I keep thinking about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. While I agree with a lot of what she said, my prevailing reaction remains, “Yes, but so what?” A ‘Free to Be You and Me’-loving slow reader with an ambitious nightstand stack who turns the corners of her books and still likes paper to do lists is my kind of expert. Yet, while I relate to Sandberg on some levels, appreciate her candor and don’t take issue with most of her book, I think she’s missing the point. She is providing reasonable advice for an old paradigm. “Leaning in” or “reclining” as a recent NY Times OpEd encouraged doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t address the fundamental societal problem we all face. Until men and women alike stop defining ourselves and each other by what we do for a living, there will be no effective progress toward mitigating an existential crisis masquerading as a business problem.
The limiting factor in the whole debate — the mommy wars, breaking glass ceilings, affirmative action, helicopter parenting and the crisis in education to name a few — centers around our insistence upon evaluating and judging our worth and that of others by our jobs and professions. Yes, knowing what someone does gives an easy line of questioning and a relational hook, but usually limits the conversation to a superficial level. Some people are lucky to find a career that enables them to live their purpose, where work and life are so seamless that there is no difference between ‘who they are’ and ‘what they do.’ But for most people, the job is a means to support a life and is only one aspect of what makes that person interesting and worthwhile.
For ‘stay-at-home’ mothers, particularly those who are well-educated and previously on ambitious career tracks but choose to take some time off to enjoy their kids and support their families, one of the least expected but hardest elements is that people stop asking you questions. People don’t know what you know about, so they don’t know what to ask. That, or they smile, pat you on the shoulder and say “You have the hardest job in the world.” Nothing fuels the mommy wars more than this patronizing sentence.
Getting to know a person for who they are instead of what they do takes work, but here’s a suggestion for how to start. This is the first blog post I ever wrote, but without naming the players. In this context, I share this experience again in hopes of adding a lot more likes to the conversation. Please try this one time this week and see what happens:
I will forever have a special place in my heart for Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay and husband of Gwyneth Paltrow, but not for the reason you might think. Sure he’s a great musician, but it is the lesson he taught me with one little word that will indelibly link him in my mind to gracefulness.
I met Gwyneth through my mother who is a Christian mystic and contributor to Gwyneth’s website GOOP. She kindly invited me to her home a few times and on one particular afternoon, Chris happened to be there too. Having been forewarned that he was on voice rest after completing his latest album so I shouldn’t expect him to say much, I was surprised when he sat down to lunch in his backyard, turned to me and asked,
“What do you LIKE to do?”
With the addition of that one simple word, “LIKE” — a word I’m usually trying to erase from my family’s California born and bred vocabulary — he so chivalrously lay down his cloak, welcoming me to step daintily across that first impression hurdle. With that one word the possibilities were opened and Chris got a real answer.
“Well,” I gulped. I decided to go for it.
“I like to take my children on adventures to exotic places near our adopted home in Hong Kong. I like to cook and have friends over to enjoy it with me. I like to run, hike and do yoga. I like to write, but I’m not as good at it as I’d like. I like to read, travel, organize things, explore and most of all, to stay connected to my good friends.”
“What kind of yoga do you do? Because your arms are very fit,” he replied. I liked that question too.
With that one word, he spared me that awful other question that stay-at-home moms have not yet figured out how to answer with the force and authority we used to be able to muster when we “really worked.” Had he asked me, “What do you do?” my answer would have been an apologetic jumble of volunteer parent advisory groups, girl scouts, glorified travel agent and bus driver for my family, that trailed off with, “You, know, that kind of stuff.” Just think for a moment how much better his question is, and what a difference it could make if we all added “LIKE” to our vocabulary in the right places.
And, it was a good thing he had built up some good will with that question, because I had a bit more trouble answering his next one.
“Are all bankers assholes?” he asked.
“Well,” I gulped.