Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Woman, Work, and the Will to Lead is in the news these days after she posted a lengthy Mother’s Day article on Facebook. In her post she shared that in Lean In she might have missed a few key points. Specifically, on the one year anniversary of her husband’s death, she wrote “I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home”.
I need to start this blog post by confessing that I didn’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book which is unusual. I read a lot. And hers is the sort of book I often make the effort to read. But Sandberg’s book promised to annoy me so I avoided it. Reviews suggested it was a book about how successful women could become more successful by maximizing the advantages they already had. I also got the sense that the less than subtle message the book might offer was that if you weren’t as successful as you had hoped then you probably only had yourself to blame. Because, you know, life is fair and we all have the same opportunities and advantages. Whatever. As an extreme caregiver who has spent years grieving the loss of my career and professional identity I figured her book would either reduce me to tears, or piss me off sufficiently that I would want to set it on fire. My husband gets antsy about lit candles, I hate to think of how he’d respond to a book burning.
I avoided Sandberg’s book because it appeared to be about the succesful life that I had wanted. I had spent my early adult years doing everything I was supposed to do to be successful. And while I never aspired to be the CEO of Facebook or anything like that, I did have some lofty goals and dreams. Until the proverbial crap hit the fan things seemed to be going tickety-boo. I was doing all the right things. I had pursued advanced education. I had accepted rewarding job opportunities. I married a great guy who would support all my dreams. I had fantastic child care following the birth of my first child. But then a doctor made a mistake during my son’s delivery and the life I had thought I would have – that I had planned to have – came to a screeching halt. And unlike what Sandberg’s book might suggest, that derailment was completely out of my control.
Sadly, I didn’t get it right away. I spent several years trying to continue on the path that I had chosen. I enrolled in a doctoral program in the health sciences. I spoke at conferences and taught university and college lectures. I worked part time. And it was all too overwhelming. I felt I did nothing well because I was far too overextended. I was juggling a million balls and it was just a matter of time until everything came crashing on my head.
Something had to give. I walked away from doctoral work. I quit my job. I resigned from my regulatory college. I spent years where my only identity was that of an extreme caregiver. It was the best I could do. It was the only thing I could do. During those years I loved my family, but often hated my life. I was simultaneously grateful that we could afford to have me walk away from everything and deal with the crap (literally at times), while being resentful that life had forced me to walk away from what I loved so I could deal with all the crap.
I am grateful for Sandberg’s recent Facebook post. Her recent post begins to tackle the patriarchal myth that hard work and success naturally go hand in hand. Her recent post acknowledges that poverty, discrimination, life circumstances, and workplace practices – to name only a few issues – often conspire against women (and men) to limit their success and curtail their dreams. Her recent post acknowledges that life isn’t fair and bad stuff happens.
So to Sandberg I would say this. First, I am truly sorry for your loss. Really sorry. However I am both humbled and grateful for your post where you admit that you got it wrong. Thank you for acknowledging that many of us women are where we are not because we didn’t dream big and didn’t work hard, but because life handed us circumstances that curtailed our dreams and abilities. Thanks for noting that for some of us “leaning in” might have involved falling on our face.
I find writing this post bittersweet. On one hand I know that when I am 90 I will be glad that I made decisions that erred on the side of protecting Matthew’s health, my family, and my marriage. I have tried to live in such a way that my regrets will be minimal. But yet I also know that walking away from my career and dreams hurt. A lot. I had to let go of a great deal of who I was and who I wanted to be to ensure that the people and relationships I love thrived. As an extreme caregiver there is no doubt that I alone sometimes got the short end of the stick. The saintly caregiver martyr myth tells us that this is what caregivers are supposed to do. We are supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our goals and dreams and never talk about how much it hurt or cost us.
I say this all this not to garner pity or congratulations for making the “right” choice. I don’t feel I had a choice to make. I say this only to concur with Sandberg’s recent post, and even more importantly, to remind readers that extreme caregivers often give up a great deal to care for their loved ones, including some pretty big stuff, like goals, dreams, and their sense of self.