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

Member of Congress Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Kabul during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan Credit: 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.” 

We both acknowledged that we probably wouldn’t have done anything differently, but maybe we would have a little less guilt over our choices and the roads not taken if the world were less black and white when it came to women, parenting and the workplace. 

The critics aren’t getting the point of Sandberg’s book. It’s not about firing up the Mommy Wars. It’s not about some high powered female executive telling all women what choices they should and should not be making. It’s most certainly not a blueprint for “having it all.” 

One of the most powerful “lean in” stories on Sandberg’s website comes from Washington’s own U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers. While Rodgers’ demeanor is as lovely as the graceful, rolling hills of the Palouse, she had to call on an inner core of steel to “lean in” and run for a congressional leadership position, when only two women had done so successfully before her. This came after she broke new ground by having not one baby, but two, while serving in Congress. Rodgers admits to timidity, but didn’t let the weight of history and tradition hold her back.

Leaning in is about shedding the stereotypes, the black and white, and the pre-defined roles for women. It’s about encouraging us to be open-minded and creative about our options. It’s about finding ways of keeping an incredible talent pool of women alive and active in America. It’s about women celebrating each other’s choices, instead of judging them harshly.

My favorite line in Sandberg’s book is, “If there were a right way to raise kids, everyone would do it.” This is not only true for parenting, it’s true for women, their choices and their careers. Sandberg started an important conversation. Let’s keep talking.

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