Lean In, Lean Out, or Fall Over?

One of the most awesome things about being a white male is that I can write about minority issues or women’s issues with complete confidence, because I’m a white male and therefore automatically knowledgeable about such things. I’ve been told this is the very definition of entitlement, which is what I’ve been saying all along… I am entitled to write about the issues and experiences of other people in a knowing if slightly condescending way.

So… chick stuff.

In case you live under a rock, Lean In is the best-selling book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is the kind of woman that other women line up to hate on.

It’s easy to see why.

If Sheryl underwent gender re-assignment surgery and became Shane Sandberg, he would be an alpha male. Ambitious, driven, professionally successful, great home life… men would be lining up to learn how he did it. Except he is a she, and when you say “she is ambitious and driven” it sounds like you’re describing Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct.

Maybe not with the psychotic murderer thing, but you never know.

The point from Lean In as I understand it is that right when women should be reaching the prime of their career, they chose to step back. The reasons for this are varied but tend to center around expectations, both of themselves and what women feel others expect of them.

I have been in an interesting place these past few months because I’ve gone from being under-employed to un-employed to now insanely busy. Mrs. Nostrikethat has felt the impact as she has picked up all of the slack. Everything from 100% car pool duties to remembering to drag the trash cans out Thursday night. I have been able to lean-in precisely because I have a dedicated home team propping me up.

So how does it work in reverse?

Let me ask the question another way: if someone leans in, doesn’t someone else have to lean out?

I remember one incident from my recent past. I was with the client trying desperately to finish up a major project by the deadline. At the same time, I had made a commitment to Mrs. Nostrikethat to be home by 5:30 at the absolute latest so she could make it to her class. As the day dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that we weren’t going to get done in time to allow me to make it home. I was confronted with a choice: do I tell a new client while I am still in “trial mode” that “I’m sorry, I know we’re almost done, but I have to stop working right now and go home?” or do I bounce a check to the Bank of Wife and hope for the best?

I opted for the latter.

It wasn’t pretty.

I was late, she was late, everyone was grumpy. But the key point in this story is that I had the luxury to make that choice precisely because my partner leaned out and was already home with the kids. If I was a single parent I wouldn’t have that choice– daycares aren’t very forgiving when it comes to leaving your kids there all night. By necessity, I would have to lean out and “mommytrack” myself- take a less demanding, less visible job that had stable hours and less variability to the work.

Now let’s say that at some point in the future Mrs. Nostrikethat decides to relaunch her career. There is still roughly the same amount of work to be done. Milk must be bought, kids must be picked up from school when they’re sick, laundry must be laundered. She can’t lean out when she’s just starting to lean in again, so I have to be the one to pick up the to-do list for the family unit. No amount of time management skills will help in dealing with the variability that is children.

Until we as a culture collectively decide that long hours are not the currency of professional success nothing is really going to change for women, because the men in their lives won’t have the option to pick up the slack.

What do you think?


17 thoughts on “Lean In, Lean Out, or Fall Over?

  1. How exactly is this not obvious to the rest of the world? The equation doesn’t change until the combined incomes rise high enough to pay for live-in-nanny, cook, housekeeper, and gardener… But who is going to pay them well enough for both spouses to lean in?


    1. Facebook apparently?

      One of the most frequent criticisms levelled against Ms. Sandberg is that her career track of Ivys > McKinnsey > executive ranks is not representative of most women (or men, for that matter).

      I think the awareness she has raised around gender roles in the workplace is ultimately the most valuable thing about the Lean In movement, at least from my perspective. Which– as has been already established– is the only one that matters.


  2. Kudos for acknowledging your Mrs. Leaning out for you.

    “because the men in their lives won’t have the option to pick up the slack”….its more of a “men in their lives won’t choose to pick up the slack”….its a choice and the culture needs to change first to recognize that men need to “lean out” too only then the culture of long hours for success can change.


    1. I think you are right to point out the cultural influences create an environment where working all the time is valued. Despite ever-rising productivity, we see again and again that what is valued the most in the time spent, not the results achieved.


