in and out we lean

Most are more than familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy, as well as its followup (and backlash), all of which has just served to remind me that while I once thought that the way I led my life was highly unique and original I am merely one of the herd… and am now even at the point in my life where that is just fine.

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image by ryangs via flickr

I’ve leaned in… way in, and then leaned out, way out. After a billion years working (I think I started working the day I learned to ride a bike) and nearly two decades working at the magazine which I continue to revere, I dropped out. Poof. Sort of disappeared from that world, never very good at continuums (even in those years at the magazine I hopped around, promoted from job to job, leaping over the editorial/business wall not once but twice).

Actually this year marks my tenth year out of work. Ten. Years. Crazy, right?

Lest anyone imagine me as either the uber-involved PTA maven or a woman who grows her own kale and raises chickens in her suburban backyard, I am neither (although I am a bit in awe of both). While I fit some molds, there is always a bit of difference, or pseudo rebellion in me.

My being home has enabled me to craft (or at least to be pivotal in the crafting of) a very lovely life, for myself, for my family, that I feel inordinately fortunate to have. There is an abundance of “quality time,” (which for us just means life), there is constant learning and exploration, there is a great deal of love. My nature allows me to find pleasure in the nesting, as well as in the freedom that being home has given me to be present, in the lives of my children, my husband, as well as in my own.

Unlike some women who reach this stage after their leaning-out period (sounds almost like the lying-in period  postpartum, although this one has lasted not twenty days but ten years), I have zero regrets. I spent the first several years of my older children’s lives leaning in so much that I often felt I was falling, so cozying back in the nest alongside my youngest (and her now older siblings) has been a delicious pleasure.

These days my children require not so much daily tending as they do long-distance love and global support (including financial… those fat paychecks that I used to allocate to toys and picture books could now find really good use in paying for college tuition… eek!). When my work is done I have a lot of time on my hands and spend it actively and well, but on a micro level, expanding my own knowledge (my latest love is coding, along with writing and other things which challenge me), doing things that make small differences in my life and those of others.

Micro. And I am not alone, just one of many. I see them each day, women (and men) who are a pool of lost potential: talented, educated, worldwise, who by choice or circumstance may not necessarily wish to lean back in, but who would be happy to dip their toes in the water, take on a project here or there, fill in, offer some expertise on a flexible, even temporary basis.

Oh, I know this is not new… women (the addition of men to this tribe is relatively recent) have for decades left the workforce to raise families, more often than not never to return. They often, as the lore goes, ended up embittered, realizing that the four walls of their home were stultifying, limiting.

But what is different now, is that the decision to stay home is no longer a sentence to a gulag, for among other things these same women now have access, via the internet and other sources, to a myriad of ways to expand their worlds, to build on their existing knowledge and even to venture into new areas, all with the perspective of the years they spent in their careers and the subsequent ones raising a family (which requires many of the same skill sets, and others that one cannot anticipate).

When I first stopped working, people would ask me whether I missed it, which I did in some ways, and why. My answer began as a comical one, about the perks and the lunches, but then I would speak of the fact that I missed the interaction, the excitement of the pressure-cooker. There was no more feedback, positive or negative, and all that I did was now a bit invisible. Ah, and then the dreaded and inevitable question at parties of “what do you do? do you work?” which I could not seem to find a way to answer without a blush and an apologetic explanation of “I used to, but…” I missed the caché of defining myself in others’ eyes by where I worked, where I’d been, by what I’d done in a quantifiable way.

Now, though, I’m way past that. I am unapologetic about the choices I’ve made, not that I’m not still seeking (and on a small level, finding) ways to make the micro a bit more macro… to bring in some tangible benefits to my family without upsetting that delicate balance we’ve attained. More than anything I feel amazed at how many of us there are out there, who have flexibility and often well-seasoned talents that might be utilized in new, creative ways, yet who are neither sought out nor have easy ways of seeking.

Life is not black and white, lean in or lean out. What an exciting time this is, and surely in this world where we are redefining the family, the workplace, redefining our concepts of ownership and value and what makes life good, or great, we might also find a way to redefine our roles within it. Work-life balance. Lean-in, lean-out balance. Balance.

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2 thoughts on “in and out we lean

  1. I so often feel lucky that, like you, I could take time from paid work (though I did freelance a bit) when my daughter was young. And I couldn’t agree more that for those of us who have choices re: leaning in/leaning out, it’s a complicated question. Some women do not have that choice. Ironic as it may seem, it was my early years of volunteering at school that had me realizing how much I loved working with children, so I rechanneled my writing life into arts education and became a teaching artist — curriculum-based workshops that involved collaborations with visual artists. Pretty awesome to facilitate bringing together the written word with visual art. More to the point — with a 27-year-old daughter now living in L.A., I’m no stranger to what you call long-distance nurturing and support.

    1. Very nice that you’ve found your niche. My intention with my post was (and I think I didn’t really communicate this well at all) was to point out that just as life is a flow, the leaning in/out should be the same, not so drastic and all or nothing or black/white. Also, that when one dips back in it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the same pool. You’re a great example of that! As for long-distance nurturing, it’s easier now with all our electronics, but nothing replaces having them there before you, and vice versa. Mine are relatively close, for now, and I still have one who sleeps in a bunkbed with a stuffed animal, so I’m good. 🙂

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