Lean In, a book review, but really just thoughts on Partnership

There’s a lot of talk in my circles about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”

If you missed the chatter: Sheryl Sandberg is a success: Harvard degrees and a career climb that included positions in the World Bank and Google, before landing her as the COO of Facebook. She is purportedly a billionaire. She is concerned that the percentage of women in the highest levels of business has plateaued at a low level. She wants to help and has written a “sort of feminist manifesto” (her own words).

I listened to her TED talk, and to her interview on the Diane Rehm show. She gives three pieces of advice to women who want to have a career: 1) Sit at the table. 2) Make your partner your partner. 3) Don’t leave before you leave.

Some women hate her. Some women want to be her. I can understand both reactions because this subject matter is so deeply personal. It pulls at our own histories. What did we achieve? What did we sacrifice? Those are the things I am ruminating about.

My main disclaimer: I dislike it when one person claims to speak for “feminists.” I dislike it even more when that person occupies a place that very few people occupy. However, I do agree with her underlying premise: Women should feel comfortable occupying space, and they should pursue their career goals as vigorously as they desire. (And why does this still need to be stated, shouldn’t it be self-evident?)

Let me speak forthrightly as a feminist who has passed the midpoint of a career: trade-offs are inevitable, no matter which way, or how hard, one “leans in.” I am most interested in her second point: “make your partner your partner.”

I didn’t grow up as a feminist. I consciously chose to become one. I was born in a conservative Christian environment where women had a specific “role” and “place” dictated by the Bible and captured in the word “headship” or “submission.” Over the course of years, I rejected those notions. When I married, I chose a man who was committed to forming an egalitarian partnership.

Let me pause there. If the word “egalitarian” is not so easy to say, it is even harder to enact. I had rarely seen that kind of partnership before I got married. Egalitarianism was only an idea to me, which implied equality: career-wise/dream-wise/money-wise.

Sandusky Christmas 1985Over the past 30 years, Doug and I did build an equal marriage. But we also paid a price. Our careers were equal, but neither soared. And I think that needs to be acknowledged. Every decision has a price, paid by somebody.

To my mind, raising children raises certain limits.

A simple truth, but the crux of the matter. At present it seems to be more limiting for women than for men, but why? My hope is that some day parenthood will be more equally shared. Because the truth is that children use up time, money, energy, and career prospects. I’m sorry if that sounds callous or rude somehow. But kids are an enormous time-suck and energy-drain. At least they are if you do it right. The question is: whose time? whose energy?

Doug and I were committed to being hands-on during our children’s early years. So we each spent a few of those years at home full-time: three years for me; three years for him. We lived far from either set of parents or extended family, so we had very little backup and all the daily care fell to us. (This is not to be blaming or whiny, just a statement of how it was for us. It may be different for you.)

We never received the benefits of maternity leave, much less paternity leave. In the late 1980s the very notion of a “Stay at Home Dad” was radical. When Doug decided to stay at home while I served my first church, the parishioners sneered behind our backs. In my youth group, the Youth Leaders and youth made open jabs.

During those three years Doug never once met another stay-at-home dad. Can you imagine what kind of backbone it takes to be such a trailblazer? I am in awe of him and his resolve, not to mention his incredible support of me and my career dreams, and our two children.

Each of our careers took a hit for the years spent out of the work force. You could even say our careers never recovered, despite our best efforts. We each earned Master’s degrees in our fields. We relocated across the country three times following career opportunities: twice for mine, once for his.

Perhaps some of my feeling “held back” stems from the difficulties of being a woman in ministry in the 1990s, before female ministers were mainstream. I also think it’s fair to say that the institutional church is not a particularly progressive employer. People have notions, and the people who make decisions in a church are just regular groups of people who have notions, often unacknowledged and unexpressed.

I believe I could successfully serve a much larger congregation than I have had the opportunity to do. But I also have no doubt that Doug could have climbed further in the field of Education than he has. We were limited by the choices we made early in our marriage, and other similar decisions made along the way: Taking years off. Not pursuing doctorate degrees. Prioritizing time at home with family.

I love the life we have built. After 30 years together, Doug and I still treasure each other. We have wonderful grown kids who are doing well, as well as doing good in the world. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’m acknowledging that there are trade-offs. It’s not just a matter of “leaning in.” One has to ask: Leaning in to what?

Do you want your life to stay balanced? Do you want to keep your primary relationship upright? Do you want to be the pivot point your children can circle around throughout their growing-up years? Then there are choices to be made. And no easy answers.

That is my experience. What is yours?

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I'm an essayist, memoirist, and Presbyterian pastor. My books are both spiritual memoirs -- "Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land" and "Ruined."

I welcome your comments.

6 thoughts on “Lean In, a book review, but really just thoughts on Partnership

  1. I was the one who put my career on hold to be at home. There were times I was bored, and other times where I was grateful I did not have to slog to work and back AND do all of the after-school stuff. There was also a time where I tried to have a part-time ministry position AND go to seminary AND be a wife/parent/friend. It was that last one that was a miserable failure. On all levels.

    To be sure, I made choices. They were my choices. And I really do not regret being home to snuggle a sick kid, or go on a field trip. There are times that I wish I had tried less hard to be perfect. But that in itself took several years to recognize and get over myself.

    Her book is in my stack, and I may yet read it.


  2. I agree with you. Haven’t read her book yet, not sure if I want to. Hard to imagine I won’t be aggravated by an extremely wealthy woman telling those of us without access to nannies that we can be doing things differently…

    My husband and I have certainly forged a marriage that is more egalitarian than was previous generations, but I voluntarily took on much of the domestic front because I was able to do so. My husband is a doctor, and while he was doing his training, he was absent from home. No two ways about it. When he wasn’t working, he would be home, and would help as able, but it wasn’t an easy time. He still doesn’t have the flexibility in his schedule that I have, and for which I am so thankful.
    I have been able to be present in the lives of my kids, and still home most afternoons with them in their teen years. Wouldn’t trade it for a bigger pulpit or more money.

    Either there will be time later for career “success” (whatever that really means–money? fame? power?) or there won’t be. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

  3. I chose to be that pivot point for my children. No regrets, but also no big career. I’m not sure that’s all it’s about, though. As I begin to consider the next phase in my life, it’s not the “big” things I’m leaning in toward — money, acclaim, status — but things I want to accomplish because they feel like my calling. I suppose we need to lean into those, too, yes?

    • Hi Martha — I love “leaning in” to “a calling.” You have just named the reason I wrote my first book, and am in process on the second. It’s certainly not “leaning in” to a paycheck or traditional notions of success! I’ll be curious as to where your life takes you next.

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