Skip to main content
Dominique Browning's picture

Add your voice to the comments

This story originally appeared in the Slow Love Life blog.

TIME magazine has just released its cover story on Sheryl Sandberg, with an excerpt from her new book. I wrote a column for the issue, but here's the (bit) longer version for readers of Slow Love Life. I would love to hear your thoughts.

I am seriously tired—and heartsick—of hearing from women who have it all that it was all a mistake. That the new generation of women—our daughters!—entering the workplace shouldn’t set the bar so high. That women cannot have it all.

They’re wrong. And they’re not remotely helpful. Women in the U.S. have never had it better. Do we have a long way to go before we are truly equal? You bet. But we are in an enviable position—at least in the eyes of women all over the globe who are fighting for the basic rights we take for granted.While there’s nothing new about the idea behind Sheryl Sandberg's phrase “lean in,” it has had such traction that it must mean that younger women have heard enough about “drop out.” Most of them know they won't have that luxury, anyway. They’re hungry for a positive message, whether it is “Lean in” or “Grab life” or “Go for it” or, like Mary Tyler Moore, “You’re gonna make it after all…”

So I’m with Sheryl Sandberg.

What makes me qualified to talk about this? I’ve managed a successful career in sexist workplaces and have broken my share of glass ceilings; I’ve supported myself for my entire life; I've raised two feminist and otherwise morally good sons; I’ve successfully managed pleasurable personal relationships, some to their natural conclusions; I have never let a setback keep me down (for too long); and I’m reinventing myself with the best of them.
So first, let's usher some elephants out of the room: the critics.
1. "Sandberg is rich, white, and privileged so what does she know?"  Her critics’ favorite trope. Note that when rich, privileged, white (or black or Hispanic) men write books about how you, too, can attain success, no one says that their achievements disqualify them as authorities. How do we think Sandburg got rich? She worked hard. She put herself in the right place at the right time. She got lucky--and she capitalized on that luck. She didn’t let anyone get in her face. She found a mate who supported her ambitions. Her journey provides a terrific role model—for some of us. There are never going to be one-size-fits-all solutions to the challenges women face in our sexist world—or for any problems. So let’s stop using that excuse not to do some hard listening.
2. "She’s blaming the victims." Why isn’t Sandberg talking about government–subsidized day care programs and the enforcement of laws that equalize pay—hugely important issues?  Because life is full of conversation. We don't have to pick one, and Sandberg wants to jumpstart another conversation: why shouldn't women look at how they might be sabotaging themselves?HAVING IT ALL
What do we mean by “having it all?”  Work and love. Freud said it best. The two most important things in life. But what started as a slogan of good cheer and encouragement —You can have it all—has become a lead weight of existential anxiety—Do I want it all? Why was I born a woman?
Women can have it all. We won’t be able to have all of everything at the same time—no one can—but we can live lives rich in variety, broad in range, and high in opportunity. We can be world changers, game changers, and diaper changers. Just like the men. It is much too soon to give up on the ambitions of my generation of feminists.
Here are some lessons from my journey.
1. SOMETIMES A MISTAKE IS JUST A MISTAKE. STAY IN THE GAME. Women make dumb mistakes—at every stage of our lives. Just like men do, by the way.
Say we’ve established careers and raised children. Then we decide to take jobs that require a grueling amount of travel. We move to cities far from our families. And we miss them, they miss us, and the wheels start to fall off the home carriage. This surprises us? And makes us bitter?
This isn’t an example of not having it all. It is simply a lousy long-term career choice.  Easily rectified—often without seriously compromising a career. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the consequences of life-altering decisions. I made this mistake early in my family’s life, and Anne-Marie Slaughter made it when her children were older. But this doesn’t demonstrate that it is impossible to have brilliant careers and raise families. It demonstrates a  miscalibration of the limits of tolerance and resilience. Useful. Not a lesson in why we should give up.
Yes. Top corporate positions are still disproportionately filled by men. But not necessarily because women are being kept out—though make no mistake, the world is still run by men, and they are still throwing up the barricades. But many women have decided that the old white male definition of success (career above all) isn’t necessarily theirs. And that’s fine. Until, of course, it isn’t—but don’t blame the system when that happens.
2. APPEARANCES MATTER—ALOT OF SUPERFICIAL STUFF DOES
 
