Thank You, Sheryl Sandberg

 

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.

 

The Price Tag of Being Authentic

When I first sat down to write this blog I was more than a little bit down on being a stay-at-home mother. I was tired, and not in the sleep-deprived sense, although I’m sure the fact that I haven’t slept past 8:00 a.m. in three and a half years could possibly have something to do with my growing sense of discontent. This was a different kind of fatigue, the kind that makes you feel like you have no movement in your life, the kind that makes you feel stuck, the run-down feeling of running in place. I was getting up every morning and doing what I thought every good mother should do — revolving the entirety of my days around my children’s needs and desires. Our daily routine was monotonous, each hour unfolding rhythmically, the day punctuated by mealtimes and naps, an afternoon excursion to the grocery store or a play date or a trip to the park the high point of our day.

For a good long while, this life sustained me. I wanted so much to be a mother that when my dream finally came true not once but twice, I built a bubble of bliss around myself and my children. This is what you waited for your whole life I would tell myself. This is what you were put on this earth to do I would remind myself. And I convinced myself that I would enjoy it. Every single second of it. You see, what I erected around myself and my children was a snow globe life. Our house was a place where everything was perfect; only happiness and joy and kindness could exist there. Just like a bucolic snow globe scene has no place for dissatisfaction or loneliness or frustration, our life and my thoughts didn’t have room for them either. I had masterfully engineered a world where like the snowflakes in a snow globe, love would shower down on my children and settle comfortably at their feet. It was my mission to create a world where we would experience only health and happiness, never discomfort or pain.

It sounds silly in retrospect, but I really felt this way, and it was only when I acknowledged a growing restlessness with my life that I began to understand the truth: snow globe living is not real. The irritation, loneliness and discontentment that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel are real human emotions that we all have, that we must have if we are to live authentic lives. What I had not allowed myself before in my snow globe existence was to admit that yes, I find aspects of motherhood tedious and mind numbing. I miss working outside the home, earning money for my hard work and having some part of my life be independent of my family. I miss thinking and reading and writing, and simply interacting with adults. That’s the truth, and it is liberating to proclaim it. In allowing myself to feel the underside of being a mother, I am allowing myself to exist in the real world, one in which anger, sadness and frustration are necessary price tags for being authentic.

And so here I am devoid of my former snow globe thinking and wondering where my fresh new outlook on motherhood will take me. Now that my feet are planted firmly in reality (which ironically is snow-covered here in northeastern PA), I am hoping to use this blog to explore the ecstasy and the anguish of being a mommy. It is my ardent belief that by acknowledging and even embracing the struggles, I can revel in the joys that much more, which is why as I write this I can’t help but think back to how delicious my son’s cheek felt next to mine when I danced with him today in the living room or how I just about melted when at dinner tonight my daughter whispered into my ear, “Psst…I love you.” Wouldn’t it be something if all it took to soak up and appreciate every last morsel of our children’s wonderfulness was to come to terms with the fact that they also drive us crazy? A collection of contradictions. Looks like there’s a post for next time.