Lean in your own way

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s critically-acclaimed book on women in the workplace, came out at a seminal time for me. Five years ago, as the book was sparking a national debate, I was graduating from the Haas School of Business and about to transition from the non-profit sector to my first “corporate” job, in healthcare marketing consulting. Newly married, and considering starting a family, I devoured the book, and took its lessons—especially around working motherhood—to heart. Of course I would stay all-in on my career after I had kids, even if the economics didn’t make sense, because as she makes clear—through stat after stat—women who leave the workforce may hobble their careers for life. I had just invested in this fantastic graduate degree. Why would I have gone through that effort if I didn’t plan to use it?

Three years later, sitting by a pool in Hawaii and five months pregnant with my daughter, I remember reopening Lean In and rereading the chapters on working motherhood, with my anxiety starting to rise. All of a sudden, the logistics of what I was about to attempt—being a dedicated mother, ascending the corporate ladder, maintaining my marriage, and carving out time for myself to see friends or to exercise—seemed daunting. How was I going to manage all these competing priorities without driving myself crazy?

And then my daughter arrived. My entire worldview changed—perhaps not within hours, but definitely within weeks. I remember watching the days of my maternity leave roll by, willing time to stop so I didn’t have to leave her and go back to work.

But that day finally came. I left my daughter with my parents, dusted off the laptop, and headed back to work, determined to try to make a go of it. Those first weeks were a fog as I tried to get my head back in the game, all the while mourning the little girl I’d left at home.

I kept at it for a year and a half. Being away from my daughter did get easier, and I managed to continue to excel at work. But my priorities had changed. I remember interacting with the CMO of a global healthcare company, herself a mother of two, not long after I went back. Just a few years before, I would have looked up to her, with her big title and long list of professional accomplishments, as the kind of working mom I wanted to be. But now, I just felt lost. I didn’t want that kind of career. Yes, I knew I wanted to work–just in a way that didn’t come at such a sacrifice to my personal life.

“Interestingly, it wasn’t until I thought I was leaning out that I actually figured out my way to lean in.”

Last June, I left my corporate job to become a freelance marketing consultant. I had a short-term contract in hand, and crossed my fingers that I could cobble together enough work to help keep my family financially afloat. During my last days at my former employer, I had two separate conversations with younger female colleagues who expressed disappointment—or perhaps defeat—at my choice. “You seemed like you were doing so well at doing it all, and that made me feel like I could too,” they each basically said. This devastated me. I had tried so hard to make it work, and yet obviously I had failed.

9 months later, I am now co-founder of Waterhouse Brands, a small yet fast-growing virtual brand strategy and marketing consulting firm, staffed for the most part by seasoned, driven veterans of the agency world—male and female—who are also committed to working flexibly and being present for their families. I’m still working hard—probably harder than before—as I help scale Waterhouse Brands. But it’s different in this construct, because now I’m in control—not my employer—of where and when I work, and what I decide to take on. And it’s made all the difference in my feelings about working with a young family.

So, what advice would I give to other career focused moms-to-be or new moms?

Don’t drop out until you’ve considered all angles. Is there a way to reshape your career to work better with your life? With some grit, creativity, and yes—a leap of faith—there’s likely a workable alternative scenario to the corporate track. I realize not every profession offers good options for people who want flexible hours or to work remotely, but you don’t know what’s possible until you ask to shape your workday differently. And if you can’t find a way to do it with an employer, take a page out of our book and consider starting your own venture. I know I never considered doing something entrepreneurial until I realized it was my only option for crafting the kind of professional life I wanted.

Prioritize what’s most important to you. Figure out what you’re willing to compromise on—and what you aren’t. I didn’t feel right outsourcing most of the parenting for my daughter during the week while at my former agency, and frankly the time on the weekends was too short and bittersweet. When I transitioned into working independently, I knew that being fully present with her on the weekdays before and after her time in childcare was really important to me. So now we spend quality time together in the mornings and early evenings. Yes, the compressed workday means I usually have to get online after her bedtime to cover off on the things I didn’t finish—and it definitely makes the hours I am working during the day more hectic and high stakes. But I wouldn’t trade those extra hours with her for anything.

Let go of the myth that super woman is real—it’s ok to let some things drop. I’ve had to abandon the notion that I can do it all. Yes, I have a tremendous capacity to keep balls in the air, but that capacity allows me to be a good mom, and meet the needs of clients and my business. That’s it. I love to cook, but cooking amazing dinners can’t be a priority right now. I now outsource as many “life management” tasks as I can, such as errands, meal prep, and housekeeping. Do I get the workout time, date nights, or social time that I worried about by the pool in Hawaii? It’s more infrequent than I’d like. This period of time when my daughter is little and thinks I’m the center of her universe is finite, and I’m going to soak up every second that I can.

With my second child due in just a few months, I realize that my life is about to be turned upside down once again. I hope that the way I’ve rearranged my life over the past year will continue to work for me. But only time will tell.

In the meantime, with the dialogue around Lean In reigniting with the 5-year anniversary of the book’s publishing, I hope we can take the time to reflect on the many creative ways working moms make it all happen. Keeping yourself on a corporate track only out of fear that you can’t get back on once you get off is not necessary. “Leaning in” can have many different definitions. My story—and ideal path—are just one of many.

Interested in other reading on this topic? Two other books on working motherhood I enjoyed are Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career by fellow Haas alum Lisen Stromberg, and I Know How She Does It – How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam.

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