I'm Standing Up, Not Leaning!

I don’t lean in, lean out, lean sideways, lean back…I stand up straight.  As a kid, my parents kept telling me to stand up straight and strong.  It created an aura of confidence, self-assurance, and supposedly, it was better for your back.  In fact, we now know that standing strong can actually change your mood and confidence.

Perhaps because I’m short (5’ 1” on my driver’s license), I’ve always stood straight, because I had to.  And I became tall – not in the physical sense, but intellectually, emotionally and professionally.  Throughout my career, I never felt discriminated against because of my gender.  Even after I had children, I never felt the need to do anything but stand up straight.

That’s why I have trouble with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. What I find missing in much of the Lean In discussion is the joy of parenthood.  I didn’t “hear” any joy of being a mom, wife or even executive.  Children are not tactics or tasks to check off a to-do-list.  I’ve found being a mom an incredible privilege, responsibility, and indescribable joy.  Admittedly, I’ve had a charmed career path that I worked hard at, very hard, and built the credibility to ask, and get, what I wanted.  Having children and enjoying them, relishing in and with them, has been key to my success. 

I waited to have children.  Most of my friends and colleagues thought it was because of my fancy career.  They were wrong.  I waited til I became closer to being a mom I’d want, especially since my mother was, yes really, the perfect mother for me.  I didn’t want to inflict myself on a child when I wouldn’t even want myself as a mom.  Having children has taught me so much about myself, about motivating the behavior you want to see, about managing and freeing people and the illusion (delusion?) of control.  Being a mom has matured me into a better human being. My children didn’t hold me back, they propelled me forward…and made me redefine and want different things out of my career.  They have helped me define success and impact.

My stay-at-home mom unwittingly taught me about being a ‘career woman’.  She taught me the value of diverse thinking, of integrating art, music, science, and literature to look at the world differently (#STEAM 50 years ago), to create and recombine ideas.  She taught me how to criticize without being critical, without even realizing I’d been criticized, and therefore motivated to change.  She taught me how to prioritize what really and truly mattered.  She taught me that relationships matter more than stuff.  She taught me how to ‘present’ myself in public.  She taught me to stand straight.

Sheryl’s path, my path, your path, isn’t prescriptive.  And, as Stew Friedman points out, we all need options – to be professionals, parents, spouses, siblings, children.   We need to stop using words like Leaning In, Leaning Out and just be ourselves.  This may be idealistic, but if we don’t put it out there, we won’t aim for it.   Our world (and I firmly believe the fabulous Millennials will force this) needs to encourage and enable diversity of work styles, not just thoughts, gender, race, creed.  There are times that our work requires us to be front and center, but if it’s always the case, we end up being less than productive for our work and our families.

The Generation Xers are the transition between moms who stayed home and moms who worked.  Most of our role models are our moms who mainly stayed home, if we were privileged to be in that socio-economic position.  We are presented with a plethora of options that we still struggle to justify and judge.  I hope that our Gen-Y ‘kids’ – both women and men – will have an easier time defining their roles for themselves and their own relationships.  Our world, our work, our communities and our homes need them to.  We need to stop requiring ourselves and others to lean in or lean up – and instead, encourage and support standing up straight.  And it starts with us – with each of us.

A version of this was originally published in Switch and Shift as "Standing Up Against Leaning In"