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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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