Two weeks ago, I started a new job. I’m working a months-long contract gig with a local nonprofit—work that’s fulfilling, demanding, and right in my wheelhouse. As part of this new job, I’m commuting to the office two days a week. I’m also working from home, maintaining my existing jobs—writing this newsletter, mentoring journalists, and working a few other freelance gigs.
All told, I’m now working 45-50 hours a week. It’s a big change from the 35ish hours a week I was previously working.
This extra work is mostly a good thing. Returning to an office has been surprisingly welcome, especially given the relatively short commute and only doing it a couple times a week. Getting to interact with coworkers is a welcome change, too. Most welcome, though, is the increased cash flow. Over the past year, as the expenses of life ratcheted up and Billy and I began paying for daycare, I worried more and more often about whether we’d make enough money each month. This contract job has largely alleviated those worries, which is a massive gift. Not having to stress as much about money has made a huge difference in my mental wellbeing.
Of course, taking on extra work brings its own stressors. Mostly, the stress of not having enough time to do it all. Just last week, I had to choose between going for a walk or playing with my toddler before dinner (I chose the walk); between attending a meeting or catching up with a friend (I chose the meeting, and to reschedule our call); and between relaxing with Billy on Sunday afternoon or writing this newsletter (I chose the newsletter).
These are all relatively low-stakes situations, but even then, they add up. By the time this contract is over, how many times will I have to choose between something like exercise or spending time with my daughter? And how many times will I feel guilty, no matter what choice I make? Either way, I’ll be saying no to something I want—no, need—to do.
Ten years ago, in the summer of 2013, then-Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was published. I was 28, working at CNN, and leading a department and seven-person team at the time. Lean In, which encourages women to be more ambitious and assertive in order to succeed at work and at home, became an immediate bestseller, its title a ubiquitous catchphrase for women excelling in their careers. I devoured the book from cover to cover. Somehow, I got my hands on an advance copy. I proudly passed it along from one female colleague to the next, feeling like I was bestowing them a wonderful gift.
Yes! We should lean in more! I thought, as I read Sandberg’s examples of the different ways women are held back in the workplace. Although I wasn’t yet ready to become a mother, I took note of her warning, “don’t leave before you leave,” to give work your all, even and especially before having children. Page after page, I nodded along. I was riding high in my career, hungry for more, wondering how far up the ladder I could and would climb.
A few months after I devoured Lean In, my dad died. My last real conversation with him—which I didn’t realize would be our last conversation—was one in which I mostly complained about work. A few months after losing my father, I began to suffer the effects of job burnout (turns out, grief and at-all-costs work ambition don’t exactly mix). By the end of 2014, I put in my notice. I decided to leave CNN for a new job, one I hoped was a bit less demanding than the world of 24/7 news.
I was, as they say, leaning out.
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that the job I took after CNN was just as taxing, especially when it came to traveling for work. You know that, two years after I started that job, my husband Jamie died. And you know that I was soon back in a familiar scenario: Discovering that grief and work don’t mix; feeling burnt out; and, by the end of another calendar year, putting in my notice to leave.
My goal for 2018 was to take the year off, to give myself room away from work, room to grieve and discover who I was outside of the workplace. But, just as I rushed back into dating as a widow, I also soon returned to working. Within what was supposed to be a year away from work, I created a website, launched this newsletter, and earned around $50,000 in various freelance gigs.
Once again, I had told myself that I was leaning out. But the pull of work, of distraction, of purpose was too enticing. I couldn’t help but lean back in.
A decade later, Lean In has not aged particularly well. It’s been rightly criticized for its individualistic approach to success, placing the responsibility of working harder on women’s shoulders, rather than fixing the societal systems that hold women back. Sandberg’s advice applies primarily to a specific, privileged subset of women—well-to-do, ambitious workers in corporate settings—and fails to address issues of race or economic inequities in meaningful ways.
