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Opinion

JOANNA WEISS | ‘Lean In’ or lean back?

How I learned to love the work-life treadmill

Gordon Studer for The Boston Globe

I bought my copy of “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg’s working-woman manifesto, after picking up my kids from elementary school and preschool. I had to chase my four-year-old briefly through the bookstore, coaxing him to put down a book he had grabbed because it was green, his favorite color. I stood at the checkout counter in a state of heightened awareness, one eye on my son and one on my corporate card. Then I loaded the kids back into the car and went home to cook dinner.

Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, lives one version of working-mom life, complete with nannies and possibly chefs and the occasional encouraging text from Oprah. My version is much closer to norm — work and life overlapping, crowding into each other, causing heightened stress and the occasional disapproving glare. Most of us don’t whoosh home triumphantly, in a blur of Prada, for some designated family time. This fact, it seems, has fueled much of the backlash to “Lean In.”

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The backlash isn’t fair. I actually think “Lean In” is an easy-to-read, engaging book filled with practical advice for women at all stages in their careers. Sandberg makes terrific points about taking on challenges, and managing relationships. And when it comes to the ever-toxic subject of work and motherhood, I’m glad she proposes solutions, that she supports flexible hours and reasonable boundaries and parental leave, that she’s willing to lead a conversation.

But perhaps that conversation itself needs to shift. The nerve that “Lean In” strikes has to do with the assumption — implicit both in the book and the reaction to it — that the tradeoffs of working motherhood are a problem, as opposed to just a fact.

Sandberg is right that more women would rise up the corporate ladder if more fathers, as a rule, did more housework. She’s right that men need permission, from companies and culture, to take paternity leave. She’s right that society still emphasizes mothers’ roles in child care. In one telling anecdote, she writes about a high-powered friend whose daughter declared, at a school open house, that her mother never picked her up from school. Sandberg writes that the mother refused to feel guilt: “I felt mad at the social norms that make my daughter feel odd.”

But were guilt and anger the only two possible reactions? Was the daughter regurgitating social norms or expressing a simple desire to see her mom? The fact is that many mothers and fathers, even if they want and/or need their jobs, also want to spend as much as time as possible with their kids. Not to hand more child care off to the other parent, or to outsource it to a professional staff, but to do it themselves, in person, even with the stress and headaches it entails.

This is tricky territory, because it leads so easily into judgment. If I were to judge Sandberg for her own work-life choices, then someone could easily judge me for putting my kids in day care. So be it. I truly believe that kids from loving families will be fine. This is about parents setting their own boundaries.

I’ve set some of my own. The realities of money and logistics have set others. Because my husband has the longer commute, I am the default pickup and dinner parent, even though he’s the better cook. (Sorry, kids.) He gets to read or sleep on the train ride home. But most of the time, he’s jealous of me.

A few months ago, when I was researching a column about stay-at-home dads, Brad Harrington of the Boston College Center for Work and Family told me something that bears repeating: When it comes to work and family, we ought to stop dwelling on a “conflict/burden paradigm.” Instead of beating ourselves up about tradeoffs, Harrington said, we ought to celebrate “what a great thing it is to have lives that are full.”

A full life isn’t easy. I log into e-mail late at night. I get most of my exercise by hauling laundry upstairs. I use my latent managerial skills to lord it over homework.

I don’t have Sandberg’s billions or her power or her platform. But while I wouldn’t mind owning a few pairs of her shoes, I don’t necessarily want to be her. The ones on the work-life treadmill? Without a household staff? We might be the luckiest ones of all.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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