It was the other night at bedtime when my three-and-a-half year old daughter leaned in close and whispered, “Mommy, my family is my favorite.” That was the moment when the epiphany I had been waiting for all week finally came rushing over me. “My family is my favorite, too,” I whispered back as I kissed my beautiful girl on the forehead and tucked her in for the night. As I made my way downstairs and prepared for some “Me time,” the true impact of my daughter’s words and what they meant began to sink in.
You see, I had spent the previous few days reading the endless media coverage of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and quite frankly, her message had been sending me into in a mild depression. Sandberg’s primary thesis, her exhortation that had been gnawing at me all week, was this: women are not nearly as represented in high power business and government jobs as they should be and a big contributing factor to this inequity, on top of gender discrimination and a culture that doesn’t support the difficult choices women must make when balancing family and career, is that too many women are choosing not to “lean in” to their professional lives. They’re not realizing their fullest potential vocationally because they are thinking too much about their responsibilities as mothers and wives at home.
As a highly educated, stay-at-home mom by choice, these words stung, their bite all the more blistering because of their truth. All I have to do is look toward my own life to see Sandberg’s point validated. Here I am, an Ivy League graduate twice over, a driven person, conscientious to a fault, one of the hardest workers I know, and yet as I write these words I have a pot of homemade chicken soup boiling on the stove and my one-year old son nursing at my breast.
Before having children, I was a dedicated and respected teacher at two different elementary schools, earning leadership positions on curriculum committees and data teams, only to leave the first school to follow my husband from New York to Pennsylvania when we got married and the second when I had my daughter almost four years ago. No one twisted my arm to leave. I made my choice and I made it firmly and eagerly. Having a family was something I had looked forward to since as long as I could remember, and though at the time I was aware that I would miss the teacher I was and the classroom I created, that I was indeed making a sacrifice to walk away (albeit temporarily) from my professional life, it really wasn’t a difficult choice. In fact, it wasn’t even a choice at all. I never looked back.
Until now. Now, I see layoffs all around me. Hiring freezes. Job losses through attrition. I can’t help but worry if there will be a job there for me when I do choose to return to the classroom. Couple that with my growing restlessness with being a stay-at-home mom and the disconcerting feeling that I have thrown myself into motherhood with such fervor that I have lost a piece of myself. And then enter Sheryl Sandberg with her message that women are holding themselves back. As I read article after article and watched news segment after news segment–some praising her, some denigrating her– I couldn’t help but grapple with who I am as a mother, wife, former career woman, and person. Did I make the right choice to put on hold my teaching career? Never for a second did I consider anything else, but why did I never even entertain other options? A job-share? Part-time paid work? Any sort of day care? Why was I so eager to relinquish such an important part of who I was?
As I racked my brain for days, this question ate away at me from the inside out until my daughter in her magical way made it all so clear. Why did I not lean in to my career when my children were born? Because I didn’t want to. Because my family is my favorite. Though it is true that I do need to work harder at achieving a balance in my life, to reclaim the part of myself that has been lost in motherhood, when I think about who I am and what I truly want, the answers are quite simple. Making homemade baby purees makes me happy. Teaching my children how to enjoy fresh, nutritious, real food makes me happy. Nursing my baby boy into his second year of life makes me happy. And I’m not afraid to say it anymore, but what would make me the happiest woman on earth right now is if my husband came home tonight and said, “Let’s have another baby.” That is who I am. It comes from somewhere very deep. And socialization and forced gender roles don’t have anything to do with it. To miss out on this time would be to miss out on some of my most fervent life’s ambitions. I could pump breast milk at work, but it doesn’t compare to holding my sweet baby in my arms and nursing him at 2:00 in the afternoon until he falls asleep. And there is nothing like curling up on the couch for some Mommy-daughter book time or listening attentively while my little girl tells me the latest bit of preschool drama. That couch and my kitchen are where I want to be right now. I’m not going to apologize for that.
Ms. Sandberg, I want to thank you for helping me redefine who I am and what is important to me. We all need these moments in our lives, and I applaud you for sparking this conversation that American women so need to have. I long for the day when our country’s leaders are half female and when the power players in boardrooms all across the United States are 50% women. I’m truly hoping that many women will heed your clarion call and lean into their professional lives. I’ll surely vote for them and cheer them on as they make their way to the top. And when the time is right, I’ll lean into my career once again, and I know I’ll do it with gusto. But right now, my family is my favorite. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.