What About the Children?

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In is inherently dismissive about the deeply valuable job of child rearing

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Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, with its bracingly Nietzschean title — Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — and its stupendously accomplished young author, represents the leading edge of contemporary American feminism. It’s a school of thought that devolves from a simple and stark truth: while women have made enormous gains over the past generation, when it comes to the top jobs in the most powerful institutions, they are all but absent.

(MORE: TIME’s Cover Story, “Confidence Woman”)

Sandberg, a businesswoman, is most concerned with women’s vanishing act in the top realm of corporate America: Only 20 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, she reports; in those companies, women account for only 14% of executive officer positions and only 16% of board seats. The world would be a much better place, she argues, if half its institutions — including these money-printing top corporations — were run by women. It’s in all of our best interests, she argues, to support policies that would help more women land top jobs.

All this sounds like a worthy cause until you pause to consider some of the firms she lionizes. Goldman Sachs, for example, gets star treatment, featured in four separate, glowing examples. Clearly, Sandberg would love to see the outfit eventually helmed by a woman. But the firm’s current CEO earned over $20 million last year, and many of us are disinclined to view Goldman Sachs as an outfit dedicated to the commonweal, so it’s hard to imagine a grassroots movement taking up the cause of the highly educated, hugely paid businesswomen who might seek the position.

(MORE: Dominique Browning: More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves)

Moreover, Sandberg reports that one of the main reasons women undermine their chances of executive positions is that before they have children they begin to craft career plans that would provide them with more flexibility and reduced responsibilities. This, says Sandberg, can result in the “tragedy” of women leaving the workforce altogether because their jobs become less satisfying than raising their children. In her view, staying home with children is simply a lifestyle choice, one that can be resisted by crafting a more attractive option in the workplace. Leaving a child with a paid caretaker is “heart wrenching”; only the possibility of a “compelling, challenging and rewarding job,” she writes, “can make it a fair contest.”

And so for all its urgent, voice-of-a-new-generation feeling, this is the familiar ground we’ve been pawing for yonks now: children vs. career. Clearly, the bigger the career, the less you see of your kids. By her own admission, Sandberg has missed teacher conferences and pediatrician appointments, she’s had to travel extensively, even when her children were sick, and she’s missed out on “a level of detail” about their lives. But she’s been handsomely rewarded with a career for the ages, and it’s hard to imagine her children have suffered overmuch for it. They’re not in a refugee camp in the Sudan; they’re in a mansion in Silicon Valley with, I am sure, some of the best caretakers money can buy, as well as parents who love them.

Sandberg claims she wants to end the Mommy Wars, and she provides plenty of boilerplate about how staying home with children is “demanding” and “important” work. But whenever she frets that her children might be better off if she spent more time with them, she reminds herself that the feeling is based on “pure emotion, not hard science.” She then goes on to provide research proving that children do no better when raised by their mothers than they do when raised by competent hired caregivers. In other words, staying home to raise one’s children really isn’t that “important” after all, or certainly not more important than making it to the top of corporate America.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

If there’s something brisk and bloodless in all this, it’s for good reason: if we’re ever going to see a female CEO at Goldman Sachs or Exxon or Citigroup, she can’t be someone who’s dithering around about pediatrician appointments and school parties. If a young woman has her heart set on one of these jobs, she should by all means read this book, which is guaranteed to stir her sense of institutionalized injustice. Its rousing, up-from-the-barricades spirit will allow her to feel like she’s living her whole life in the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement while actually … occupying Wall Street. Win-win.

(MORE: The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think)

But if a young woman is interested in arranging her life so that she can spend a great deal of time with her children while they are young, Lean In has little to offer her. It is inherently dismissive (as must all books about achieving top corporate success be dismissive) about the ultimate value of the deeply human and irreplaceable experience of raising one’s children. Here is the inescapable truth: To “lean in” to one thing is to “lean away” from something else. If there remain some businesswomen who choose to put their children over their careers — who would rather work at a diminished job because they find in child rearing something more valuable and significant than, say, investment banking — we might not be witnesses to a national tragedy. We might instead find evidence of some of the best impulses of the human spirit.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg

hdbintn like.author.displayName 1 Like

I had a working mother who was also an activist for women's and worker rights.  She came home late, and reluctantly.  I know not all working women are like this, but I couldn't do that to my children.  I don't see how you can have a career that takes 110% and also be fully present and engaged with your children, even if you do put the work down at night and on weekends.

sophie.pees like.author.displayName 1 Like

I believe that there are a lot of mothers who want what I want -- a meaningful and part-time job that offers fair compensation.  I want to be there for my children.  I want my children to grow up with the knowledge that someone always had their interests first.  This should be seen as a societal good.  This should be not only possible but rewarding for corporate america to accommodate the female workforce that is highly trained and underemployed.   Sheryl Sandberg is an absent parent.  She has a vested interest in not acknowledging the effects this absence has on her children.  And absolutely no incentive to create the positions that family-oriented employees desire.  Those positions that would greatly benefit  employees and families and society at large.  

MarciaAgostinho like.author.displayName 1 Like

What about asking her children their opinion? My kids prefer having me, a PhD woman in Engineering, enjoying a flexible academic carrer that allows me to share all their precious moments.

