The Struggle Inside: Lean In or Lean Back?

Before having children, I used to think that it would be no big deal to have both a career and a family. In other words, be a superwoman.

My mother did it, many of my friends’ mothers did it…and it felt like we owed it to our feminist elders to take on the torch and continue making progress towards equality in the career marketplace. Our partners would be more sensitive and involved in the raising of the family so the burden would be eased. Society would be fully supportive of working families and there would be many options for childcare available. I was going to make a big impact in the world, and I would happen to be a woman.

Then I had my kids.

Like the other areas of my life, when it came to raising my children I wanted to do an amazing job of it. The way I see it, we chose to bring them into this world, so it is our duty to try and raise them to be positive impacts to the world. To create, comfort, discover, understand, make peace, live with love. However, I found being amazing at parenting for your children to do and be these things monopolizes your time, and is often exhausting (e.g. dealing with whining, tantrums, trying to get anywhere on time). Even with a husband who is amazing and a wonderfully involved father, it is hard.

Add on top a career this that inherently has a lot of conflicting personalities, competing priorities, and continual deadlines, and it can be a recipe for madness. Having drained so much of my energy during the work day tempering difficult situations with clients and colleagues, I found myself having such short tempers and little patience in the evenings with my daughters. Here I was yelling at the little ones I cared about most, with a frequency that I’m not proud of, while I “kept it together” doing work that I wasn’t particularly engaged with anymore.

Something had to change. I took a leave from my company, and in the ensuing naval-gazing I am realizing that the option of not returning to work at all to focus on my family is garnering more and more weight in my internal debate. A sample internal discussion:

There is so much less stress now in the entire house now that we don’t have to do the daily juggling of schedules about who will pick up the kids from daycare. Meals are less rushed, the kids are getting some more sleep, and the weekends have become more relaxing family time, as opposed to catching up on chores. There is more time in the day to move past just the transactional family activities (e.g. preparing and supervising meals, getting ready for school or bed, chauffeuring to extra-curricular activities) to do more meaningful things with the family (e.g. playing games, doing experiments, spending unstructured time together). I have a true sense of their little souls and how they bind close to my heart.

But I didn’t become highly educated and embark on a challenging career just for fun for a few years! Going to university wasn’t just something to do to find a husband, it was to enable myself to make an impact in the world. How can I lament the shortage of women in the circles of influence of business, industry, politics, and culture if I don’t do my part and stay engaged? How can I look at my daughters to say they can and should dream big to achieve big things in the world, if I am not walking that same talk?

Now, I fully acknowledge that core to Sheryl Sandberg’s message of “Lean In” is to be leaning into a work that I find engaging and exciting and impactful — things that I cannot say without sarcasm about my current work situation. Likely by changing my work situation in my current career, or changing careers altogether, there is the possibility of getting to that space where I will Lean In enthusiastically, aiming to make large impacts. Where I’m excited to work through the problems of the day and still have ample reserves of energy at home for my family.

“Leaning back” and not working is an enticing option because it is less scary than forcing myself through change. I admit to being scared of change and many times have chosen the path of least resistance. It takes a lot of energy to work through the uncertainty and awkwardness, and it has been nice this summer to just relax and conserve that energy for the family. Sure, we’d have to make adjustments to our household finances to live on one salary, but it’s doable.

(I know if I choose to not work, I could find some  significant volunteering opportunities during those hours the kids are in school, and make an impact in that manner. It just kind of sucks to put in that amount of energy to not get compensated for it.)

“Leaning back” could also take the form of getting an “easy” job where I won’t have to expend much energy between 9 to 5, I’d still bring in income, and I’d still have energy for the family time. But it would be soul sucking to work at a job with few challenges – I know myself enough that I like working through problems, so long the environment and situation is right. I can’t see myself choosing this route for the rest of my life, so as a career strategy it’s not really the right fit.

It’s as if the choice is between a) making a bigger impact directly to my family and my enjoyment of them, or b) making a bigger impact to society through my achievements in the working world? As of this writing, I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m working on it.


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