To women at the younger end of careers: If I saw it once, I saw it a thousand times. Young women in my office asking me, tearfully, why they weren’t being taken seriously by their male colleagues? In some cases, the answer was: that guy is an ass and needs to be straightened out. But in so many cases, sadly, as I listened, I watched a young woman squirming in a skirt that was so short I could see her underwear, a top so tight and cropped that she was spilling out of it, heels so high she tottered to her chair.
If you think I exaggerate just spend 20 minutes near the lobby of any major corporation at lunchtime and watch. Or, as recently happened to me, spend some time in the lobby of the Washington Hilton during one or another of the dozens of young national leaders meetings, and watch the young women convening. The fashion parade was shocking. And sad.
Why? And yes, I have asked young women: Why do you think a highly sexualized presentation of self is appropriate?  I always got what I think of as a feminist’s twisted sister of an answer: because I am liberated to dress any way I want. Because I can be sexy and smart. Because I shouldn’t be judged on my appearance.
There isn’t time to go into the thousand ways this is deeply misguided—and how it derails many a career at the outset. Just for a moment, dwell on the metaphor of thousands of young women strapping their feet into shoes that make it comically difficult for them to move forward at all, to say nothing of keep pace.
 Go ahead, be sexy. Make everyone’s day. But in this, as in so many areas of life, compartmentalization is a key survival tactic. There is a time and place for showing it all. It is called the cocktail hour.
3. DO THE WORK
 
And mid career? I know, or have heard about, so many women who, having opted out of the workplace, want back in. Or they are forced to get in because they (or their husbands) have successfully managed their marriages to their natural conclusion.
Many feel that the chill with which they are greeted, aged 45, when they get to the human resources department is proof of how women cannot have it all. They feel penalized for having been mothers.
No. They are just starting over. They’ve decided to take work and love sequentially. But because they’ve been CEO of their homes, many mid-life returners feel they should be hired straight into the corner office.
The only way to start at the top is to start your own company.
Work is…work. Do the work.
4. RESILIENCE ABOVE ALL
 
I used to think smarts reigned. I watched smart people flame out. Then I thought it was only about connections. That, too, has serious limitations. So does luck.
When you get right down to it, success in life is about resilience. Every life well lived is full of failure, both major and minor. We have as much to learn from heartbreak and healing as we do from success—and I part ways with Sandberg here, who has said she doesn't want to hear about failure. That's ridiculous.
What matters most is how we respond to setback, to challenge, to stress and strain. Being resilient often means finding other paths, other means to the same goal.  If your goal is work and love—having it all—then do what you have to do to protect both those things and be nimble about the intricate ballet of daily life as you balance the demands of both.
5. DON’T WASTE TIME PUSHING THE STRING
 
And life is often string, when it is not a bowl of spaghetti. Limp. Tangled. Pushing on one end of a piece of string does not produce forward movement on the other end. Jobs often become stringy. So do relationships. No matter how much effort you put in, no matter how much brute force you apply, nothing happens. Time to move on.Women are often loyal to a fault. (Maybe men are too, but I hear and read much more about it from women.) We're loyal to toxic friendships, we're loyal to lousy relationships, we're loyal to terrible bosses. We think we are leaning in. But we are really pushing the string, going nowhere. We have to be better at recognizing the difference, and not wasting time and precious energy.
So my message to young women the world over: Engage. And stay engaged. Lean in--and be clear-eyed about what you are leaning into. Make choices, make mistakes, make moves. Practice resilience. Love. Work. Play. Enjoy, and weep bitter tears. That’s life.

MomsRising.org strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So, we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!