The Writing Shed: A Community Blog

Author Ann Elia Stewart blogs about writing

Lean In: I think I heard this one before

Written by Ann Elia Stewart, Community Blogger | Apr 14, 2013 9:04 AM

All this talk about leaning in, the new mantra espoused by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, meant to rally women toward nosebleed levels of executive power. When Sandberg's book, LEAN IN, first hit the news I had felt that familiar twinge of excitement. I was ready, once again, to get behind another movement to further women in the work place.

I say "familiar" because in the late 70s, early 80s, I followed the wisdom of a Sandberg predecessor — Gloria Steinem. I continue to greatly admire Ms. Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine: http://www.msmagazine.com, among other noteworthy accomplishments designed to empower women, which contained information that opened the eyes of my then-20-something self. I modeled myself in those days after Steinem's courage, intelligence and grace-under-fire. And I believed with my whole heart and soul that I could have it all.

It was not until I had become a mother, not until I was faced, nose-to-nose, with having to make The Choice, that the full meaning of "having it all" slapped me upside the head. Having it all in the 80s and 90s meant the McMansion, the designer clothes and accessories, two or more SUVs and maybe a zippy little Miata "just for fun."  The only way an average couple could maintain this lifestyle was for both to maintain high-income jobs. Reality translation: long, hard hours spent in mid- to high-level corporate or institutional jobs where every drop of blood is sucked from you, leaving your child with what was left of you at the end of the day: a dried out husk.

All in the name of something our society called success, measured by how much stuff you can accumulate.  (A popular saying at that time was "Whoever has the most stuff when they die, wins.")

Children? Easy fix: daycare.

I fell for this as an "older" first-time mom (35) because my career had been carefully cultivated by then and I had been working in what many would consider a glamour job carrying some amount of prestige. As Creative Director for Pfaltzgraff, a York, PA based international housewares manufacturer, I brainstormed advertising and public relations campaigns with an international advertising agency, calling the shots on what made it and what didn't. Two to three times a year, I worked in a tiny office within our dazzling Madison Avenue showroom and hobnobbed with giants of the housewares industry. I oversaw photo shoots in SoHo lofts and ate power lunches with bridal magazine editors in trendy Village bistros.

I traveled around NYC on an expense account, taking taxis to this appointment or the next. At one point, during a launch of the company's American Bone China debut, all of Bloomingdale's was at my, and my boss', disposal — after hours! That same trip involved a late-night cocktail party at the boss' midtown apartment, overlooking The Chrysler Building. 

Why would I give all that up just because I wanted to start a family? I can have it all, right?

With baby in belly and clipboard in hand, I began to survey all the available offerings for daycare facilities (keep in mind, this was still a bit of a new concept), selecting only the best, and there were few. Armed with a dozen questions, I fired away at a young woman, the director of one of the toniest daycares in Harrisburg at the time, who answered them with intellligence and empathy.

And then I toured the facility.

My baby, I learned, would receive his very own cubby, destined to be filled with my daily schlep of diapers, wipes, ointments, bottles, toys. The cubbies lined the walls of the infant room — a cavernous space filled with two rows of cribs. Out of one popped a sleepy-eyed, pouty-lipped baby, head aglow with a mass of blond curls. He held his arms out to me.

I lost it.

"Sorry," I said as I tried to get out of there as fast as my seven-month pregnant body would allow. "I can't do this." I started to hyperventilate, gulping back what I knew would be a torrent of tears. "Please get that child now. He wants to be picked up." I bolted for the door and never looked back.

When I had announced my decision to my husband later that day that I wanted to raise our child, I wanted to be the face he saw when he awoke from his naps, I wanted to be the rock in his life on which he could always lean, well. . .he was surprised. As were all my friends and co-workers. Because I was always the ambitious one, I was the one spouting the platitudes of having it all.

I had my son in 1990 (a wonderful time in history to be a parent: we were in peace time, the country was prosperous, there were jobs out there if you wanted them and terrorist attacks were not yet part of the mainstream conversation). Because I had developed a nice career prior to motherhood, Pfaltzgraff did not want to lose me. The powers that be were wise enough to negotiate a contract with me so I could work from my home on a given bank of hours, which I had greatly reduced from the regular grind. That sweet arrangement lasted only a year, as I knew it would — it took that long to find someone to replace me. But that one leap of courage allowed me to work as a freelancer: I'd go after the projects I wanted when I wanted to work on them. And I'd work around the needs of my baby: when he napped, or when daddy came home, or when he was asleep at night.

I suppose today, I would be considered one who "leaned out" of her job instead of "leaned in." For me the price was simply too high.

What Does All That Really Mean?

The moms out there are probably asking themselves by now: how did your decision translate to the realities of keeping up rent or mortgage payments, child expenses, etc.?

