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How do you lean in without someone to lean on?

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My eldest daughter told me she hated me when she was in the second grade. It was her school’s "Museum Night," something the kids build up to all year, and I missed it because I had to be out of town for work. Her dad went. But that didn’t excuse my absence in her mind.

Five years later, she doesn’t remember the episode. I will never forget it.

In addition to being publisher and chief executive of the newspaper division of The Washington Post, I’m a single mom with three kids (ages eight, 11 and 12), three dogs, two hamsters (actually, one escaped, so we’re down to one), a guinea pig and a rabbit. So, as the debate about work-life balance rages on—- this latest round prompted by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg — I can vouch that a woman can have both a family and a demanding, interesting job. But there is no balance.

Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, arrived in bookstores less than two weeks ago, yet it has already received a degree of publicity most authors only dream of. It has also touched a nerve.

There are two main lines of criticism. The first is that Sandberg unfairly blames women when she argues that they need to change the way they behave in the workplace to better position themselves for leadership roles. The second is that her advice applies only to an elite circle of women.

I should say up front that I consider Sheryl a friend and that her husband, Dave Goldberg, is on the Washington Post Co. board. Friendship aside, though, I think Sheryl is right that we, as women, tend to hold ourselves back.

I see it all the time. Women are often meeker in meetings and afraid to ask for raises and promotions. I’ve told countless female colleagues to stop apologizing when they ask for more. It’s not personal, it’s business.

I don’t mean to pretend that I’ve gotten to where I am through hard work and ambition alone. Mine is not your average career path. I’m lucky to have been born into a matriarchal family led by strong women, from my grandmother, Katharine Graham, to my mother, Lally Weymouth (whose interviews you have seen on these pages). I was given tremendous opportunities and welcomed into the family business.

I also absolutely believe that changing corporate policies and corporate culture would help address the widely acknowledged dearth of women in senior positions at U.S. companies. But we still need to sit at the table, speak up (without speaking a sentence in the form of a question, one of my pet peeves) and not be afraid that someone might not like us.

The critique that Lean In applies to a narrow audience is more compelling. This is a charge that was leveled at The Feminine Mystique 50 years ago and at many of the "mommy wars" books in recent years. Sheryl anticipates it in her introduction. Although she says that she is writing "for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top," she acknowledges that "the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet" and offers the caveat that "parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work."

Most of what follows, however, is squarely addressed to those who have not just the ambition to lead but the financial resources and support systems in place to allow them to do that.

For instance, Sheryl emphasizes the importance of having an engaged and supportive spouse or partner — not just supportive in spirit, but really willing to pitch in and share the duties of running the house and raising the kids. "I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is," she writes. "I don’t know of a single woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully — and I mean fully — supportive of her career."

But what about the women whose partners don’t have control of their schedules, like Sheryl’s husband does? Or whose partners aren’t in a position to say: "Accept the job. It’s your turn"? And what about the 30 per cent of families she cites that are led by a single parent? How can you lean in when you don’t have someone to lean on?

Hillary Clinton famously talked about how raising a child takes a village. Except our society isn’t set up that way. We’re organized in nuclear units, and a single mom can ask her friends only so many times for help picking up the kids.

In my case, I’m lucky enough to be able to pay for help. Like all working moms, I also do a lot of juggling. Thank God for online grocery shopping.

But there aren’t many other single-mom CEOs out there. And I think that has a lot to do with resources. You don’t have to be born wealthy. You don’t have to be as incredibly successful and become as incredibly rich as Sheryl is. You do need to be able to advance in your career to the point where you can afford child care and health insurance. Until this country offers more accessible child care, some women won’t be able to lean in very far.

Of course I realize, and Sheryl does, too, that some women who can afford to lean in don’t want to. Either they don’t aspire to the corner office or the board of a publicly traded company, or they decide that more-senior jobs aren’t worth the hours and days they would be away from their children.

It’s hard to accept being anything less than an all-in mom. Women are held — and we hold ourselves — to a different standard of parenting. Even though more dads share day-to-day responsibilities now than in the past, much of society still views their contributions as voluntary. If Dad takes care of the kids while Mom is out of town, it’s considered heroic and sweet. If a woman does it while her husband is away, it’s expected. When a kid is sick at school, the nurse’s office almost always calls Mom first.

Children have the same biases. One day I was going into work late, so I didn’t dress for the office and just threw on some yoga pants to drive my eldest to school. Before she got out of the car, she said, "Finally, you look cool like the other moms." Great.

The truth is, I want the school to call me first. I want to wake up with my kids at night when they are scared. I want to be at as many games and talent shows as I can be.

I also want to have a job that stimulates my brain and allows me to feel like I have given something back. I would venture to guess we all want that in some form. And we all make decisions about what we are willing to sacrifice and how much guilt we can live with.

I feel incredibly privileged to have terrific kids and a terrific job. I hope that I’m setting a good example for my children by having a career and being a mom. I hope that they can forgive me later for everything I did wrong. For the days that I came home and yelled at them to stop jumping on the bed and go to sleep because I was tired and work was stressful. For the days I burned their lunch but packed it anyway.

It helps that my kids are good managers and let me know when I slip up. Now I always make it to Museum Night. I block it out on my calendar a year ahead.

 

Katharine Weymouth is publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post.

 

—The Washington Post

 

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