Marcia, from Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

timevicente like.author.displayName 1 Like

Perhaps we need to imagine what's is like to be in our children's shoes with parents finding lesser and lesser time for them.  Wouldn't we, as hypothetical children, find our parents more and more like strangers, if not like indifferent neighbors next door?  Or we wouldn't care - it makes no difference. If we, as hypothetical children, do feel - as naturally we would - the need to be loved, we would grow up with the thought that finding time for our future children is really a time management challenge. To reverse the figure of "90% of the single teens not wanting to get married across America," some people just have to teach them the proper values. If not parents, who?  If not at home, where?


Let's be realilstic: 1. S. Sandberg, with restricted stock and options worth over a billion  dollars, is not in the same position as 99.999% of women in the workplace... even ones at a senior level.    2. executives at the highest levels (male or female)  simply don't have the time to be "great parents".... the jobs as structured don't  allow it ....and the executives, for the most part, are fine with it.  Sheryle Sandberg may be inivolved  in her children's lives, but due to the time constraints of her job,  the nannies are  putting in the majority of the time.  Nothing new there... wealthy famililes have been doing it for years.   CEO's of major corporations, man or woman, put substantially more time into "the job" than "the family"....there is no balance.


I agree that with the way things are set up today, "leaning in" and doing what is required to become a leader results most often in "leaning away" from our children and family life.  So my question is -- why are some people able to avoid the pull of children and outsource all of the care, especially during the early years, while others are unable to resist the pull, giving up money, power, and intellectual fulfillment to be with their children?  I think the answer to this question is important.  It tells us something about who our leaders are today and who our leader are not in terms of character.  


@AnnB Great questions AnnB.  This is what we need to solve in order to lean in without leaning away from humanity. I believe the key is empathy and innovation is the prize as well as resilient children.  Here's more:  http://currencyofempathy.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/empathy-and-power-servant-leadership/

When the people who care about children and the people who care about servant leadership and innovation are all talking togeher, the solutions will become obvious. 

Thanks for stimulating a great discussion Caitlin.

alice.c like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Noticeably absent from this glib critique is the mention of men and their role in parenting children.  Why do so many women insist on framing this as mother's interest's versus childrens'??  It's totally retrograde.  The point is we need to move toward a society with more equal marriages, so that each partner can work full-time if that's what s/he wants and children can still get the parental attention that they need and deserve. If that happened, there'd be less pressure for people at the top to work like dogs. Also, totally agree with cipher's comment about how children can benefit from seeing badass moms. As a teenager, I was inspired by a friend's mom who was a publisher, I thought she was the coolest thing, and women like that help young girls feel they can do anything. We should be giving our daughters *that* gift.

cipher like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Pls explain how if the value/significance of child rearing is so highly regarded by society civilization, versus say, investment banking, is there such a significant comp premium (100x? 1000x?) and societal prestige to the latter.

And by the way. Was I the only one walking around 4th grade thinking what a badass my Mom was for having a career? Yes, she came home late, but my mom was interesting. She had stories. She lived. It made me want to be her when I grew up.


@cipher Using your logic, then the only worthwhile work is investment banking and piracy.

AnnB like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@cipher Few leadership jobs -- and leadership is what Sandberg is addressing -- are 9 to 5.  My mom had a badass career too.  She had a leadership position in an international bank, very fancy.  She was never home, when she was home she was stressed, and I was raised by nannies.  I was in therapy for many years and I attribute a fair amount of my depression to the absence of my mother when I needed her.  Needless to say, despite my double Ivy degrees and my own fancy career, I gave it all up when my children were born.  I was scared of screwing them up.  I don't believe opting out is the solution.   It was difficult not having the intellectual outlet of a job.  But without better options, I do believe that it is very difficult to LEAD and raise the kind of resilient children we all hope for.

cipher like.author.displayName 1 Like


That is THE question isn't it? He himself asked that almost too late...

He was also at work. Same career in fact. He came home earlier but sat on the couch and watched TV, while I lolled around the kitchen underfoot watching my mom make dinner and us talking about our days. Child rearing was not The Man's job.

Eventually, despite not having the PhD my dad had and gaps in her work history because H1B visa spouses couldn't work, my mom outranked and outearned him. She was just better at it than he was.

Agree AnnB- we ALL need better options. I need better options as I think about having kids soon. I don't see good examples around me. It appears I'm going to have to create them for myself and my family. The fact that I may be helping create options for my daughters, my friends in the industry and their daughters makes it just that much more important.

I do know that I won't be able to do it without the support of my spouse, my female colleagues, my professional mentor/sponsors and my friends.


Re: "Sandberg reports that one of the main reasons women undermine their chances of executive positions is that before they have children they begin to craft career plans that would provide them with more flexibility and reduced responsibilities."

That's true. Even today, the vast majority of the degrees in hard sciences and engineering go to men, and the vast majority of the degrees in lower-paying art and history go to women.

What about the women who do enter higher-paying professions? This can happen:

“In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.” http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2012/03/26/bil10326.htm 

Mind you, these are some of the most sophisticated, educated women in the country CHOOSING to earn less than their male counterparts in the exact same profession. 

Nothing will change as long as both sexes expect men to be the primary money-raiser (which is just as restrictive as sole money-raiser) and women to be the primary child raiser.

The forces that have barred or limited women's full integration in the world of work have barred or limited men's full integration in the world of children: to wit, some airlines have prohibited men from sitting next to a lone child. Men often are not even permitted to prove they are as good with children as women are.

See "What prevents dads from being involved" at http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/warren-farrell-what-prevents-dads-from-being-involved/