Opting In: A Middle Ground Between Leaning In and Opting Out

There is no way to lean in at work and lean in at home. And what Sandberg and Mayer have that most other working mothers don't is millions of dollars to spend on the highest quality of daycare.
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer speaks during the Fortune Global Forum on November 3, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Business leaders are attending the Fortune Global Forum that runs through November 4. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer speaks during the Fortune Global Forum on November 3, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Business leaders are attending the Fortune Global Forum that runs through November 4. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago Mark Zuckerberg, the chairman and chief executive of Facebook, made an amazing and unprecedented announcement on, of course, Facebook . It had nothing to do with the company. It was a personal post stating that he had decided to use two months of paternity leave when his daughter was born. He cited research that showed that outcomes for children and families are better when working parents took time off to be with their newborns.

Contrast Zuckerberg's announcement with that of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Several years ago she took a mere two weeks off after the birth of her son. This week she gave birth to twin girls and revealed on her Tumblr page that she planned to approach the pregnancy and delivery much like she did with her son by, "taking limited time away and working throughout."

The backlash against Mayer was vicious. Some condemned her for minimizing and even trivializing the importance of maternity leave. Many wondered why she bothered to have a child if she didn't want to spend time with it when it was born. A small dissenting few thought she was an excellent example of a woman at the top working hard at her job. But in a blog post written for the Lean In website founded by another powerful working mother, Sheryl Sandberg, Mayer explained that her brief maternity leave had little to do with her desire to be a mother or her thoughts on maternity leave. "After 13 years of really hard work at Google," Mayer wrote, "I had been envisioning a glorious six-month maternity leave. However, if I took the new job, a long leave couldn't happen. The responsibilities were too big, and time was of the essence--it just wouldn't be fair to the company, the employees, the board, or the shareholders for me to be in the role, but out for an extended period of time."

And there it was. Mayer knew that if she wanted to succeed in her high-level career she would have to sacrifice time with her children. It is unclear if Mark Zuckeberg doesn't have the same pressure because he is a man or because he is the head of what was once his own company. Being fired isn't a probable outcome for him whereas Mayer is in real danger of being fired as her company's profits decline.

The issue of leave after a baby is born is a hot topic. The United States is far behind the rest of the industrialized world in providing a paid opportunity for parents to bond with their newborn child. However, focusing on the few months after the baby is born only scratches the surface of some of the issues working women face once they become mothers.

Just before Zuckerberg and Mayer's announcements, my new book agent called to tell me she was leaving the business. I was disappointed, and I wanted to know why, a mere month after signing me, she decided to bolt. As soon as she explained, though, I understood. With a sad resignation in her voice, my agent said she needed to quit her dream career in order to spend more time taking care of her young son. She said she was 100-percent certain the decision was the right one, though she seemed plenty unsure. What if she was making a huge mistake leaving her career? What if she regretted it and ultimately wanted her job back--but only after it was too late? Would the publishing world move on without her? Proceed forward as if she never existed? She loved her son. She loved her job. She wanted ... both. But knew it was impossible.

These were the same struggles I confronted during my first pregnancy 13 years ago. After my daughter was born I changed jobs several times trying to balance my need to be with my child and my career interests. At the end of my rope in my current job I ended up accepting a seasonal summer job as a social worker in a sleep-away camp for homeless children. Although only a temporary position it was the job I was meant to do.

That summer I slept at the camp every other night. On the days away from my nearly one-year-old daughter I missed her terribly. Shouldn't I be home with her instead of taking care of someone else's kids? What milestones was I missing for the sake of my job? It was a hard summer but I made it through and by the end I was offered the job for which I worked the previous ten years. I was hired to be the full-time camp director at another sleep-away camp for low-income children. The job came with housing, and I imagined running the camp and being a mother simultaneously. We would be one big camp family.

But it didn't happen that way. The dream wasn't real. Real life was that I worked 16 hours daily, and I almost never saw my daughter. One day my child had a seizure while out with the babysitter. I wasn't there and I couldn't leave camp to meet her in the emergency room because I was also needed at the camp. You cannot imagine the pain a mother feels when she cannot be with her sick child because of a career choice.

Another year passed and I became pregnant with my second child. Faced with the thought of raising two children with my hours I decided to leave my job and my career. It seemed there was no way to be successful at work and successful at home in equal measure. Something had to be sacrificed and I wasn't willing to sacrifice my children. It only took three years for me to realize that being the career woman I imagined and the mother I wanted to be were incongruent. I wouldn't run a camp for special needs children. I wouldn't travel the world on rescue missions. And I wouldn't be making the world a better place in my job anymore. That hurt. I was a social worker. That's who I was and what I worked for. Who was I now if I didn't work?

In Sheryl Sandberg's 2010 TED talk that was the inspiration behind her bestselling book Lean In she told women they have to sit at the table with male leaders . They have to keep their hands raised even after the men put theirs down. And they have to find partners who are their equal in parenting. Instead of leaning back (away from a successful career to raise children) working mothers needed to lean in more. Sounds great. The problem is that there is no way to lean in at work and lean in at home. And what Sandberg and Mayer have that most other working mothers don't is millions of dollars to spend on the highest quality of daycare.

In the years since I left full-time employment in an agency, I have reinvented myself in ways I could never have predicted. After a year hiatus devoting all of my attention to my children I decided to begin my own business. Over time that business led me to a Ph.D., a teaching job, a syndicated parenting column, multiple Today Show appearances, and the ability to help thousands of families struggling with common parenting issues all while being able to attend school field trips, PTA meetings and playdates. I am not going to be the next Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook. High-level success for working women can be defined more broadly.

But it isn't all rainbows and unicorns. I often feel torn between what I could accomplish if I devoted more time to my career and less to my children's lives. I feel stressed a lot. But I don't for one minute regret changing my path. I would have only regretted the time I missed with my kids. I can't get that time back.

Sandberg and Mayer are the prominent role models working women have for how to manage careers and family. Well, I am not Sheryl Sandberg, and I am not Marissa Mayer. And I'll never be Mark Zuckerberg either. But there is another path, and I found it outside of the traditional career.

Women who leave the workforce to raise their children have been labeled as opting out. Those words -- opting out -- sicken me. I didn't opt out of anything. I simply discovered a work-life balance that I didn't know existed at the start of my career. As far as I'm concerned I exceeded the expectations for a working mother. Until there are drastic changes to the American work world, changes that go well beyond paid maternity and paternity leave, more and more women are going to have to forge their own path if they want to continue to be working mothers.

Following Sandberg's lean in philosophy might help more women find top positions in more Fortune 500 companies. But maybe there is another way. Maybe more women need to start their own businesses that from the ground up are created with the modern working mother in mind. Research shows that women who are self-employed work 7-8 hours less than those employed in the private sector or government. Those hours could go a long way in helping women feel a better balance at home.

Since 1970 women have moved from 13.5 percent of the labor force to 47 percent today. That growth by women has increased the gross domestic product an additional $2 trillion dollars. Increasing opportunities to keep women in the work force isn't just good for individual women and families. It is good for the country.

No longer do working mothers have to copy the paths of their male counterparts. They can do it their own way.

That's not opting out. It's opting in.