Going from two healthy incomes to one and a quarter was not easy. There's a word out there that could be considered old-fashioned and has been nearly obliterated from the English language during the high flyin' 80s and prosperous 90s: Sacrifice. That's it. That's what it took for parents of our means, mid-level execs with no help from parental coffers or trust funds.

We resided in a residential area of Harrisburg city in a lovely "starter" Cape Cod while our friends or colleagues broke ground in one of several tony neighborhoods, preparing to build their dream McMansion. My husband drove a mid-80s Isuzu Trooper and I an 86 Toyota Corolla. I still smile whenever I spot a rare glimpse of a Trooper, remembering our newborn son puddled into a borrowed car seat in the back, my arm around his tiny shoulders and my eyes never leaving his beautiful face.

We borrowed a dear friend's crib, having to weigh all purchases now for practicality. The crib was newish, safe and free. Today we smile at the notion that our collective offspring of three, successfully-launched young adults began their lives in the comfort of that white crib.

A recent article outlining the real costs of Leaning In (about $96k a year when you consider the army of help you need to pull it off) depicted a mom handing off her baby, about six or seven months old, to an eager, smiling young woman ready to receive her. 

Okay, while mom may have no regrets missing stinky diapers or singing "Wheels on the Bus" for the hundredth time, or cleaning up baby spew, there is something to be said for that sleepy-eyed, tousled-headed toddler wiping away a nap haze with dimpled knuckles. Something to be said for greeting him with a huge smile, feeling the warmth of him, hearing his heart beat next to yours. Something to be said for long walks in the neighborhood, to the farmer's market, the library, playground, play group. Something to be said about chattering on about the world around you, helping your baby NOTICE something other than a wallpapered Peter Rabbit and rows and rows of conformity.

I am not ignorant of many parents having to pull in two incomes today to survive nor am I offering a black or white rebuttal to Sandberg's mantra. I admit there are many women who should return to their jobs, and I've known many. But for those, like me, caught off-guard by the siren song of their own infant, I say: Go for it. Love every minute of it. Don't beat yourself up by comparing yourself to the Sandbergs or Mayers (Yahoo CEO who took two weeks maternity leave). They had a huge head start in the working world, and they employ an army of helpers. I am confident in saying that their hubbies may count unloading a dishwasher as pitching in around the house. 

I am reminded of another mom in my child-rearing days who put herself on a pedestal: Kathie Lee Gifford. This talk show host, nightclub singer, actress and published writer touted over and over again on her gig with Regis Philbin how wonderful it was to be Cody and Cassidy's mom and shared ad nauseum all the cute things they did . . .

She even went so far as to say in an interview that every morning before she left, she wrote her children a note and placed it next to their plates, as if that fulfilled her duties of mom for the day.

I wonder. Did Cody and Cassidy reach for that note every morning or the willing arms of the person left to care for them?

It's a personal choice, no doubt. And the caregiver does not have to be mom. Dad would do just fine, if he is so inclined.

As women, we need to respect each other and support our choices. All I ask before you get swept up in another have-it-all hue and cry, or if you're about to soothe yourself with a pint of Ben and Jerry's because suddenly you feel less than a modern woman,  read between the lines and realize that Yes! You Can Lean In — when and if it is right for you. And Yes! You Can Have It All.

Just not all at once.

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Comments: 3

  • claudzilla5 img 2013-05-03 11:42

    I think you're making some assumptions unfairly, here. "I am confident in saying that their hubbies may count unloading a dishwasher as pitching in around the house. " Assuming that husbands do little to help around the house, no matter what their financial situation, doesn't further this conversation, and may well make many men feel dismissed.
    And the dig at Kathy Lee about the notes she left for her kids - sure, she kept a busy schedule, but how do you know she didn't call to talk to them in her downtime, or spend every free minute at home with them?
    I get the point you're making, but as much as you say we need to not judge each other's decisions, it sounds like you're doing just that.

  • Ann Elia Stewart img 2013-05-07 10:10

    It's all a personal choice. My beef with Kathi Lee, at that time, is that she placed herself on a pedestal of being the perfect modern mom, but failed to mention the army of caregivers in the background making her professional success possible. This behavior added to the conflicted feelings and anxiety of women like me who stepped off the track to raise their children.
    Regarding hubbies: I notice "today"s" dads are far more hands-on than those of my generation, and I applaud them all the way!
    Thanks so much for your comments!

    • claudzilla5 img 2013-05-08 15:27

      Understood, Ann. The beef you had with Kathi Lee is one many have with Sandberg as well. I think taking her thoughts on the subject in a more general way, rather than as a how-to guide for being just like her, makes more sense, and can help us all avoid feeling guilty and like failures.

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