Apr 08, 2013 1 Share

Lean On Me

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Are you sick of hearing about Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and her "Lean In" movement yet? Yeah, me too. But … has anyone besides me stopped to ponder how the COO of a company whose stock price is far below expectations has had time to write a book? And go on a nationwide tour promoting this book? And be home in time for dinner with her children? If I had to guess, I’d say Ms. Sandberg has a lot of people she’s been leaning on while she’s been leaning in. This concept of having someone to lean on has led me to consider my own decisions with regards to balancing my career and my family life.

The issue of balancing career and family has been in the news quite a bit lately, starting with a pregnant Marissa Mayer becoming CEO at Yahoo, continuing straight on through Sandberg’s book release. There seems to be this emerging pressure for us to “solve” these balance issues as a society and find perfect harmony in our lives. Well, good luck with that. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder are all too familiar with balance issues, only instead of merely balancing career and family, it becomes a matter of balancing career, family and autism. And if you try lean in to any one of those components too far, you’re likely to end up flat on your face. In order to have any hope at a successful balancing act, you not only have to have people you can lean on, but you must be someone others can lean on as well.

Throughout my personal experience, there have been times when I have leaned into my career, times when my family was my priority, and yes, times when autism took the front seat. When I started my career just out of college, I was all about leaning in and making the most of working in the fast-changing IT field. Before long I was married, and held the title of primary income provider. I was a young woman, earning more than my husband, and never felt held back by my gender, or anything else for that matter. It wasn’t too much longer when Cameron came along. I took six whole weeks of maternity leave, (three of them unpaid) and returned to work slightly conflicted, but did what I had to do. Soon I found myself the single parent of a toddler with newly-diagnosed learning disabilities. My career, whose ranking in priorities had been slipping since Cameron’s birth, became even less of a priority. I made the decision to become a mother that my son could lean on and leaned out of the workforce. I created a situation in which I could work part time and still get by. I sold vested stock options, I cut back on everything, and did what I had to do to make it work. I eventually remarried and things with Cameron became more automatic. There have since been opportunities for me to lean back in to the workforce, but instead I have leaned in to my family, and been a support they could all lean on. It may be a rub against the feminist doctrine, but I’m happy with the life decisions I’ve made, and refuse to feel guilty about my title of “stay-at-home mom.” 

As far as balance goes, it all comes down to setting personal priorities and making decisions that support those priorities. Asking society as a whole to solve these uniquely individual issues is not the answer. But if we as individuals find our own solutions for achieving the perfect balance, society will begin to adjust to those solutions, and more and more solutions will begin to emerge. And hopefully, one day, a mom who homeschooled her autistic son because there were no other viable options will be revered by society just as much as a woman with multiple degrees from Harvard and a Silicon Valley pedigree.

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Making personal choices

Julie.  Love your column.  I can really relate to your story.  It parallels my own, except I did not have what I would call a "career".  I did, however, have a job that I left when we had our son.  I was also going to take a bit more time off than you before going back to work. My plan to reenter the workforce was going to happen when he entered kindergarten, and on a part-time basis.  That plan all changed with the diagnosis of autism.  I did, however, homeschool him when my husband and I realized that the school's plan of action was unacceptable.  I think you hit the nail on the head when you speak of personal priorities.  Some of these priorities may seem very out of the norm for others who are looking in our lives (including family), but when dealing with autism and its many pitfalls, I feel that sometimes out of the norm measures must be taken to help our children.  Looking forward to reading more from you.