I recently found myself thumbing through an old issue of Time magazine while waiting at a doctor’s office and landed on a teaser article by Sheryl Sandberg for her book, Lean In. I was about to roll my eyes and toss the magazine back on the table when a bolded section caught my eye. It was about marriage. I wound up surreptitiously sneaking the magazine into my bag and reading the article from start to finish.
Sheryl Sandberg has elicited strong reactions from women of all stripes. Much of the response has been negative, accusing Sandberg of perpetuating stigmas against mothers who make their homes and children their full-time work and of being out of touch with poor women struggling to make ends meet. I had written off Sandberg based on her comments in a now infamous TED talk, in which she said that when a woman starts contemplating children, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore…she starts leaning back.” That and the title of her book leave a casual bystander with the impression that dedicated motherhood is some kind of cop-out, a way to escape from the workplace where women belong. If you aren’t leaning in by slogging it out at the office, you are “leaning back.”
Sandberg portrays pregnancy in a positive light and genuinely affirms the decision of women not to return to the workforce after having children.
This type of thinking is very common among today’s urban, professional women. And it’s a real poison to the institution of marriage. It leads women to delay marriage out of fear that marriage and children pose insurmountable roadblocks to professional success. It pits spouses against each other in a seemingly never-ending gender war over who logged more hours on the vacuum versus in the office. But to my surprise, it’s not what Sandberg is saying at all. In fact, she has a very pro-child, pro-marriage message that women need to hear.
In her book she portrays pregnancy in a positive light and genuinely affirms the decision of women not to return to the workforce after having children. She argues that women who do desire to return to their jobs should allow themselves a true pause after having a child and demand that their employers accommodate their needs as mothers. She makes the absolutely essential and rarely heard point that social and workplace policy must evolve to value “the work of caring for children.” And while she gets somewhat caught up in statistics about the chore wars, she nonetheless argues that men should pitch in at home even if their wives stay home all day, because her work is full-time just like that of a woman with an office.
But it is her take on marriage that is truly fresh for mainstream feminism. She writes:
I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners. Of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, twenty-six were married, one was divorced, and one had never married. Many of these CEOs said they “could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands.”
Never in any mainstream outlet have I read a stronger endorsement of marriage from a woman speaking to today’s career-oriented women. The message that not only does marriage not hold back your career, but that a supportive husband likely helps to propel career success is a pro-marriage truth that many of Sandberg’s readers won’t hear anywhere else.
Not only is Sandberg’s case for female success pro-marriage, it’s pro-man and pro-father.
Not only is Sandberg’s case for female success pro-marriage, it’s pro-man and pro-father. She doesn’t pin lopsided numbers about women in leadership on men, but rather argues that a strong and supportive husband and father plays an essential role in finding harmony at home and achievement outside of it. She argues that women must treat men as “equally capable partners” in the domestic sphere rather than nagging and patronizing them about how to change a diaper or clean a dish, and she affirms the social science that shows that children need the presence of an involved, supportive father. Far from the stereotypical feminist claim that men are merely an optional part of family life.
Color me surprised, but upon reading her article and portions of her book, I’ve realized that Sheryl Sandberg makes one of the most convincing and appealing cases for marriage I’ve ever read from a woman. As we seek answers to why young people are putting off marriage and why so few married couples are staying together, the essential question of how to integrate women into the workforce while allowing them to be true to their wifely and motherly natures remains open. To this conversation Sheryl Sandberg makes an imperfect, but overall positive, contribution.
In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago, a young woman in the audience asked Francis Ford Coppola for career advice for young, aspiring filmmakers. He said, “If it’s a guy, I say get married.” He spoke of the tremendously positive impact that marrying young had on his personal and professional life. He continued, “If you’re a young woman, I would say, don’t get married, because then you have this guy who’s trying to get you to do everything for his career. And you’re not going to have any time for your own career.”
This is the toxic message young women are hearing time and time again. Sheryl Sandberg, love her or hate her, is a refreshing antidote.