Like Sheryl Sandberg, I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" back in high school. Many years later, she became the COO of Facebook and I became a stay-at-home father (and part-time writer). Stuff happens. But, since I now have two tween daughters, I read her Lean In with them in mind. For the most part, I remained part of the inspired choir she's preaching to about the need for a culture more conducive to women's ambition for leadership. A few passages, however, left me troubled and even sad.
First, the sadness. Early in the book, Sandberg reveals that even though she was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in high school, she did the unthinkable: She convinced a friend on the yearbook staff to remove her name to avoid taking "any chances with the prom." What?! It's so sad to read about self-sabotage in the name of dating. When I was honored with the title, I did not become a megalomaniac (as least as I remember it), but it was nice to be recognized. (Little did I know it would complicate my conversations at our reunions.)
A key strength of the book, however, is precisely this type of admission from an accomplished, unlikely source, which could teach girls important lessons. Indeed, the confession fits in nicely with the chapter I most endorse titled, "Don't Leave Before You Leave," which begins with a funny -- but also sad -- story of a young woman at Facebook who was already asking work/family balance questions before she even had a boyfriend! Sandberg's advice is counterintuitive, but right: "The time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives -- not before, and certainly not years in advance." Allow me an "Amen" from the choir.
Upon reading this, I realized I had followed this advice unconsciously, mainly because I was culturally conditioned as a man, but hopefully, future at-home mothers will follow it as well. My career trajectory after high school was clear: college, graduate school and a Ph. D. in American literature. Even though I met my wife in college, we thought very little about future kids and very much leaned into our career paths.
It was only when we became serious about starting a family that I started to weigh our financial future and childcare options. Eventually, I quit my job teaching at the University of Michigan, but I'm grateful I didn't lean out of my career path until a few years after I earned the terminal degree. Sandberg states that "women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce," but basically I did, and I'd recommend it to all young men and women fortunate enough to be able to consider at-home parenthood.
The key reason is that life today is far too uncertain to make oneself financially vulnerable until it is absolutely necessary. Any parent who takes over at-home parenting (even just part-time) has to worry a bit about the three-headed monster of potential divorce, widow(er)hood or a spouse/partner's job loss. (Feel free to picture me lecturing my daughters at this point, complete with eyerolls.) As my own former stay-at-home mother kept saying to me, "At least you have your degree in case anything happens." My wife often rolled her eyes at that one, but I now understand my mother's parenting version of "hope for the best but prepare for the worst."
Sandberg adds the valuable point that leaning into your career just before leaning out also gives you more leverage when it's time to re-enter the workforce. This is not to say one should deceive a future employer if one is about to quit. And yes, placement committees might take issue with this type of advice, but scaling back your professional plans does not necessarily mean you will never use your credentials again.
And now for my trouble with Sandberg's book, which is her dating advice. She advises women to date "all" the boys when looking for a worthy partner: "the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys." Excuse me? I know she says don't marry the crazies, but I would have preferred she take the advice Eric Schmidt at Google gave her about how to choose the best careers and apply it to how to choose the best dates: "potential for growth." While a young woman is dating the crazies, she could be missing out on Mr. Potential for Growth!
Fortunately, Sandberg concludes her dating advice by recommending women find someone "who wants an equal partner." She even claims that domestically supportive men become sexier over time, citing a book called Porn for Women that shows scenes of men cleaning the kitchen and tending to the baby. Now I have fodder for the next reunion: Perhaps I should have been voted Most Likely to Become a Porn Star?
Late in the book, Sandberg provides an inspiring look to future generations: "The homes we create tend to be more rooted in our childhoods." Again, amen. This concept struck home for me when my wife, my 12-year-old daughter and I happened upon the "Makers: Women Who Make America" series on PBS. As each woman told her story, I couldn't help noticing what we were doing during the show: I was folding laundry, my wife was on the phone with the hospital and most significantly, my daughter was oblivious to both our activities. The show mentioned the subject of "women's work," and I had to remind myself that my daughters think "women's work" involves performing laser surgery and running staff meetings. (My daughter also didn't understand the bra-burning scene, but I let her mother handle that one.)
As a stay-at-home father, I have "leaned way in" to my family, and it was the right arrangement for us. But I always try to remind myself of the luxury of my choice and remain grateful for my, yes, different kind of success. As Sandberg notes, however, there are many obstacles in an at-home dad's path, especially at the beginning. Her chapter on the need for more mentors for women with leadership ambitions reads like a mirror image of the need for more mentors for men with domestic ambitions.
My first year as an at-home father with a colicky baby was especially difficult, but outlets like a local Early Childhood PTA (full of welcoming moms, thankfully) and later, a small dads' group I organized in my area became invaluable. For anyone in a similar situation, I recommend finding/creating such groups for support, as well as visiting the websites for larger organizations like the National At-Home Dad Network and the New York City Dads Group. I agree with Sandberg: We need to make both men and women more likely to succeed, whatever their professional or domestic ambitions.