MARCH 29, 2014

I should start a movement called Lean Out—or maybe Lean Back. It’d be for all the parents who accept that sacrifice is part of having a family. It’d be about honoring the vitally important, taxing work moms at home—and dads, for that matter—do every day for the good of their families and for the betterment of society.

At the TED talk that launched Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement, Sandberg discussed what amounted to her assumptions about why there aren’t more women at the top. At only one point during this speech, and for a total of one minute, did Sandberg get personal: when she admitted it’s difficult to leave a child who’s pulling on your leg, begging you to stay with him, as you walk out the door each morning. For Sandberg, that’s where the conversation ends.

For most women, that’s where it begins.

The Lean In movement may resonate for the minority of women whose identities are inextricably linked to their jobs and who have no problem leaving their babies, if they have them, with substitute caregivers on a full-time basis. But it’s a terrible message for the average woman who wants to find balance in her life. And it’s a terrible message for mothers, employed or otherwise, who want to spend more time—not less—with their children.

That’s why most of Sandberg’s supporters are either older women whose children have flown the coop or twenty-something women who have yet to look in the eyes of their toddler who’s begging them to stay—only to find themselves peeling their child’s fingers off their arms the way Sandberg described at her TED talk.

That is not a position most women wish to be in.

But they wouldn’t mind, Sandberg insists, if employers would simply get with the program and offer women better parental leave and childcare options! Hogwash.

For one thing, providing such policies does not guarantee women will take advantage of them. Arlie Hothschild proved this in spades in her 1997 book, The Time Bind. She studied a Fortune 500 company for three years and determined that despite the availability of parental leave and childcare policies, most women chose not to participate. That’s because you can’t make women who want to be at work want to be at home, any more than you can make women who want to be at home want to be at work.

Moreover, research from Public Agenda shows most parents in America are “satisfied with their current child care arrangements” and are indeed not clamoring for more and better childcare.

For years feminists like Sandberg have been doing their damndest to separate mothers and their children by claiming a woman’s true value rests in the workplace. Their message today is no different than what it was forty years ago.

What they never discuss—ever—is how this Brave New World affects women’s psyches or the well being of America’s children. They never discuss a child’s need to bond with his mother or the visceral need mothers have to be with their children because they either don’t understand it or don’t care.

They also leave out any discussion of biology because that, they believe, locks women and men into strict gender roles. But male and female nature is real and unchanging. The female brain, for example, is saturated in oxytocin—known among scientists as the “bonding hormone.” Women are emotionally connected to their children in a unique and primal way.

That doesn’t mean dads can’t take care of babies and moms can never get jobs. But it does mean most women will want to rock that cradle. It’s also why 62% of employed mothers say they’d prefer to work part time and 79% of employed fathers say they’d prefer to work full time. No amount of cajoling women into the office or demanding men stay home with the kids is going to change this reality.

Yes, there more mothers at work than ever before. But that doesn’t mean work is most women’s priority. Many, in fact, resent having to be there at all.

That women like Sandberg aren’t like most women is no reason to create movements and policies that encourage mothers to separate from their children. Women who lean out­, if only temporarily, are doing what’s best for their children, themselves and their families.

Their sacrifices are great, but their consciences are clear.


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