I Was ‘Leaning Out’ Of My Career Before It Even Began

Lyla Cicero was subconsciously structuring her life around motherhood before she even knew if she wanted kids.

After working his ass off to land a job in “big law,” my husband left his firm after less than two years. He explained to a dumbfounded male partner that he felt he could not avail himself of the options open to female employees to improve work/family balance. The partner merely agreed that as a male, doing so would make it impossible to have a future at the firm.

Our infant twins were around six months old when Seth concluded that in order to be the involved, egalitarian dad we both wanted him to be, he was going to have to “lean out” of his career, and “lean in” at home. This New York Times piece by Catherine Rampell suggests men must “lean in” at home in order for women to be able to take Sheryl Sandberg’s now famous advice to “lean in” at work. Indeed, Seth needed to make changes to his career so that mine could continue.

Seth and I were both angered and shocked at the workplace barriers that existed for him. Taking a 70% schedule, as many of the successful women in his office had, would have meant career suicide. Instead, he made the choice to leave “big law” all together, in favor of a job where he would still work extremely hard, but have more control over his hours. Along with this came a massive pay cut of almost half his salary.

As Rampell points out in the Times piece, parental leave options are dreadful in the U.S. But if those options that are available are, either systemically, or culturally, not options for men, that essentially forces women to “lean out” of the work world, while preventing men from “leaning in” at home.

Until recently, I viewed such institutional barriers as the main reason sharing childcare equally has been such a challenge for Seth and me. Every push we make toward sharing things 50/50, we feel like there is push back. Until recently, though, I believed Seth and I went into parenting on equal footing. I thought our choice for me to be off for six months and then work part-time had to do with those barriers to his working part-time, as well aspects of my career, not gender. I had just finished graduate school, and thus was less established, and I was in a field where part-time work was feasible. I believed we walked up to the starting line of parenting hand in hand, and then he was essentially pushed back into the public sphere, and I into the private.

Then I saw Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk in which she urges women to “lean in” instead of out of their careers when children are on the horizon. “Don’t leave until you leave,” she advises. I thought back to my pregnancy, how I made no plans to pursue a career immediately after obtaining my doctorate because I was already pregnant. I thought about how I’d been determined, for years, not to get pregnant until I was already licensed, but then freaked out about my biological clock, and instead, am now trudging slowly through the licensing process part-time.

Then I thought back further. I was honestly stunned when I realized I had been leaning out of my career since well before my children were conceived. An honest, critical assessment of my life history led me to the terrifying conclusion that I started leaning out well before graduating college.

When my husband chose his career, his main considerations were his own abilities and passions. He came to the law after working as a legal secretary, became a paralegal, and somewhere along the line, realized he had the chops to go to law school himself. When he made the choice to pursue the most prestigious jobs out of law school, he was already recently married. He asked questions about work/life balance in his interviews, but this was the first time he had considered such questions related to his career.

My career choices, however, have largely focused on work/life balance. While I had an interest in psychology from an early age, I majored in creative writing and gender studies as an undergrad, taught high school for several years, and considered attending MFA programs in writing.

The decision to pursue psychology ultimately came down to a career that, yes, I would enjoy, but that would allow me to be able to support myself if need be. Additionally, it would allow me to be available for my imaginary children that I didn’t even feel very strongly about wanting until years later. I was thinking about motherhood when I considered careers at a time when I was actually leaning toward not having children. I wish I had heard Sheryl Sandberg’s advice back then.    

As a female, it seemed perfectly natural, even for someone who didn’t want children, to be thinking about work/family balance when choosing careers. Thinking back, this was utterly irrational, but somehow these considerations creep into our minds without us ever really questioning them.

Both my husband and I have ended up “leaning out” of our careers in various ways in order to prioritize children and family life. The major difference—a difference I am only just now recognizing—is when we began doing so. If I began leaning out in college, that means my entire career has been spent, as Sheryl Sandberg describes, being there but not being there.

Even before we begin our careers, I believe the responsibility of motherhood is impacting our choice of career. If men are truly going to “lean in” they will need to begin in high school and college considering how certain careers will impact their ability to attend sports games and school functions, to be home after school, to work part-time for a period of years, to have a flexible work schedule, to take leave, etc.

How many college males who, like I was, are highly ambivalent about having children, are still weighing parenthood into their career decisions? How many college males are buying into the notion that you’d better structure your whole life around motherhood, just in case you decide it’s what you want?

Often we have the best intentions, but a career that has been nurtured and made a priority is harder to sacrifice for child-rearing than one that was chosen for its flexibility. If women are going into careers where work/life balance is most possible and men aren’t, we are by no means walking up to the starting line together. And if women are anticipating from a young age being the ones to lean out, we are building careers that we ourselves view as expendable or temporary.

So in response to Rampell, yes, men need to lean in at home. But they need to lean in before that. They need to play with dolls as boys, to be allowed to express emotions. They need to understand that they will be valued for more than what they can provide financially. They need to consider choosing careers that promote work/family balance, and/or work toward creating that balance within existing institutions.  

They need to do better than watch an ambitious, talented young male recruit walk out the door because the “old boys club” will begrudgingly give a female associate her modified schedule, but won’t see the value in a male who requests the same.

Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.

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