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Valerie Young's picture

This story originally appeared in the Woman in Washington blog.

"Success for me is that if my son chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, he is cheered on for that decision. And if my daughter chooses to work outside the home and is successful, she is cheered on and supported." --Sheryl Sandberg, NPR's Morning Edition, March 11, 2013.

If you stacked up everything that’s already been written about Sheryl Sandberg and her social-movement-in-a-book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, you’d have more pages than the book itself. Who needs to read the book now? We already know what’s in it! The pre-publication buzz has been nothing short of astonishing. With her Harvard degrees, extraordinary success, TED talk, and shards of the glass ceiling crunching under her feet in Silicon Valley, she makes it all look so … possible! Forget about the barriers you face, the attitudes you can’t change, your spouse’s unbelievably long work hours that make you a de facto single parent. I’ve made it, and you can too, she says. Try harder, do better, fire up your ambition, don’t make excuses. Work your way up to a place at the table, then fully occupy your seat. Check any self-doubt or second thoughts at the door – the one that leads to your corner office.

There is certainly a place for Sheryl Sandberg in the feminist universe, given her exceptional professional influence and hefty monetary compensation. There’s just an awful lot of space left – the space not filled by power, prestige or money. Particularly troubling is the anchoring of ambition in all Sandbergiana only and always to the workplace. This premise leads inevitably to the conclusion that a preference for anything other than paid employment indicates a lack of ambition. In order for women to lead, we must compete and succeed in all the places men are, Sandberg suggests. Anything else and we fail. Caregiving and ambition don’t seem to belong to the same world. But how will it ever be all right for her son to be the family caregiver if we have to wait for her daughter, and all our daughters, to break into positions of real power and influence, and change cultural expectations, not to mention the way our workplaces and federal programs function?

While we may typically think of ambition in terms of money and power, is it really so narrow? I can think of scads of women who change their employment because they are overwhelmingly ambitious in a much broader sense. They want to do work that matters to them, perhaps not the work that generates the most income. They want to spend a few waking hours fully present with their children, able to engage, connect and pay attention. They work to make a home for living in, that nurtures the people they care the most about. They are ambitious not only for the quality of their own lives, but committed to the belief that their care will enrich the lives of the ones they love. So, along with making money, they help with homework, make dinner, coach softball teams, fold laundry, drive carpools, rock babies, pay bills, mow the lawn, treasure their children’s confidences, and try to be there for their partners. If that’s not ambitious, I don’t know what is!

If Sandberg wants her son to have the option of being a stay at home parent, the mother of his children will have to make much more than the typical woman earns in the U.S. to be the sole income earner. He and  his family will still need paid maternity leave. When he gets sick, his partner will need paid sick days to take care of him. Ms. Sandberg’s definition of success shows the limits of her “lean in” strategy. If family caregiving is ever to receive the same respect, dignity, and status as making a killing in the tech world, it’s going to be because we finally admit the economic and social value of what caregivers do at home. We would protect them from economic dependency and promote their well-being in our public policies.

You can lean in all you want – but if you don’t have anything to lean on, you’ll just fall over. How ’bout a social movement to work on that??

'Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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