The Meaning of Leaning

We need to rethink not only how women can "lean in" towards areas traditionally occupied by men, but also how we imagine ourselves leaning in towards areas traditionally occupied by women.
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When I told my neighbor that my husband and I were taking the kids five hours north to ski for a holiday weekend, she smiled: "Sounds awesome." When I told her that we were staying at a water park, her smile waned: "Sounds less awesome," she said. When I reminded her that for most of the trip I would be lingering over the lazy river with my still-not-walking toddler while the rest of my family soared down the slopes, she winced. "Sounds painful," she said. "But my Mom has this saying, 'sometimes you just have to lean into it.'" Her voice deepened on the word 'lean,' elongating the distance from 'l' to 'n.' "You know, like leaning into a wave. A tidal wave." We laughed.

"Lean into it," I repeated to myself as I trudged home, visualizing the impending weekend. A friend of mine had sent me a link me to a video her son took of their recent trip to the Wisconsin Dells, that Mecca of Midwestern water parks. The highlight was a parade of bare feet tramping through vomit recently laid on the shores of Logger's Landing. I tried to will my body to lean like the tower of Pisa towards the kiddie pool and the water wheel. But somehow, I just wasn't feeling it.

It wasn't until we arrived at Grand Lodge and I'd had a few spins down the "Vortex" that things began to shift. As I ladled buckets of water with my toddler, I thought more about the idea of "leaning into it," and I realized how right my friend was.

As women, we are frequently put into parenting situations in which the motherly role seems not only preordained, but also presupposed: Of course you will do it -- whether "it" is bake cupcakes for a birthday, chaperone the field trip or proctor the school exam -- because you are the mother. And "it" is what moms do. What gets addressed less frequently is how we may not want to do "it."

When we get the call from the elementary school about a forgotten lunch and assent politely what we may be thinking is, "I packed that lunch, and now you want me to drop everything and bring it to school? Don't they get a snack? Does he really need lunch?" Squashing that inner monologue while grabbing her car keys, the mother will take flight. She will lean into it. There she goes. A virtual leaning tower.

As my friend's advice suggested, maternal instinct is not a given. It is a learned behavior. We are subject to and subjects of expectations, which easily morph into a tyranny of the shoulds. Unlike navigating the rivers at waterparks, piloting these cultural waters is not especially easy.

And what no one may tell you is that leaning into it can take practice. I have a friend who told me that the first few times she held her newborn son, she didn't feel besotted with instantaneous connection. She was sore and tired. Maternal love doesn't hit you like cupid. It can take time. Weeks. Months. Years?

So, imagine my surprise when I heard a few weeks later about Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" movement. What a coincidence! I thought, though I quickly realized that Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008, had a different angle in mind. Sandberg's movement advocates women's self-reliance in the workplace, giving it your all and above all abolishing self-doubt about success. On the surface, her message was something quite different than the "lean in" advice I'd gotten from my friend.

But even though the two versions of "leaning in" appear different, they have a lot in common: Women may have the biology necessary to bear children, but the practice of motherhood is as much a learned skill as directing a boardroom meeting.

We need to remember that "to lean" means at least two different things. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means both "to incline," and "to deviate." So to lean in suggests that you are inclining towards something that entices you or that you are deviating from one path towards another. Leaning implies desire. But it can also imply aversion. If you are leaning towards something you are also leaning away from something else. There is an inherent double-motion in leaning.

So, as we observe the launching of this feminist movement, we might do well to remember that "leaning in" has two sides. As an action, leaning in may be following an urge, an internal nudge. But it can also suggest the opposite -- that you are leaning towards something in spite of your better knowledge. Maybe you are doing it even though your inclination is in the other direction.

When faced with my water park weekend, I found myself leaning away. Far away. My mind wandered to all the other, more productive, things I could be doing with my time. So, I gave myself a mental test: I could dwell on the germs and the chlorine rash, or I could inhale the fumes, embrace the plastic palm trees and the slosh pit. I could panic about my baby crawling on crusty carpeting, or I could let her explore (and remember how strong her immune system will be). Being a parent is also about taking risks. But even more than that, it is about being present. In the end, what your child really wants is you: No iPhone, no Internet, no People magazine. Just you and a bathing suit, and she doesn't even care if your belly sags and you missed a few spots with the razor. Lean on in. That's a kiss she's planting on your cheek.

In the end, leaning in helped me enormously. t allowed me to scrutinize my tendencies, to be less fearful and to doubt myself and my abilities less, to overcome internal obstacles.

If we are to embrace leaning as a feminist mandate, we need to rethink not only how women can "lean in" towards areas traditionally occupied by men, but also how we imagine ourselves leaning in towards areas traditionally occupied by women. Maybe we need to relearn leaning patterns all around -- and recognize them for what they are, patterns and practices, not God-given endowments. This kind of thinking would enable us to address the fact that at various stages in their lives women -- and men -- may want to lean in different directions.

Moreover, internal inclinations need a lot of external help. Realizing that not all women will want to lean in the same direction at the same time could help soften the blow of leaning and falling short. Indeed, addressing the structural reasons women incline away from leadership can come only once people realize that by definition ,leaning needs support to succeed. The OED reminds us that to lean is, "to incline the body against an object for support....To rely or depend on or upon." Let's hope that the Sandberg movement will encourage building those external edifices as well.

Finally, we should remember that leaning can also imply thinning. "To lean" can mean to diminish one's body -- certainly not an encouraging image for a feminist revolution. So, as we champion the lessons of Sandberg's crusade -- and champion them we should -- we would do well to remember that leaning, like meaning, can slant in many directions.

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