The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

August 14, 2013 by

Leaning In Means Letting Go

medium_6829346683In her cover story of Lilith’s summer issue, Gabrielle Birkner takes a hard look at the economic challenge facing women who take seriously Sheryl Sandberg’s plea to “lean in” to their careers, even as they begin to have children. She points out that quality day care often costs more than women are earning, and concludes: “Leaning in necessitates not only a “will to lead,” but also a structure that supports women’s ambitions. Access to quality, affordable childcare is key.” In another recent cover story on this topic, Judith Warner, writing for the New York Times magazine, comes to a similar conclusion. She points out that the debate about women in the workplace, with its binary focus on whether or not women should opt to “lean into” work or “lean into” their home lives, is actually misplaced. She writes, “at a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.”

The “Lean In” debate, with its focus on women and their personal decisions, is masking a broader societal challenge, which is felt to the extreme by families in general, and women in particular. We have not figured out how to ensure that children receive quality care, and the work force quality and committed employees. The lightening rod of this debate has been the working mother, and she has been blamed and shoved from side to side, quite roughly. Warner points out that the pendulum has been swinging wildly, backed up by “scientific studies,” which seem to simply offer support for the latest trend. She implies that the currently popular plea to “lean in” to work life, and to avoid “excessive mothering,” is simply a reaction to the economic climate in which we reside:

The women of the opt-out revolution left the workforce at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong…almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010…fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.

With this data in mind, it is hard not to hear Sandberg’s battle-cry as the voice of the capitalist marketplace, speaking through its female poster-child. What is a mother to do? Whom are we to trust? If we lean towards our children, as so many women of the “opt-out” generation did, we risks financial dependence on our husbands, risk falling into a very traditional marriage and home life, risk the chance to return to the work force and have a meaningful career. If we lean towards our careers, we risk missing our children’s childhood, risk our children feeling like they are not our top priority, risk constant exhaustion, and, in some careers, as Birkner points out, even risk the ability to pay for the child-care we need.  With all of the leaning, this way and that, it is hard to feel grounded, hard not to teeter and fall, defeated, to the ground.

We must begin to address these issues as they truly are – societal issues, economic issues, issues that cannot be resolved simply by pushing women in one direction or another. They relate as much to fathers as to mothers, and as much to people who are not parents, who care about work-life balance, and about the overall health of our society.

But when it comes to whom to trust, we need to better listen to ourselves. And we need to have the hard conversations about what we lose when we choose one way or the other, if we are lucky enough to have a choice. As mothers, when we choose to lean in one direction, we are also leaning away from something, letting it go, and sacrificing something about which we deeply care.

Elizabeth Mandel, in her Lilith article “The Jewish Costs of a Jewish Education,” laments her sacrifices when she writes about her decision to leave her meaningful part-time work for much less meaningful full-time work that allows her family to afford living in Manhattan and her children to attend Jewish Day Schools: “I am left confronting a great irony. Has organizing our lives around affording day school tuition, so our children can learn Jewish values, turned out to be antithetical to propagating and modeling Jewish values?” When a mother leans in a direction, that direction has a set of values, and an equal and opposite set of sacrifices – in Mandel’s case, another set of values that is compromised.

Our choices have implications. Mandel and all mothers who make sacrifices for their children, who are forced to prioritize their values, must teach their children about the difficulty, necessity, and implications of choosing between conflicting loves. We cannot have it all, cannot do it all. This is a profound Jewish message. Perhaps this is why when Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish couple in the Torah, who yearn for a child for so many years, are charged with sacrificing that child. The text is implying that with children come conflicting pulls, conflicting values, conflicting directions, and inevitable sacrifices.

As Jewish mothers, we need to be more open about the difficulty of our choices, the pain of our sacrifices. We must admit to ourselves why we choose one way or the other, if we are blessed with choices. We must have honest conversations about how leaning one way involves sacrificing other ways, even other ways we value. Perhaps this is core to what we need to create the healing and clarity that will guide us as we strive for balance, as we poise ourselves to embrace wherever we choose to lean next.


photo credit: Victor1558 via photopin cc