When the Sheryl Sandberg Approach Fails- by Mary Louise Kelly
I suspect that for every woman who’s ever tried to balance work and family, there comes a day when you hit the wall. I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill bad day, when the baby barfs down the back of your suit as you’re racing out the door. I’m not even talking about the stress-hive-inducing, babysitter-calls-in-sick-on-morning-of-crucial-client-presentation kind of day.
I’m talking about The. Day. You. Hit. The. Wall.
This is the story of the day three years ago when I hit mine. I am a journalist: for two decades now, I have made my living reporting, editing, and anchoring the news. On the day in question, I was in Baghdad, covering a visit of the U.S. secretary of Defense. As NPR’s Pentagon correspondent, I took nothing like the risks my colleagues based in warzones take. Traveling overseas with the Defense secretary means traveling in a security bubble. Still, it’s safe to assume that any job that requires you to wear bulletproof body armor is not going to be exactly family-friendly.
This particular trip had started in Jerusalem. Then it was on to Amman, followed by a stop at a military air base near Nasiriya, in the scorched desert of southern Iraq. By the time we arrived in Baghdad, a sandstorm was blowing in. The city was not safe enough to drive through, so a swarm of Black Hawk helicopters was organized to whisk us from the airstrip to a press conference at the Iraqi Defense ministry.
It was as we were strapping in for takeoff that my phone vibrated. I fumbled for it under my flak jacket and pushed back my helmet to answer.
“Hello, Mrs. Kelly?” came a voice.
It’s not easy to hear over the roar of half a dozen helicopters, and I had to ask her to shout. It took a moment to grasp that the caller was the nurse at my children’s school back home in Washington, D.C. Apparently, my youngest son was sick.
“I need to ask you to come get him,” the nurse was yelling.
“Oh, no,” I yelled back, my chest tightening. “I can’t right now. You see, I’m in—”
“I don’t mean to bring him home,” she cut in. “He’s really sick. Alexander’s having trouble breathing.”
“OK, I ...” My mind raced. My 4-year-old had looked healthy as a horse when I left home three days earlier. But he’d been hospitalized twice before with respiratory infections. He was born early, and very sick. I’d already taken a year of unpaid leave from work to oversee his medical appointments.
“I think we need to get him to a doctor,” the nurse shouted. “Or to the hospital, even.”
I was trying to answer her when the line went dead. The Black Hawk lifted off. My son needed me, and I was in a helicopter halfway around the world, gazing down over the snarled traffic of Baghdad. Just like that, I hit the wall.
There will be those who read this and judge. Who will shake their heads and say that mothers of young children have no business jetting off to warzones. Believe me, you wouldn’t be saying anything I didn’t tell myself that night. In my defense, I could point out how hard I worked to earn my spot in the Pentagon press pool. I could point out how much I loved my job. Or I could point out how many fathers of young children were on that trip. In fairness, they don’t wear their guilt at being away any more lightly than the women. The press section of every military plane I’ve ever been on was filled with men passing around pictures of their kids. (Still, one can’t help but notice that school nurses never call them first. Sometimes the problem isn’t the demands of our bosses but the expectations of our society. As one friend—a high-powered NPR journalist herself—puts it, “Mothers remain the default for everything.”)
Most parents I know agree that when work and family collide, the kids come first. The challenge is putting that pledge into practice. Somehow the superwomen among us manage to do it all with grace. Think Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who maintains a schedule energetic enough to make Barack Obama wonder what he’s been doing with his time. In between running a major company and raising two kids, Sandberg has written a book urging women to “lean in” and, essentially, just work harder. Her critics note that perhaps it’s easier to lean in when you have two Harvard degrees, a slew of nannies, and a fat stock portfolio at your disposal. Full disclosure: I enjoy some of the same advantages as Sandberg. But you know what? There are still only 24 hours in a day.
That night in Baghdad, I crawled into the bunk bed where I’d been assigned to sleep, in a trailer parked behind one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces, and I cried for hours. It seemed suddenly, blindingly obvious that it was time for Plan B.
My husband had been telling me for ages that I was armed with better dinner-party stories than anyone he knew. Who else had a job that got them invited to the CIA Christmas party, or to take tea with Pakistan’s prime minister? So I started writing a spy novel. I named my protagonist Alexandra James, after my sons Alexander and James, to remind myself why I was doing it.
Seven months after Baghdad, I resigned from my job at NPR. Knowing that I was fortunate to have a choice in the first place—when the vast majority of working parents do not—still didn’t make it easy to walk away from a career in which I’d invested nearly 20 years. But the brutal truth is that I didn’t want to “lean in” anymore.
These days my typical work schedule looks like this: drop kids at school, write for a few hours, pick kids up, supervise homework and dinner, tuck kids into bed, write for another hour. On a wild day I might squeeze in a couple loads of laundry, too. The life of a jet-setting correspondent it ain’t.
And yet—with sincere and enormous respect for the accomplishments of superwomen like Sheryl Sandberg—I wonder if there isn’t room for a more expansive definition of female professional success. So many of the women I know are blending work and family in ways our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed possible. This seems to me worth celebrating, not sniffing at. Dare I confess that I feel I’m accomplishing something just as meaningful now as when I spent my time scurrying between Pentagon press briefings? Or, to use an example from Sandberg’s world, should we automatically assume that the woman running the company is doing more with her life than the woman who has negotiated a three-day week?
I don’t know the answer to that, and I certainly haven’t figured out the million-dollar question, Can Women Have It All? I second-guess my decision to resign all the time. And it goes without saying that many people wouldn’t or couldn’t make the same choices I have; I might have reacted differently myself at an earlier or later stage in my career.
But I must be doing something right. My healthy, thriving, now seven-year-old son walked into my study as I sat writing this, and asked what I was working on.
“Well,” I began, “it’s an article about trying to be a good mom and be good at your job at the same time.”
He nodded solemnly. “You’d be the perfect person to write that, Mom,” he said, and then he wandered off to play with Legos. That’s enough to boost you over the wall, and then some.