Lessons in Control and Empowerment
I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial book Lean In. Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sandberg took a lot of heat for her views about women in the workplace. Many women felt her expectations and ideas were great for a family of a certain means and that her advice is not applicable to “every-woman.” Sandberg writes convincingly and powerfully, but many of her suggestions come with the double-edged sword of a position of privilege. That being said, the book has wonderful ideas about how both men and women can change themselves AND the workplace to create an environment of equality.
One thing that resonated with me is Sandberg’s chapter on how women need to make their husbands true partners if they want to succeed in the workplace. By true partner, Sandberg means that division of labor has to be equitable in the home when both partners work. Sandberg admits that in her house, the labor is divided along gender lines – he pays the bills; she plans the birthday parties. She also says that it’s a constantly evolving balance that they negotiate often. The key, she says, as with many things in marriage in general, is communication, not always an easy task in itself.
In the chapter, Sandberg encourages, no, instructs women is to empower their husbands. She cautions that if women are constantly criticizing the way men actually DO the jobs they are assigned in the house, then the men won’t feel motivated to continue doing the jobs and women will be worse off than before – doing their husbands’ jobs themselves when the men give up for lack of support.
This reminded me of a story. When my son Bailey was born, my control-freaky self went ballistic trying to have everything done perfectly. It actually took a therapist to tell me that it didn’t matter if I did the top of the carseat buckle first and my husband buckled the bottom latch first – the end result is a baby who is safe in the car. I had actually been criticizing the way my husband was buckling the baby into his seat! It’s no wonder I was feeling overworked and annoyed all the time – if my way was the best and only way to do everything, then I was causing my own problem by making Marc feel unmotivated to do anything for the baby, or for me. I learned to let go – a little. Letting go is still an evolving process for me fourteen years later.
But is precisely now, fourteen years later, that this lesson is coming back to haunt me, both in light of the carseat story and Sandberg’s point. I have been in the U.S. since June taking chemotherapy for lymphoma. My husband took the kids back to Tokyo in August to start school again. There was no reason to take them out of their “normal” lives in Japan, especially when we don’t have a home in the U.S. and I was in no position to take care of them. Marc has done an exceptional job of primary parenting so far, with about six weeks to go (if all goes well). The kids are happy, healthy, doing well in school and haven’t missed a single event. Marc attended back to school nights, grade-level coffees, football games and violin lessons. He does some of these things in our “normal” life, but not all of them. He has done it all while holding down a full time job. Yes, we have a great nanny, so that has helped, but the primary responsibility is still Marc’s.
My job, my only job, has been to focus on getting well. That being said, I generally talk to the kids twice a day and try to help where I can – sending emails and doing any necessary online research. It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. There are a thousand things I think of every day I would like to do for my kids – or do differently than Marc is doing. I would like to handle the homework situation in a stricter way, make arrangements for playdates further in advance and even allow the kids less TV time. But I would never tell Marc any of that (please keep my secret). As often as possible I sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut. I want him to feel like he’s doing a great job and motivated to continue the hard work. If I criticize, he’ll just feel defeated and then we would all be up a creek. I mean it when I say Marc is doing an amazing job – handling everything with grace and aplomb. Even when I don’t agree 100%, I still cheer him on. From what he tells me, Marc appreciates the support I can give him, and in some ways, is enjoying the experience – certainly enjoying being with his kids more than he ever has been in the past.
This is yet another unexpected gift cancer has given us: Marc has had a taste of primary parenting and consequent juggling, and I have had a real lesson in abdicating control. Obviously I’m not yet sure what parts of this we will take away from the experience, but I hope we have all gotten messages about control and support – both in giving and taking. Sheryl Sandberg is right: it’s not about perfection – it’s about empowerment. Marc and I can appreciate each other for doing the very best job we are capable of doing, and thus all four of us are motivated to improve on our best selves.