A few months ago I picked up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead in the library. Rooted in the aisle I stood reading it for long enough to glean her message. Or to feel that I had. It’s a clarion call for more women to feel better about being ambitious in their careers, and particularly those with children. I didn’t disagree with her. But because it didn’t speak to me I put it back on the shelf and went off to find the next book in the Nanny Piggins series for my daughter.
Last week I stood in front of the Talking Book section of the library, searching for something to fill my odd moments in the car – to and from the sailing club, the dog beach, various shops, the school run, the odd work trip to Launceston and the weekly Farmers Market. As I looked at the shelf I couldn’t see anything that I hadn’t already listened to that beckoned. Antifragile, Status Anxiety, The Selfish Gene, and Quiet – these have been my companions on long drives and short over the last months. Finally I picked out Lean In, deciding to give it another go. So much had happened in my life since I last flicked through it. Perhaps now it would speak to me.
Feeling hopeful I slip CD 1 into my car audio. Elisa Donovan, an actress, starts reading in that clipped, breezy and American way that would be okay for a two-minute commercial but grates on me so badly that I soon hit the Off button. ‘Don’t be silly’, I say to myself at the next traffic light. Pressing the On button I force myself to listen until my interest in the ideas overrides my irritation with the reader’s voice.
Sheryl Sandberg has crossed all her ‘t’s’. Her text has been beautifully edited to anticipate obvious objections. She would never, she repeats, pass judgment on women who have leaned out and become primary caregivers. She does however point out that just a year out of the workforce leads to a 20% drop in women’s pay and sends a clear message to colleagues and workmates, from which women’s careers only rarely recover.
Sheryl Sandberg is a very particular woman writing about a hugely important theme – the need for women to value their careers as highly as their families. But then I too am a very particular woman who has struggled with this theme for enough years to know that I don’t know better.
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When I wake – or more properly when my alarm pierces my dream – my first thought is ‘Will I miss my flight?’ Will I be able to tick off the eight things on my mental To Do list – leave the house tidy for the German girl who is staying the night in my absence, turn off the tap on plants I put in the day before, finish packing, make breakfast, pack lunchboxes, clean up the kitchen and give my daughter a mobile with the phone numbers she may need – and still be in the car for the school run in twenty-three minutes’ time?
‘Hurry Up’, I shout up the stairs. ‘I’m going to miss my flight.’ For a moment I let myself stare out the window and feel thankful for the rain that has fallen in the night, wetting everything. My kids, now teenagers, run down the stairs. They know the drill. Mummy is fussing – ignore her, eat breakfast fast and get going. Twenty-two minutes later we are out the door – the dog, Emma’s sailing bag, my overnight bag, and Alex on his bike.
Thankfully I make it to the airport in time. My phone bleeps while I’m in the Disabled Loo putting on makeup. It’s a message from Emma. ‘Hi Mummy. I left my sailing bag and swimming things in the boot of your car. If you have time, can you please bring it to the school office? Don’t worry if you can’t.’ Having been there for my daughter since she was born, day by day she is getting used to my letting her down now and again. She doesn’t like it – she resents like hell that Mummy wants and needs to do other things. But she accepts it. And so I line up for the plane and leave all thoughts of sailing bags behind.
By the time I get to Melbourne I feel thrilled to have time to myself to do some of the things that I used to do when we lived there. And to have time to do some work and catch up on my marriage. So much so that I decide to stay a second night to see a talk by Alain de Botton which now seems more compelling than when I booked my flight from Hobart. When I finally reach Emma by phone to tell her, she doesn’t grumble. She doesn’t exactly like the idea of being parceled from one friend to another, and wearing the same socks for three days, but she doesn’t object.
When Emma was young I never leaned in – I never suggested that my career was every bit as important as my love for her. This wasn’t a fib. My work was important, she’s always known this. But it wasn’t as important. However now that she’s a teenager things have shifted. Now that she’s fourteen she understands that our relationship is partly about letting each other go, and about my getting on with other things. Neither of us like this, but we accept it.
In fact it’s my 16-year-old son that I leave in the lurch when I stay interstate a second night. While I’m at a blustery social event in Melbourne, he rattles around on his own in our big old house in Hobart. At 9pm he calls and proudly describes the supper he’s just cooked for himself. At 10pm he calls back to say that he’s holed up in his bedroom watching Black Adder, and wants to know where the chocolate is hidden.
Three days later I’m back in my car in the Hobart airport carpark. Refreshed after three days off from being a mother – cook, cleaner, homework monitor, therapist, maid and taxi – I switch on the radio, expecting music. Instead Elisa Donovan reads the next paragraph of Lean In – as if nothing has happened from one sentence to the next.
Suddenly I know what bothers me about Elisa’s voice. It may sound wildly projective, but she sounds as if she’s never suffered. Life has yet to bruise or knock her about in any way – she’s never been in need of a good iron. Of course in time she too will get wrinkles and sun spots and know that her years on the earth are finite. But not yet. (Right now her most recent role is as Sabrina in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.)
Listening to Lean In I don’t feel anything as simple as envy – either for Alisa Donovan or Sheryl Sandberg. It’s more a kind of wonder at how differently life can be experienced. I pull into our drive, switch off Leaning In with the engine – and hop out of the car to wheel in our rubbish bins which were emptied the morning I left. Just as I shut the wooden doors that hide the bins from the garden, Alex jumps out from behind, frightening the life out of me.
He is as hungry as he is pleased to see me, and within minutes I’m back in role – taking the dog outside, cleaning up, turning on the dishwasher and making food. The circus of family life has begun once more. But not, thankfully, as if I’ve never been away. And there has been even more rain to put a sheen on the garden.