interested in learning more.”
Honestly, I barely thought about that conversation in the 12 whirlwind weeks that was maternity leave. As I re-entered the working world – thankful to be using my brain for things other than baby feeding schedules – I was ready to dive back into my routine.
But he didn’t forget about following up. Yes, he wanted to touch base at the end of my first week to continue the conversation. The meeting invite popped up on my calendar for three days after my return, as he described, again in only a way a man would, “to give me time to settle back” into work. That comment still makes me laugh, since three years into working motherhood, I’m still not sure I’m “settled back in” … or ever will be.
Despite every fiber of my being telling me to lean back – why would I add another new and challenging thing to my already challenging life?? – I moved forward and accepted the new role, one that didn’t come with a set of instructions or a clearly outlined path to success.
But that’s what I loved about it. It was a blank slate. Something I could create and shape and grow. And I grew along with it.
It took time. A lot of time. And so, so much mind-space. It took so much leaning in. At times, I wondered if it would have been better to have settled back into my old role, which was becoming increasingly comfortable and routine with time. But I jumped in with both feet, not surprisingly both at work and at home. I worked hard to become the best mom I could be, and worked hard to bring value to my new role.
Less than two years later, a similar scene played out. I was just a few weeks from Baby #2’s birth, when a role on the team was opening, one that would mean expanded responsibility, managing a team and some regional travel.
Of course I was interested, but like last time my instinct was to lean back. I knew from experience how hard taking on something new at work would be while adding something (or someone!) new at home. And, this time I’d have two kids under two. I was downright scared about how I’d balance and manage (and maybe survive) it all.
Yet I forged ahead, leaning in and accepting the new challenge, working to fill three vacancies on my new team before the little one’s arrival. (Baby reminded me not to be lulled into believing I’m in control and can plan life out, making her surprise appearance five weeks early – leaving me scrambling to tie up loose ends at work and relinquishing control of the hiring process from my hospital bed while my teeny baby was being cared for in the adjacent NICU.)
Once again, I returned to work. Once again, in a bit of a daze, facing new challenges, unchartered territory, and a road ahead that I knew would require a lot of thought and effort to navigate and pave effectively. (Effectively = the way I wanted it.)
I dug in. No, I leaned in – before I even knew what it meant to lean in. And again, I embraced and loved the challenge.
Last year, I joked with my manager that I wanted 2017 to be a Year of Nothing – no big life changes, no big work changes. I kind of meant it. In the past four years, I’ve gotten married, moved to a new state, bought a house, had two children. I am on my third role in five years at the firm, increasing responsibility and visibility (and, thankfully, job satisfaction and Engagement with a Capital E) with each step.
As quickly as I joked with my manager about the Year of Nothing, I followed up with assurances that I’m open to new things and to doing whatever the team needs to move forward successfully. It probably didn’t need to be said, but I said it anyway. Lean in, explicitly, friends.
Six months ago, despite my best effort toward a Year of Nothing, responsibilities shifted yet again – and again I faced new responsibilities and new work challenges. At times it can seem overwhelming, and at times my mind wonders if it’s time to lean back. Am I trying to do too much? Can I build a career and build a family at the same time? Should I?
But, I find myself continually energized by new and interesting work. I'm want to see and move toward the possibilities ahead - and to show my daughters what strong, independent women look like (even if it's not always pretty!). I know that I was right to lean in. Again and again.
Without mentors and my champions encouraging me, knowingly or not, to lean in – when all I wanted to do is lean back – I never would taken on these challenges, to push myself and to learn so much about myself. And I would have missed out on some of my best professional experiences … so far...