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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Mommy Wars or Mommy Détente?

Guest Opinion: Critics of the Facebook exec's new book on womanhood are missing the point.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of "Lean In"

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of "Lean In" Photo: Lean In

Member of Congress Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Kabul during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan

Member of Congress Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Kabul during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan

Listening to the early reviews of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” I was ready to join the critical review chorus.  What part of her well-financed, well-staffed life is supposed to inspire the female masses to “lean in” to higher ambition so we can seat more women in positions of power?  Does she think her manifesto will spur thousands of women to step away from the housework, strap on some Jimmy Choos and march down One Microsoft Way to demand employment? 

But then I read what she had to say.  Sheepishly, I realized that one of the biggest problems women face are the stereotypes we embrace and the negative, judgmental reactions we have towards women who choose a different path than our own … much like my reaction to Sandberg and her book. 

If she had her way and we lived in a world with more women at the helm, perhaps we’d be debating her ideas and not her. “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful,” blared Time's cover. Some news coverage described her book as more fuel for the “Mommy Wars,” trying to incite a catfight.

The stereotypes we assume of women are so strong, we barely pause for breath before we pull the trigger.  Female politicians? Shrill. Women executives? Cold. Stay at home moms? Soft.

Sandberg’s ideas aren’t for every woman, but that should not diminish the value of the conversation she’s trying to ignite. I don’t think Sandberg intended for her book to be a definitive, all-in-one guidebook for women, parenting and careers. It’s the beginning of an important conversation about where the feminist movement is today. We haven’t settled in comfortably to the choices and opportunities the original feminist movement provided, and the stereotypes don’t help.

We could start by accepting a broader definition of ambition when we talk about Sandberg’s ambition gap.  Not all women would find Sandberg’s career and life path fulfilling. Women are about as one-size-fits-all when it comes to ambition as they are when it comes to fashion. The woman who chooses to stay at home and commits hours to her child’s elementary school is as deserving of respect as the woman who helps Boeing discern the market for its next aircraft. Both are ambitious and both are contributing what they do best.

We need to stop the over-simplification of “women’s issues” in the political arena and elsewhere. It diminishes the power and resonance of our thoughts and ideas, and sets up little expectation for women to contribute outside education and health care.

It’s time we consider the mothering demands that come as our children age. Corporate America has embraced the importance of creating an environment that allows new moms to come back into the workplace while they are still nursing — a great first step. The demand for mothering doesn’t end when a child is old enough to go to school, though. In fact, one could argue that the need for motherly guidance grows right along with the child. For families with older children, prime child-rearing time begins around 3 p.m. with activities and homework. It’s when moms turn into taxi drivers, giving them their best opportunity to discuss life lessons with their children. There’s nothing like the safety of an enclosed vehicle and the absence of eye contact to get a kid to open up. 

A conversation with a dear childhood friend sums up where many women are today with this vast sea of choices and modern feminism. While we were visiting, she was juggling phone calls to manage a few things related to her kids (all five of them) and her job. She sat back and said, “Sometimes I wish someone had told me it was okay to be a stay at home mom and maybe it wouldn’t feel so crazy right now.” We chuckled, and I said, “Sometimes I wish someone had told me it was possible to keep up my career when my kids were little and maybe it wouldn’t feel so hard right now.” 


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 19, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I confess I haven't read the book. I would say from the 60 Minutes coverage, Ms. Sandberg doesn't come off well in terms of being an "everywoman" kind of mom.

"She sat back and said, “Sometimes I wish someone had told me it was okay to be a stay at home mom and maybe it wouldn’t feel so crazy right now.”

I'll do that. It's okay to be an at-home mom. I did it. We all have our reasons and needs for our choices and as women, I would hope we would honor/support those choices and not sneer at each other. Things get done in public schools because a lot of moms and dads don't work outside the home. A lot of fundraising gets done in public schools because many parents do work outside the home. Bless them all for their contributions.

"The demand for mothering doesn’t end when a child is old enough to go to school, though. In fact, one could argue that the need for motherly guidance grows right along with the child."

This would be my absolute advice to mothers and fathers. Stay home in the early years if possible. BUT, once they start school, that's a good time to go back to work. Because my experience is that if you can keep up well in the primary school years and then cut-back in the secondary years, you'll be better off.

Surprised? Because the thinking would be the younger a child is, the more they need you. To my mind, it's the older they are, the more watching they need.

A middle schooler/high schooler can get in a lot more trouble than a child in primary school. They tend to be more angsty and need that steady eye. And, for middle/high school, they are now on the road to launch into college/life. They need you, both to watch over them AND to support/guide them.

westello

Posted Wed, Mar 20, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Having just finished the book yesterday, I'm amazed at how many people with opinions about the book haven't read it. I don't think Sandberg had any more of a leg up at age 16 than my own daughter has. She had the necessary ambition and boldness to grab at the best random opportunities that came near her - we all get those opportunities and most of us don't take them, for a variety of good and bad reasons.

Much of what she writes is good advice for men also, but she emphasizes how successful women manage their careers in more diverse ways than tradition would dictate. She is trying to expand young minds and that is a good thing.

I think her insights and stories are very valuable. This is a book for girls who want to change the world via a career - it is not a book for everyone and she is careful to say that. I will definitely encourage both my daughters to read it.

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Heidi - well put! Stereotypes go both ways and outrage over this book remind me of women who say they support women candidates but find reasons why it's not THAT woman. 1) read the book first (the 60 minutes story was incredibly slanted to produce more conflict and drama) and 2) take what works for you.

MissRuby

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