In the days leading up to the release of the book Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg the media, social and otherwise, was saturated with opinions about the book, Ms. Sandberg, and her intentions. I quickly assumed based on the coverage that this was a book focused mainly working, career-minded mothers. I thought to myself, “this is another mommy-war-inspired-you-don’t-have-to-quit-work-book.” I know that sounds a little bitter or nasty when you say it out loud. That is not my intent. It is just that the issues addressed in Lean In are issues for everyone, women and men, single and married, with and without children.
I read the book and was impressed and extremely pleased. Ms. Sandberg’s message to women, encouraging them to lean in to their careers and pursue opportunities as early and often as possible, was directed primarily to married women with children – like her family. However, despite the focus on family, she made her message accessible and helpful to those of us who are single and without children. I imagine that the stay-at-home-mothers and dual-income-no-kids households and single parents could glean something from her work as well. There is also a message in the book for men who are interested in understanding a woman’s perspective on our country’s work-family culture.
One of the passages that hit home with me was a story Ms. Sandberg described about a panel discussion she attended featuring married mothers and one single woman. The married mothers spoke about their experience and the following description addressed the single woman’s perspective:
[T]he single woman interjected that she was tired of people not taking her need to have a life seriously. She felt that her colleagues were always rushing off to be with their families, leaving her to pick up the slack. She argued, ‘My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight – and this is just as legitimate as their kids’ soccer game – because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!’ I often quote this story to make sure single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life.
While I have no stories that rival this woman’s complaints, I feel her pain. I have experienced the frustration of people assuming that I am available at any and all times because I don’t have a family; that I don’t have errands to run, a house to clean, or bills to pay; that my life is just one big happy hour; or that I must be so sad to not have a family and be “married to my work.” Of these assumptions the worst is that I must have all kinds of free time because I do not have a husband and children.
The truth, which is summarized very nicely by Ms. Sandberg, is that “[i]t’s not only the working parents who are looking for more hours in the day; people without children are also overworked, maybe to an even greater extent.”
When I was a junior associate at a law firm my other single female colleagues and I often complained that our lives would be easier if we had “wives.” We also said the same about penises, but that is a subject for another story. At this firm, well over one-half of the attorneys were men and only two equity partners, at the time, were women. The men for the most part were older and white. They almost all had wives who did not work. Therefore, they had help at home – someone to do the laundry, cook, clean, shop, pay bills, take the car to the shop, and generally make their lives run. Yet, the expectation of men in the workplace (and some women) is that women can work just like men. Sadly, that is not true. As Ms. Sandberg points out women “compare our efforts at work to those of our colleagues, usually men, who typically have far fewer responsibilities at home.”
If your responsibilities at home are limited to lawn care and money-making it is easy to focus all your energy on your career. It is also easy to assume that everyone has the same luxury.
The same applies to male and female colleagues with children. They, without knowing it, imply or come right out and say (“it is not like you are taking care of another human” or “you don’t have kids at home”) that the socializing, household duties, community work, or the socializing that single colleagues do is trivial in comparison to their family responsibilities.
I love my job. However, to be good at my job (and many other jobs) it sometimes takes more than 40 hours a week. I have parents, a sibling, and nieces that I love and want to see, a home and car to maintain, bills to pay, friendships to enjoy, a church to attend and support, relationships to develop, and other interests. Yet, many folks assume that my job is the only demand on my life. Those folks do not see that I still have things to juggle, obligations that conflict and overlap, and a need for social/family/rest time. Also, I am the only decision-maker in my house and that alone can be exhausting – ask any single person and I promise they will tell you that they get tired of making all the decisions. The point: single people have full lives too, they just do not have an extra set of hands to help them.
The primary focus of Lean In certainly isn’t balancing the needs of single professionals. However, there are threads of wisdom in the lessons Ms. Sandberg shares that weave through the lives of all professionals.
Let’s all take home the message that “single employees know that they, too, have every right to a full life.”