It’s been six years since I’ve worked in an office, and as I returned to the land of work badges and staff lunches, cubicles and work-issued laptops, I remembered a past version of myself: the Katie who prized succeeding at work over most anything else. In a classic yes/and moment, I realized that, yes, my relationship to work has changed over the past decade, and that my views about work and self-worth are still deeply internalized.
I never got rid of Lean In. After all these years, I’ve held onto it—an artifact of the person I once was. There’s still a sticky note on the inside cover, a list of the women I shared my copy with: Jareen, Emanuella, Nnedike. I wonder what they think of Sandberg’s words today.
As I flipped back through the book, I found small sections that still resonate. In the chapter, “The Myth of Doing It All,” Sandberg sums up the tough choices I had to make just last week. “Instead of pondering the question ‘Can we have it all?,’ we should be asking the more practical question ‘Can we do it all?’ And again, the answer is no,” she writes. “Each of us makes choices constantly between work and family, exercising and relaxing, making time for others and taking time for ourselves.”
Mostly, though, I see how oversimplified Lean In is, and how an impressionable 20-something reading Sandberg’s advice could walk away thinking that working harder is the answer to everything.
I’m grateful for how much that view has changed, in my own mind and in society at large. In the decade since Lean In was published, we’ve seen the death of the girlboss era and the rise of quiet quitting. We advocate for unions and mental health days. We buy books about doing nothing and worship at the Nap Ministry. We know that working harder isn’t a solution for anything—just a fasttrack to burnout.
And still—still!—it’s hard to avoid the pull that work can have over us. Since I’ve started working this nonprofit job, various family members and neighbors have congratulated me. This job is something tangible, something real, something easier to understand than my previous approach of cobbling together enough writing and teaching gigs to make money and have plenty of flexibility. When I hear those congratulations, I feel the urge to stand a little taller, to feel better about myself.
I have to actively remind myself that, while my work situation has changed, my self-worth hasn’t. Working and earning more doesn’t make me a better person nor a worse mother. It doesn’t change who I am at my core. Likewise, I am reminding myself that working unrealistic hours isn’t admirable and doesn’t fix anything. I will work the amount I am getting paid for. I will show up and do my best, then I will stop and set that work aside so I have enough of myself left to show up in the next, just-as-important area of my life.
Today, I’m not leaning in or leaning out. But I am trying to lean. I’m trying to find the flexibility I didn’t have in my previous work lives. Sometimes, I’ll lean in the direction of work—squeezing in a few extra hours of uninterrupted focus to meet a deadline. Sometimes, I’ll lean in the direction of home—getting back from the office early to enjoy an afternoon of playing outside before eating dinner as a family. At various points, I’ll lean on friends, on family, on self-care, on the act of doing nothing.
If all goes well, I will lean in a thousand different directions. Like a plant, I will lean towards the sunshine, wherever that light may land. I will lean, I will adapt, and I will grow.
Your writing is really hitting me in the space that I’m in today, so thank you. Last week, when I told my therapist that I was finding so much joy through writing- that I had started a Substack and was pursuing publication, she asked me if I was perhaps doing too much? (Then, she mom guilted me by saying how my kids were only going to be around for so much longer...)
I was enraged by her comments and still am- I think our therapy relationship has run it’s course or rather plummeted off the cliffs-which isn’t great as I could probably use therapy.
Her comments were totally off base and steeped in patriarchy but the question about doing too much is sitting with me. I don’t know if anyone read last week’s Culture Study where Anne interviewed Laurel Braitman, but when Anne spoke about high achievement being a response to trauma, it kind of blew my brain up. I also loved that she said, she still works incredibly hard just for different reasons.
Katie, I love that you are so honest about the vacillation…the desire to grow something, to be validated and also…the questioning of what it’s all for, and if it’s too much or the right thing sometimes. I am with you and I am grateful.
Sandberg herself admitted, after she lost her husband, that "leaning in" was a lot harder to do as a single parent. :) (I much prefer "Option B," the book she wrote with Adam Grant about grief and dealing with the curveballs that life throws us.)