I have always leaned in. Long before Sheryl Sandberg penned the book about how women could excel in the workplace without giving into the double standards. I was leaning in. Before Sandburg espoused about the challenge that so often impact women as we approach the duality of balancing motherhood with our careers, I was leaning in.
Sure, I didn’t know it. I just thought I had bad posture. But I was leaning in so far forward that I’m surprised I didn’t fall smack on my face. To be fair, that only happened a few times in college and it was because alcohol was present when I was leaning. So the lesson learned is do not drink unless you are sitting in a recliner or at least an upright chair.
Really, the lesson is just don’t drink.
Ok. Ok. You can have Sprite.
Without understanding at the core what was driving me, I sought perfection in all that I did. I wanted to be the first kid to learn the times table by heart. I wanted to be the fastest girl in my class. I wanted to beat the boys. At everything. I wanted to get the best grades in the class. I wanted to make it to the spelling bee for my school every year. I wanted…
I just wanted. To be the best, the brightest, the hardest working and while I may not have understood it deeply at the time, I wanted to be all those things while also earning respect and feeling appreciated.
Those things mattered to me.
They mattered to me when I won a competitive academic scholarship into one of the best private high schools in New Jersey. They mattered to me when I made the decision to rescind my scholarship a year later because I was too much of a public school student at heart.
They mattered to me when I spent laborious hours trying to transform myself from a mediocre jogger into a legitimate runner, one who would later be a Captain of the Cross Country team in High School.
They mattered to me when I worked my little hiny off in High School (Yes, little. I was doing a lot of cardio, see above) to fulfill my dream of going to my reach college, The University of Virginia. All the arduous hours I spent practicing for the SAT and years of passionately reading and studying had helped me pave that road.
Leaning in mattered to me during the trials and tribulations of college, but perhaps during this time in my life, I will concede that I relaxed a little and learned for the first time that I could also lean back. That I could breathe a little. That I wasn’t meant to be an automaton striving for the next best thing always. I think the fact that I did start drinking and also dating when I went to college may have had something to do with my more relaxed stance on leaning. I mean, I still leaned, but maybe it was more like a slouch?
Again, lesson learned. Don’t drink. Also, you can slouch sometimes, but not with boys.
That brief respite was just that though – a respite. The leaning in began aggressively again after University as I paved a way for myself in technology consulting when Accenture first opened its doors to me after college. I found myself working my way up the corporate ladder – sometimes making small jumps and other times, large leaps. I changed companies a few times, but I was always hell bent on growing.
I was leaning in so far that I was like a downhill skier. I think you would have been proud. Especially since Mommy can’t ski!
Over the course of the years, I got married, because that’s just what you did. Don’t get me wrong, I love your father very much. But the idea that I could be “complete” in some way without being married was just not how it was generally done.
So me and your daddy went all “Jerry Maguire” (One day you will understand. There is some mild nudity so you will have to wait) and “completed” each other. But I quickly realized I wasn’t complete. I was in a job that I was no longer going to grow in and so I decided to take a leap of faith and join a burgeoning start up.
I worked my butt off, to put it bluntly, my dear. Because you and Nico were not yet here, I could work some crazy hours and travel to Europe for last minute meetings at the drop of a hat. (Or Dallas. Yeah, most of the time Dallas.) During this time, I found myself on a fast path to growth that further continued after my company was acquired multiple times.
You came along and then your brother. Sure, things changed. Of course – they had to. But we managed and got the help we needed while both your father and I pursued the opportunities we felt were best for us and you guys.
Then came the BOOM. In 2011, something happened to me professionally which threw me for a massive loop. Suddenly, my fast track path had a roadblock thrown in the way and I could do nothing to move it. I felt powerless and not at all the the strong woman I had always been, nothing like the girl who used to beat boys at the 100 yard dash in the playground.
Professionally, I retreated a little. I took some time to lean back and evaluate what I needed and what I was looking for. I briefly took a role at a software company as the Director of Consulting, only to realize that the company didn’t just want me to proverbially lean in – they wanted me to work myself to death in the process and forget the fact that I had you and Nico at home. I was there very briefly, but just to give you an idea, within a five week period, I had earned around 30,000 miles on United Airlines. And not the kind of miles you earn by spending money.
I couldn’t function like that. That wasn’t leaning in – that was just losing me. And you guys.
(They also just weren’t very nice. One day, we’ll talk about how important it is for you to be kind to people if you manage them. Yes, lean in all you want, but never do it by treading on those around you. Kindness matters, even at work.)
I shortly thereafter found my footing again and then Sheryl Sandberg wrote that gosh darn, Lean In book and I knew I couldn’t just throw away the years and years of consulting, software and management experience that I had amassed.
So I rejoined corporate America, working for a company where many knew me, where I was known for delivering excellent work and had worked closely with members of the leadership team.
And then a funny thing happened, Shaila. Well, not funny like “ha ha.” More funny like, WTF? (Just so you know, that means “Why’s That Funny?”).
I found that no matter how hard I tried to lean in, that for the first time in my life, I could feel very firm hands pushing me upright again. Almost pushing me to lean back. Encouraging me to not look at the path forward but to be happy with where I was and maybe even take some steps back.
And I reached up in the air and for the first time in my life, I felt it.
Are you GD kidding me? (GD stands for “Good Dog”).
The glass ceiling. The one I’d heard so much about but never really encountered myself. There it was, taunting me with its steadfast smugness while I watched others being escorted around its enclosures.
The thing was, Shaila, I was still that girl in elementary school who wanted to be it all. The one who wanted to achieve great things and dream as big as my dreams would allow me to.
I felt like for the first time in my life, I was being told that my dreams were too big for me. And that I should dream smaller.
It hurt me, Shaila. I felt demoralized in a way I hadn’t for a long time. I started to doubt who I was and what I was capable of. The realization that there was no longer a seat at the table for me, the one that Sheryl tells us to so boldly take, stung. I couldn’t sleep at night and it really impacted my emotional well-being.
I guess what I’m getting at is this. There may come a time in your life when all you want to do is lean in. You may be fully revved up and ready to go. You may have all the experience, all the tools and all the talent you need and yet …
When you lean in to push that door open, it may remain locked. And you’ll be all like, “That miserable SOB!” (That means “Sister or Brother”).
Here’s what I want you to do. Never forget who you are. Never for one second. Be the girl who leans in and pound and pound on that door till it opens for you. Don’t worry if you’re knocking too loud. Sometimes, we women have to use our voices to be heard above all the other BS we’re being told. (BS means “Baloney Sandwiches”. Baloney is a processed meat. We’ll discuss another day).
And if you keep knocking and nobody lets you in? Well, darling. It’s not your door. That’s all there is to it.
I don’t know whether you will decide to lean in on motherhood and stay at home with your children and give them some of the things that I was unable to give you in my desire to stay the professional course. But if you do decide to go back to the workplace, remember the following:
If you want something badly enough, you will most likely have to fight for it. Leaning in is not always going to give you what you need.
No matter how badly you might want something, there is always another path forward. You can’t lean in to stone. Course correct and find another path where people will support you and embrace your dreams.
If you knock on that door and it doesn’t open, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something for you on the other side. It just means you picked the wrong door.
Always carry yourself with integrity and kindness. At the end of the day, no promotion matters more than your character.
Glass ceilings were meant to be broken.
I know this was long, but I hope one day it means something to you when you’re ready to understand it.