Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Leaning in" in practice - how on earth to do it?

This evening, I listened to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In TED-talk while cleaning the toilet. It's all very interesting and thought provoking, and I appreciated what she had to say. Women need to lean in more? Sure! Men need to be real partners? Of course! And women need to stop leaving work before they've left work? Makes perfect sense to me. It's a bit late for me now as I'm now at home with two children, but me of three years ago would have benefited from her words of wisdom about that one. Although, to be perfectly honest, such was my pregnancy-addled mind in the final stages of pregnancy, it would have taken a lobotomy to stop me leaving work mentally before I left physically. But, I take her point. That's different from needing a lobotomy to remain committed to work while trying for a baby. 

I found myself nodding along with her as I scraped the brush inside the bowl. Then, I realised what I was actually doing. I was listening to a well-informed piece about women in the workforce, while fulfilling my domestic duties. When, technically, I am currently a stay at home mum.  Right at that moment, the only thing I was leaning into was the toilet. 

That got me thinking: where does advice like Sandberg's leave women like me? Women who had jobs they loved, but now have children they love even more. Women who would dearly love to make both work life and family life work out, but have no idea how to actually do that in practice. Women who already have children, so if they do work they don't have the time or the mental energy to do all of that leaning in anymore, as there are meals to cook, children to collect from nursery, and washing to be done. So much washing. Piles, in fact. Washing that breeds while we sleep and quadruples its amount before you can get it anywhere near a machine. 

The hard thing is, I think, that we women are far too dependent on other people to make it work. First and foremost, as Sandberg points out, we're dependent on our partners to pull their weight and contribute equally to household chores. I have one friend who's husband said recently that looking after children "wasn't in his DNA", and there are a number of women who don't have partners at all. I know plenty of others with husbands who would win a gold medal at the slacker Olympics, and plenty of women who don't expect them to help in the first place. 

Second, we're dependent on our employers. We're dependent on them for flexible arrangements, and for not holding us back when we can't travel or work long hours. Leaning in is great in theory, but hard when you've got children. Last year I was on a work trip while 28 weeks pregnant, and the most important meeting of the trip happened to occur at 9 pm. I attended, but had to leave at 10.30. With a toddler at home and a baby in my belly, I was far too tired to stay up any longer. I certainly wasn't able to lean in on that occasion. Unless you count leaning into the pillows in my hotel room, harbouring that awful feeling that many working mothers have that we're not doing anything well. Can't be a good mum as I'm away from my son, and can't be a good worker as am too tired to stay at meeting. Lose lose all round. 

Yet, in spite of us being so dependent on those other factors, the decision whether to work or not seems to sit on our shoulders more than anyone else's. It's heartening to see change in how many families perceive women's work, but there is still a long way to go. Phrases like "the mother should be at home," "women can't have it all", "all of my wage will be eaten up by childcare" (rather than part of the household wage) and "what's the point in having kids for someone else to raise?" are still commonly used. Just last week someone said to me that they thought women should be at home, as no kid deserves a "part-time Mum". Sadly, though, I can't conjure up a perfect part-time solution out of the air that will both allow me to advance my career and spend time with my children. When faced with this decision, rather than lean in, many women lean out. They lean out so far they're no longer in the traditional workforce. Which, according to recent studies, leaves the women harbouring as many regrets in the future as women who went back to work full-time.

I'm glad that Sandberg has said what she did, as it's useful. At the very least, it's provided some interesting conversation fodder with other mothers I know. I also want to "Lean in" and have a good career. But I want to spend time with my children too. So, while I agree with Sandberg in theory, I still don't know where to start.

And until I figure that out, at least I can still do some leaning in while cleaning the bathroom. 


  1. Leaning in actually just made me fall over when I had kids. I had to unlearn my dutiful, get it all done mentality, and learn to take naps in the days, watch telly and generally do less at all times. It was only then that I found the mental capacity to even think about going back to work. I was a "high achiever" before having kids - degree, scholarships, blah blah. All this hard work actually achieved was to make me a VERY ANGRY stay at home mum when I found I couldn't do everything. leaning out - a lot - was necessary after all the pressure I'd put myself under. I now work full time with a five and eight year old and have done for two years, but I doubt I'll ever have the career I envisaged for myself before I had them - and I wouldn't want it either. I love leaving work at 6 going home to a family meal, not working weekends, and taking time off in the holidays. Work isn't everything, and I just think that more women are willing to acknowledge this and actually have a much better balance in their lives.

    1. I guess that's the conclusion that many women come to in the end, and I am guessing I will too. The thing I'm finding is all of this talk about getting ahead doesn't work for me when all I want in the workforce is not to go backwards!

  2. No one seems to mention the later retirement age.
    The posters here are have young children, what will you do when they are teens? Won't you then want a career, do you think you will still be content with an undemanding job in 10, 15 year's time?

  3. Anon, you raise a good point, but you miss the fact that most employers are not willing or able to let mums return to the same position with the same career trajectory. For most women, the choice to have children and have a hand in raising them effectively kills most careers. Gaps on CVs are almost always eyed suspiciously, even if there is a legitimate reason for them. Motherhood requires more organisational skill and stress management technique than my old job in administration ever did, but prospective employers only saw my child and therefore how "unreliable" I would no doubt prove to be.

    It's often the mother who cares for the sick child who cannot go to creche/school. It's often the mother who does the shopping and cooking and laundering. Many of us continue to do these chores because it is easier (in the short run) for us to do them as opposed to getting into a battle with our partners and becoming the nag we promised ourselves we would never be. We choose to stay home and do this work during the day, because if we left it until after work, we would NEVER EVER sleep and be cranky messes.

    The problem with leaning in as Sandberg proposes is that it is only feasible for a very small percentage of the working population that also has the financial wherewithall to hire help where needed.

  4. I have been following your blog for a while and funnily enough spotted this post in your 'popular posts' literally a day after I started reading 'Lean In'. I'm only one chapter in and I must say I disagree with her statistic quoting. She believes that 50% of all seats in Parliament should be held by women and 50% of CEOs should be woman. I agree with everything mentioned in the first paragraph in your post however, until men are giving birth to 50% of the babies, I just don't see how this can be true. Something changes in you when you have a baby and it seems to effect women at a physical or instinctual level. Many men too, I'm sure, but definitely women. My entire being is now split and my son holds a good chunk of me. And maybe that chuck is the part of me that didn't mind committing myself wholeheartedly to my job, never being able to switch off completely from my work. But now that he has that chunk my mind is always just a little bit on him. And when I get home from work and I see that gorgeous smile the last thing I want to do is check my emails. Never in a million years would 'pre-baby me' ever have thought I would feel this way.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I totally agree with your post!