Monday, March 18, 2013

Musings on Sheryl Sandberg's book "Leaning In"

“Miracles are to come. I believe in a remembrance of miracles”…e e cummings

Towards the end of my last year in high school, members of the senior class were asked to select personally meaningful quotes to be printed beneath our yearbook pictures. I chose this quote by e e cummings because I believed great things were ahead for me and also, to remind my classmates to be mindful of their own great moments.

Coming of age in the 1970s, riding the wave of the feminist movement with songs from ”Free To Be You and Me” and Helen Reddy jangling in my head, I was convinced Sandra Bem’s androgeny was the purest form of truth and that significant differences (aside from obvious anatomical ones) between men and women didn’t really exist. In my exuberent unexamined opinion, I was convinced that if a man could do it, I should be able to do it too. I was able to happily maintain this illusion through my college years during which I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a research study I performed entitled: “The Role of Attractiveness in People’s Attitudes Towards Sex-Role Inappropriate Behavior." 

However, in graduate school, it grew increasingly difficult to ignore the evidence that the lives of my female professors were quite different from those of my male professors. In particular, none of the women were married or had children. And they all seemed to work constantly and have “no life” outside of their careers. My favorite quote switched from e e cummings to one I read in a Frank and Ernest cartoon: “Don’t forget, everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did backwards and in high heels.”

Undeterred, I was committed to dancing backwards in high heels and having no one notice I was doing anything different from the guys. I set lofty goals, although I prudently started paying attention to differences in how men and women behaved in the workplace. I watched the men and followed their lead. In meetings, I always made sure to sit at or near the head of the conference table. I voiced concerns when they came up without hanging back. Whenever I was at a conference with a large audience, I dashed to the microphone to ask one of the first questions. If a task came up that was usually assigned to a man, I volunteered first.  If the task was one traditionally fulfilled by a woman, I let someone else do it. I made a point of letting people know I loved math and science and computer programming. I was gracious but assertive and direct. I wanted people to know I was smart and competent and could handle any crisis.

Then I had children. Once I was juggling a profession and a family, my confidence faltered.  Regrettably, my first husband was not much of a partner. As a result, I was horrified to realize my reliability was not what it needed to be. My kids occasionally got sick. They had school functions I wanted to attend during work hours. When I traveled for business the logistics were daunting. Sometimes things at home would break and I would have to leave work to take care of them. I found myself joking with more than a mild degree of bitterness, “I guess everybody needs a wife!” My marriage deteriorated and ended in divorce, which felt like a dreadful personal failure on my part. Fortunately, after the divorce, I met a wonderful man who was committed to me personally and professionally. We were deeply in love. He was devoted to my children. He took pride in my career and my professional accomplishments. I chose to "lean in" and we got married. We adopted a child who turned out to have special needs. When faced with this challenge, my husband quit his job to stay at home with our children. My income and commitment to career were significantly higher than his. On his resume his job title for the 8 years he stayed home is "Mr. Mom to three kids." This arrangement was not particularly popular in socially conservative San Antonio, Texas. I found myself frequently rebuffed by other mothers in my neighborhood. I felt disapproval from my kids' teachers.  One neighbor approached me at a block party and with saccharin southern charm informed me that my daughter had been the only child in her class who’s mother had failed to attend a school event. In what I have come to consider to be one of my finer moments, my rejoinder was, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize EVERY OTHER child in her class had BOTH parents at the event. Had I known both parents were expected to attend, I most certainly would have been there. Or perhaps you are trying to let me know that my daughter was lucky enough to be the only one with her Daddy there? How cool is that? Thanks for letting me know.” This didn’t help me win any popularity contests in the PTA, but at least the neighborhood “ladies” backed off.

Confident of my husband’s support on the home front, I decided to go into business for my self and opened my own clinical psychology private practice. I strove to be an innovator and never shied away from a challenge, particularly if it was one that was traditionally accomplished by men. As an inveterate techie, I embraced every technological advance that allowed me to run my practice efficiently and effectively. I maintained the same priorities as my male colleagues with the goal of providing excellent quality services while achieving ambitious financial goals and running my business in a way that was consistent with the highest ethical and professional standards.  I developed expertise in practice management for psychologists and mentored early career psychologists. I became a resource for others starting out in private practice.  I served as Treasurer of our local psychological association (BCPA), partly to highlight my abilities in math and business, strengths not typical of most mental health professionals. Then, I served as president of BCPA. When my term was up, I ran for the Board of Trustees of the Texas Psychological Association. When I won my seat on the board, I felt tremendous pride.

Last year, my husband had the opportunity to take a job in Colorado’s Vail Valley. This move would require me to start my practice over from scratch. Once again, I chose to “lean in.” I closed my San Antonio practice. What I had done once, I could do again. We sold our house and boldly moved on to the next chapter of our lives. We’ve been here in the Vail Valley for almost a year. I’ve continued to work with some of my San Antonio clients online while establishing my new practice in Eagle Colorado. I’ve been marketing my practice and networking to get to know my new community.  I’ve also been doing a lot of professional writing and participating in psychology at a national level. So far, everything is going well, even better than I had envisioned. This month, I was asked to serve as Treasurer on the board of the local suicide prevention coalition. I feel very proud.

My advice to female colleagues and clients appears simple on the surface. It mirrors the message of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Leaning In.” Be bold. Speak up. Aspire to greatness. Take risks. Cultivate equality and partnership at home. For the time being, we must take our professional lead from what works well for men, while remaining personally grounded in what it means to be a woman. We don’t have to pretend to be men, but we must embrace the standards of success in our culture as currently defined by men.  We must insist on our “place at the table.” out world! After a 20 year hiatus, change is in the air and great things are ahead. “Miracles are to come and I believe in a remembrance of miracles.” It turns out to still be true, after all these years. Who would have guessed?