After dropping off my oldest daughter at preschool one morning, I glanced in the backseat and saw that my youngest had fallen asleep. I viewed this moment as a small victory because it allowed me to take a break from the same children’s music CD that had been playing on a non-stop rotation for the last several days. I tuned in to my favorite morning radio show- where they were discussing a commencement speech given by Sheryl Sandberg, who I learned was the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of the book Lean In – a best-seller about women, work, and leadership. They played clips from the speech at Barnard College, in which she talked a lot of how women sell themselves short. Sandberg encouraged this audience of bright young women to strive for greatness and focused a lot on the concept of “leaning in,” which basically means to give it your all and not hold back. I found myself glued to every word this woman was saying. At one point, she talked about a topic that hit very close to home for me, being relatively new to the whole “stay-at-home-mom” thing.
“Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there.”
She described how many women held back professionally because they knew they would want a family someday.
“These women don’t even have relationships and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it.”
The words from that speech stayed with me throughout that day. I felt so inspired by Sandberg, yet had an uneasy feeling that I could not shake. I kept trying to identify the feeling I was having and soon recognized it as GUILT, but not just any guilt. A very specific type of guilt often referred to as “mommy guilt”. I sat there wondering if I had made a mistake by deciding to be a stay-at-home-mom. I had always been so driven and strived for leadership roles, and now what had I become? A simple housewife? A professional diaper-changer and coupon-clipper? How could I encourage my two daughters to go out and take over the world if I wasn’t doing that myself? I got so frustrated with myself because I realized that just months before, I was also berating myself as I drove to work each morning and left my older daughter at daycare. I was sick each day as I left her, feeling jealousy towards the women at daycare who got to spend more time with her than I did. Once we made the decision for me to stay at home after my youngest was born, I had felt so certain that it was the right decision because it would allow me to spend precious time with my growing girls.
I started thinking about conversations I’d had with some of my closest friends who were also mothers, the kind of friends where our walls had come down and we’d confide our guilt to each other. “I don’t spend enough time with my kids,” one working mom would confess. “I’m afraid they aren’t getting enough social interaction,” a stay-at-home mom would counteract. It seemed that, no matter our choices as mothers, nearly all of us experience guilt in some form. As Sandberg pointed out in her speech,
“if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other factors like working harder, help from others… So women need to take a page from men and own their own success”.
Whether in the workforce or at home, we need to recognize the greatness inside of us. Rather than beating ourselves up about what we feel is lacking in our own mothering situations, we should try to focus on what we are doing right. We are doing the best we can. All this guilt and self-doubt is causing us to “lean back” as Ms. Sandberg would say. It is keeping us from our true potential – whether that be serving as a high-level executive, making partner at a law firm, or being the best stay-at-home mom we can be. We have all made sacrifices in some way – we just need to ask ourselves if we are making those sacrifices worth it. Each of us should ask ourselves: am I leaning back, or leaning in to my own life?
I leave you with the same words that Sheryl Sandberg used to conclude her speech. Though they may mean something different to us as mothers as they do to young women starting their new careers, they still ring true:
“And I hope that you—yes, you—each and every one of you have the ambition to run the world, because this world needs you to run it. Women all around the world are counting on you… I know that’s a big challenge and responsibility, a really daunting task, but you can do it. You can do it if you lean in. So go home tonight and ask yourselves, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” And then go do it.”
To read and/or watch the speech by Sheryl Sandberg, click here.