Sheryl Sandberg recently stepped down as the Chief Operating Officer of Meta. It brought to mind her famous title “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, a manifesto for why a woman can work outside the home and succeed at it.
There was much in her message that I clung onto when the book came out in 2015. I was a mother of a toddler up at 3am fetching warm milk, a lawyer in top brass law firms, a wife to a surgeon with heavy work pressures, a big sister and boss to au pairs figuring out their life journey, and a tired human on long commuter train rides. Sheryl comforted me. Particularly her message that the children of a woman working outside the home do just as well as children with a stay-at-home mother.
But I have come to realise over the years one thing the book omits to emphasise, and it’s an important one.
Even if the children are well adjusted, what about the parent’s experience of his or her children?
What about the parent’s enjoyment of the children?
I now realise that, in buying into the idea that my children were going turn out OK, I was adopting a long-term project management view of parenting. I am not saying that this was Sheryl’s intention, but I personally was, following her lead, primarily looking forward to the moment when my child would be standing on a university/polytechnic lawn in a graduation gown as a finished product. I would stand there and think: “A relief. I produced a good citizen. Now where is the champagne trolley?”
I now realise that this takes a Ford-production-line oriented view of a little human. I was managing little lives rather than enjoying them.
Obviously, the assumption that there should be a university or polytechnic is limited. There are various routes to fulfilled lives.
More fundamentally, focusing on the parent’s own experience is just as important. Having those unpressured, unscheduled moments on a low-key Tuesday afternoon with time for a bit of a joke and cuddle. Curling up on a sofa early in the morning and chuckling at Julia’s Donaldson’s penguins who escape the zoo and get take-out pizza in “Nell the Detective Dog”. Strolling over to the corner shop for Italian ice cream, just because it lights up the little eyes. Sitting around quietly when a pre-teen reads a Greek mythology book, just being present, admiring their button nose and answering any questions that bubble up.
The fact is that the time passes. And it does not return. The opportunity for those minute magical connections is lost.
If you wish to be present, what it requires is optimum conditions to lean in many directions: lean in at work, and lean into the dinner table for a game of UNO.
And, instead of leaning in one direction or another, to be able to sit perfectly still, with one’s mind open, listening to the stories of who teased whom at school.
Our society, and the law in particular, likes to entertain a poisonous dichotomy. One is great at one thing. One is a great lawyer, or a great parent. The family represents the “soft”, that is off the “hard” success of the alpha litigator who eats red meat for breakfast and finds solace in whiskey, banter and recreational drugs.
I like whiskey and am fierce in a fight, but that dichotomy is misguided. First of all, cavemen ate red meat for breakfast and couldn’t even read – so much for their brilliance as lawyers.
Fundamentally, a well-rounded and looked-after individual, who is fulfilled at home and at work, is much more brilliant at the job than a broken human.
Balanced litigators enable bigger wins for clients.
Being present for a school pickup should not be a Herculean feat that is followed by palpitations at the disaster that the inbox might contain.
You might say that a Tuesday afternoon ice cream or morning cuddle is a luxury. Not everyone can afford to be present, especially if they must work on location away from home. I see first-hand that my husband, as a surgeon, must be present in person, not via Zoom. I recognise that. Many parents work several jobs.
What I am saying is this: let’s create work communities where we support each other taking those magic moments amid our tenacious work. Even a few moments, whenever they may be. Whether they are with little ones, furry or human friends or spent pursuing beloved hobbies. If we do, we can live our best lives. And the client service will shine even brighter.
Let us celebrate holistic wellness and brilliance.
Let us allow each other to lean into various places in our lives, and to remain still when that is best.