“Lean In”? How About Butt Out, Sheryl Sandberg?

I don't hate Facebook's COO because she's successful. I just don't want a life like hers.

So I get home from work on Friday all ready to do a little relaxing, and what should I find in my mailbox but the latest issue of Time, with a photo on the cover of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, looking simultaneously hot (in the “Hot for Teacher” sense) and cool and collected, hair perfectly coiffed, lips expertly glossed, beneath the headline: “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her mission to reboot feminism.” So off and on all weekend, while I did six loads of laundry and mopped the kitchen floor and cleaned the bathrooms and pruned the trumpet vine that’s threatening to take over the garage, I got to read about how Sandberg thinks I am DOING IT WRONG.

What am I doing wrong? Why, trying to become successful, of course. For one thing, I do too much housework; I haven’t properly negotiated with my husband about that kitchen floor. I thought too much about marriage and kids back before I had them; once I had the kids, I didn’t pay enough attention to my job so I could be part of their lives—could help with Girl Scouts and see the football and hockey games and run to Kmart for those tripartite cardboard things kids make class presentations on nowadays.

I also worried too much about being liked. According to the Time article, Sandberg doesn’t worry about being liked, and yet everybody at Facebook loves her. (Must be nice.) Also? I tried to have it all. Which Sandberg says is dumb; no one can have it all. Surprise! But if I would only lean in—which is the title of Sandberg’s new book— I’d stop dragging other women down and become a positive force for change.

To which I have to say: Phut.

Sheryl Sandberg is 43 years old. God, do I remember 43. My early 40s were the Wonder Years, when I had limitless energy and drive. And answers! I had answers! You want to know the best way to bring up kids? I’ll tell you the best way to bring up kids! When I was 43, my kids were just about the same ages that Sandberg’s are now, which is five and seven. Past the hard part of diapers; into the easy part of schooling. Even without Sandberg’s three Harvard degrees (undergrad, law and business) and mentor (Larry Summers, the former Harvard prez who got his butt kicked for implying that women are genetically inferior to guys when it comes to hard sciences), I was on top of the world.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, if you’re going to write a book telling women, not just what they’re doing wrong, but also what they ought to be doing, you maybe ought to wait until you see how it all works out. Because if there’s one thing motherhood has taught me, it’s that just when you think the skies are clear, that’s when you get the call—from the cops, from the dean of students, from your kid herself if you’re lucky enough to hit the kid-disaster trifecta—that leaves you questioning every single decision you made in the past 18 or 20 years.

So there’s that. But there’s also this, from Sandberg’s book: While she acknowledges that leaving your kid in “someone else’s care” (she refused to tell the Time interviewer whether she has live-in help, saying it’s not a question anybody asks men) is wrenching, “Only a compelling, challenging and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest.”

Gee, it’s a pity we can’t all be COOs at Facebook, and some of us have to have less “compelling” jobs—not to mention less “rewarding,” in more ways than one. Some of us work in doughnut shops, or scrub other people’s bathrooms, or are bike messengers or trash collectors or security guards—all of which are jobs I’ve done. And I think the world looks different when you take that long, meandering ride than when you are, as Sandberg herself puts it, “hugely lucky” enough to take the fast train to the top. You focus on other things; you find different fulfillment. One life doesn’t fit all any more than one size does.

None of which is intended in any way to detract from Sandberg’s really impressive accomplishments. But the “diminished expectations” she sees women having for themselves could just be other expectations. Not everybody wants to be a high-powered executive. If it counted as “scaling back my ambitions” to stay home with my kids, I can live with that.

One of my friends is pregnant with her first child. I would never dare give her advice about what path her career should take once the baby is born. The most I’ve ever said when asked about the subject was: This is what I did. This is what I liked about it; this is what didn’t go so well.

These are hard questions for women—questions men aren’t expected to confront in the same way. Sandberg’s success is her own, the result of her personality and the unique circumstances she faced. For her to chide other women for behaving differently, for even feeling differently, is downright unsisterly. Some of us prefer to lean back.