Mom crashes on the couch while young child looks on

Copyright 2007 sean dreilinger, on Flickr under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–If I had been leaning in, I would have written this column weeks ago, when Sheryl Sandberg released her memoir-slash-manifesto urging women to work harder to achieve equality.

But I haven’t found the daylight hours to do it. My roles in paid and unpaid work as a writer and a caregiver to two boys under 6 keep me going most days from dawn until way past dusk. If I leaned in any further, I would, to quote a friend, fall over.

Yet Sandberg, and many others, want women–the vast majority of whom are also mothers and caregivers–to work harder so we can climb to the highest rung on the professional ladder and, in so doing, create a world in which our daughters enjoy greater parity with our sons.

It’s true. Working harder will enable more women to achieve more, and snag a more rightful share of the world’s allotment of money, influence, status and fame. And some of those women will use their power to reform the workplace to make life better and easier for working parents.

But climbing the professional ladder isn’t the only way to make change.

Women didn’t get the vote by becoming lawmakers; they got it by launching a social movement to enfranchise women. Women didn’t win the right to legal abortion by becoming judges; they got it by organizing for reproductive rights. And women and men don’t have to become CEOs to change the workplace; they can join together to demand reforms that make it easier for parents and caregivers to meet the dual demands of work and family–and that, in my view, is what will really help more women get to the top.

Placing the burden of equality on women alone is unfair and unrealistic, when so many women, and mothers and caregivers in particular, are already worked to the bone. Gender equality shouldn’t be another item on a working mom’s long to-do list. It is the responsibility of society, and we as a populace must organize to demand it.

Leaning Back

Until we do, I’m leaning back.

I’m not opting out, although I understand why many women do, especially those whose paychecks don’t cover the high cost of quality child care or whose work is more exploitative than lucrative or who simply want, more than anything else, to be their children’s primary caregivers, even if it means they must make sacrifices and take risks to do so.

I’m not leaning back forever. I envision a time when I will once again be leaning fully in to my career.

I deeply admire women who have reached their highest professional ambitions, and I’m profoundly grateful to the many women who slammed through the many barriers shutting women entirely out of the workplace.

But I am not following in their shoes–at least not right now.

I’m leaning back while my kids are young and while they still need me, and while I need them. I’m fortunate to have the choice; many women don’t, and even those who can manage it financially often don’t have the option professionally.

I’m leaning back so that I have the time to take my young sons to the doctor and the dentist when they need to go and so that I can make their parent-teacher conferences and school performances. I’m leaning back so I have more time to play superheroes after school.

I’m leaning back so my husband, my kids and I can take a little more time to slow down and smell life’s redolent roses.

Leaning back, in fact, is something I began doing even before I had kids. And I’d advise other mothers, and fathers too, to also consider that option, at least temporarily, and if they can afford it.

Earlier in my career, I worked sweatshop hours as a political reporter–and loved it (the work, not always the hours). But then some colleagues of mine began having babies and they returned to work with bags under their eyes, breast pumps under their arms and what seemed to me a kind of sadness about spending one long workday after the next away from their babies.

It wasn’t just guilt; it was also melancholy. And it wasn’t just women, either; it also affected men. One late night, a new mom beckoned me to her computer to show me digital pictures of her infant son and said something along the lines of: "It’s the only way I get to see him."

Early Preparations

That night, I did something Sandberg warns women against: I left before I left.

I didn’t have children at the time, but I began to prepare for a world in which I did. I looked for a job that provided the kind of supports I would need to manage work and family: flexible hours, paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, part-time work options and opportunities for telecommuting.

I was searching for that elusive demilitarized zone of the Mommy Wars, some kind of life in between full-time caregiving and full-time work, the kind of life that exists for many mothers in other countries but not, for the most part, in ours.

That kind of opportunity is hard to find in our workaholic world, but I stumbled upon it, and it’s made all the difference over these past few years. My husband earns more than I do, so it made more financial sense for me to lean back than for him to do so. I gave up a portion of my salary and some benefits so I could work fewer hours–and we both gained something we have found much more valuable: more time and less stress.

And although Sandberg may not see it this way, I see my choice to lean back as a feminist one.

I’ve been able to stay in the work force, maintain my economic independence and continue to develop my professional skills. I’m not sure I would have chosen to do that if my only option during these challenging years was the kind of inflexible job I had earlier in life.

I’m a feminist. I love my work, but I also love caring for my kids, not just for their sake, but for my own.

In her book, Sandberg recognizes that women and men have family responsibilities that they need to meet, but she doesn’t go into any depth or detail about the stunning challenges working parents face in meeting those needs. And she glosses over the desire many mothers and fathers have to be with their children.

We need to take the necessary steps to give parents more than an all-or-nothing choice between work and caregiving. Failing to do so does a disservice to countless potential allies. Allies, like me, who need a manifesto and a movement that will help them lean in to their work, and lean in to their families, too.

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