  3. I think you nailed it – family needs by their very nature tend to be inflexible. Jobs and careers don’t like to be flexible, and if you try to make them flexible you often get punished. Not even necessarily deliberately; you just get labeled as “unreliable” and so people stop relying on you and then you don’t advance. And this is how we get the dynamic of one partner leaning in to their careers all the way (usually a male) and the other partner either juggling a stale career and family or just focused on the family.

    For me, I’m fortunate that my husband is a stay-at-home dad which frees me up to be completely career-focused.

    I would like to see us continue to move toward a culture where we see the raising of the next generation as everyone’s job and not just “woman’s work.” It’s already more common to have dads be the stay-at-home caretakers if that’s what works for the family, but I would also like to see more gender-neutral parental leave policies for families with newborns, for example. If BOTH partners are entitled to some sort of leave, suddenly hiring a woman during her reproductive years isn’t any more of a business risk than hiring a man during his (or his partner’s or his mistress’s) reproductive years.


    1. Flexibility has really come front and center in our family discussions. as much as we would like to have two salaries, we couldn’t afford to buy the flexibility we have now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think when you’re on the same team, this makes sense, but when your marriage is about you and how you view yourself, the loss of who you think you are can be challenging to face. This can be a really complex issue and I wish there were a simple solution, but there’s not. I’m glad you’ve found a strong team mate.


    1. Me too!

      I am glad you touched on the identity facet, I think that is an important angle for this discussion. “Daddy” has become a part of my identity, but it has never been the first part. I definitely more strongly identify with the part of me that goes off to work every day. In fact, I just talked to a colleague yesterday who had no idea I had 4 kids, and I’ve worked closely with him for months.

      When I talk to my wife, though, the first thing she identifies with is being a mom. If Sheryl Sandberg were to draw a Venn diagram of her overlapping identities, I would be curious to see how big she drew the Mom circle relative to the others.


      1. Good points! Like I said, it’s a complex issue. The truth that men and women are designed differently seems to be a revelation for some, but they are. A man’s identity tends to flow from what he does whereas a woman’s actions flow from who she believes she is. When we work together, we can learn from each other, but how we’re made will still be our “first language” so to speak and still makes the most sense to us. It’s not a cultural issue. It’s a love issue and it gets solved on the individual basis because we love that one person more than we love our own way of thinking. We’re willing to go the extra mile for that one person…not everybody, just that one person. For that one person, we adapt. That’s what being part of a team means. 🙂


  5. “Until we as a culture collectively decide that long hours are not the currency of professional success nothing is really going to change for women, because the men in their lives won’t have the option to pick up the slack.”

    Well said.

    I would also add: Until we as a culture collectively decide that living our lives shackled to ungodly amounts of debt nothing is going to change for _anyone_.

    Also: The goal for everyone married man’s life should be one thing: to love his wife. If he does that everything else in his life will fall into place. True, he may not advance in his career. But a man is not called to give his family a big house, two SUV’s, and closets full of brand name clothes. He is called to give his wife a husband and his children a dad. It’s better to live in a hut with love.


    Great post–thanks for writing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for being my most loyal reader 😉

      I had spent some time on Mr. Money Moustache and thought of you.


  6. There are a group of males I know that are insanely GOOD at taking up the slack. What sucks is that these ‘stay-at-home dads’ get stigmatized by those who think they’re just too lazy to get jobs (NOT!!).

    In order for women to truly be equals to men in the work force, we are going to need one giant paradigm shift to our family structure. The kids need it. (I couldn’t agree more with AC’s last comment.)

    Great post! Glad to see you back, even if you are insanely busy. 😀


    1. Eh everyone is busy… I just wasn’t counting on how drained I felt every day. I weathered the storm, though, and I’m slowly getting back on course.

      as to your comment- I don’t know if it’s a stereotype of a man being lazy so much as doing “less valuable” work. After all, if you can pay a low-skill employee to cook, clean, and watch your kids, aren’t you relegating yourself to something less than your full potential? I obviously don’t agree with this line of thinking, but I can confess I have thought it before.


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