Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has found supporters and critics with the release of her book “Lean In” a few months ago. The research-heavy read is a lot to unpack in a relatively small page count. While most books I’ve read that are directed toward professional women are for the young, single go-getter, I was interested to read something from a woman who, like me, has been married for the overwhelming majority of her working years.
While our marital status is the same, our journeys are rather different. When Sandberg married her husband, David, at 35, she was already a vice president at Google, and her husband was established in his career as well. Though this wasn’t her first marriage, this is the relationship she refers to in her book. They went through several major life changes – children and moving in together – but her musings on partnership starts from a place where both individuals have already achieved career success and job security, which, she acknowledges, afford an easier transition.
In contrast, I got married eight months after I finished my master’s degree, and during that time ended moving back in with my parents. It was also the time when my husband was two years into his doctorial studies, so after the wedding, I moved another 500 miles to be with my now-husband. I hardly had time to start a career, let alone lean in any direction, before I tied the knot. And that’s only the beginning.
This left me to wonder: What does leaning in with your partner through major life changes look like on the way to achieving career success?
Sandberg offers one key piece of advice: “I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully — and I mean fully — supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners.”
Moving from season to season can be a tough transition, especially when there are two lives involved. Just trust me on this one – I’ve played the role of poor graduate student, boomerang child, breadwinner, work-at-home-wife and double-income couple, and I’m not even 30 yet.
While I still have a ways to go in my career and life in general, I’ve learned some valuable lessons to ease into the transitions as they come. Here are three of the most useful:
Every stage in life will lead to another – we are not static beings. Knowing that can be both comforting and frightening, depending on where you are in life.
For the first four years of our marriage, I was the breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. It was not easy leaving for work in the morning while my husband snoozed, and then having to hear about his long lunches with classmates. But I kept in mind that graduation was always on the horizon. At the time, leaning in meant giving all the support I could, knowing that this arrangement was temporary. I could easily have complained about shouldering the financial responsibility, but in all reality the situation benefited us equally – I pursued my career aggressively and he took care of daytime errands that would otherwise have required me to leave the office.
Sure enough, that first stage of our marriage passed, and we moved on to the next one, where he was the breadwinner and I was, for a time, the schedule-flexible errand runner. Though things may not always be as cleanly your-turn-my-turn as it was for us, taking a step back and assessing the pros and cons of a situation objectively can offer much-needed perspective.
If we were fortune tellers, I suppose we’d be prepared for each next stage in life. But since we’re not (at least, I’m not), all I could do was make sure I had realistic expectations for the next stage.
One of the biggest expectations when entering into a relationship is equality. Equality in relationships – and marriage in particular – is a tricky subject. You’ve got folks in the equally-important-but-separately-gifted camp, others who believe in a constant 50-50 split, and still others who would argue that equality is overrated. Whatever your stance, it helps to share that opinion with your partner.
My favorite line in Sandberg’s entire book was this: “Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal — and equally capable — partner.” Specifically, she points out that when we give up responsibility for something, we also have to give up control.
The only – and I repeat, only – way to manage your expectations within a partnership and continue to keep things in perspective is to communicate clearly; speak without accusation and listen without judgment. You are not the only one that will be affected by your decision to lean in, and, in fact, getting a second opinion and speaking freely about your plans can be encouraging and enlightening.
Sandberg gives many tips for how to lean in, but the application and timing will look different for everyone. And for the young married professional, it changes constantly and requires recalibration.
We want to know: How has your situation changed over time, and how has that affected your ability and desire to lean in?