When Tragedy Forces You To Lean In

graveyard in vermont (photo by author)

It’s only been a few days since Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Survey Monkey CEO Dave Goldberg, collapsed while exercising on vacation with his family and died at the age of 47, and already I’ve read two different pieces by women who have experienced similar family tragedies and learned from them the importance of, as Sandberg would say, “leaning in.”

In Dame magazine, Andrea Volpe tells the story of losing her husband while she was 33 and pregnant and considers the plight of the 800,000 other young widows struggling to cope with a new, grim reality.

Women between 25 and 54 are often building careers and raising children. Many are working and trying to figure out how to balance a two-career partnership. Others have dialed back to part time or off-ramped until their children are in school. Still others are stay-at-home mothers. Losing a spouse can make us doubt those choices as we try to rebuild our lives. And we are unprepared for their consequences once we are alone.

If you’ve depended on precision scheduling to be sure that one parent can be with the kids while the other is working, it’s excruciating to be torn between work and your kids when you’re the only parent. If your career took a back seat to child-raising, or you depended on your spouse as the primary wage-earner, then suddenly needing to work full-time to support your family presents a monumental transition for yourself and your grieving children. Lots of us downsize to smaller houses or trade high-powered positions and top-dollar salaries for more flexibility—and lower pay.

Years later, Volpe picked up Lean In and found it weirdly inspiring as well as comforting. 

She writes:

No one aspires to being a widow. Enough people have said idiotic things to me for that to be crystal clear. But reading the book helped me see myself differently, to take more credit for what I had accomplished, and to fret less about the-career-path-that-might-have-been. That, in turn, allowed me to lean in even more to the essential aspects of my work that I’d fought so hard to preserve, and even launch, when I was the newly widowed mother of a small child. I realized I had lost my husband, not my agency.

Torie Bosch’s piece on Slate is bleaker, more of a cautionary tale.

After I was born, my mother, Regina Bosch—a very smart woman who has an MBA from Wharton—abandoned her consulting career to focus on her children. It seemed like a noble sacrifice: While her work meant a great deal to her, she thought that it would be better for my two brothers and me to have a stay-at-home mom. My father made a good living as an attorney, and our lives were comfortable.

But then, when I was 11, my father killed himself. … Re-entering the workforce is difficult enough for women (and men) who take a few years off until their kids enter school or until a divorce changes circumstances. Jumping back into a career after 11 years, in the immediate aftermath of a spouse’s suicide, while trying to support three mourning children? Close to impossible.

Bosch’s mother never recovered, professionally speaking. “It would have been much better if I were working when he killed himself,” Bosch’s mother told her. “I would have gotten another layer of support and had someplace to go that wasn’t so sad.” Instead Bosch had to watch her mother struggle and conclude that it is a rare woman who can ever afford to lean out entirely.

Without specifically engaging with the question of premature death, mother of four Lauren Apfel does wonder whether she can be a SAHM and a feminist. “For eight years I contributed not a single penny to the running of our household. …I am still not a financially independent woman. I consider myself a feminist. Is this a contradiction?”

Though she admits some doubts, Apfel has no regrets: “my livelihood is contingent on the continued existence of my marriage, and on, yes, a man. But I wouldn’t trade anything for the years I spent at home watching my babies metamorphose into fully fledged human beings.”

Is it more difficult to read her piece, though, in light of the news about Sandberg’s family, as well as Bosch’s and Volpe’s. Walking away from employment is an act of faith. Even if you have a spouse who is willing and able to do the breadwinner thing, to live up to the trust you put in him/her, and to support all of you. Because valar morghulis and all that. No one can know when the music will stop.

On the other hand, say you do maintain your presence in the often unsatisfying working world once you have children. How far does one have to lean in to be appreciated and taken seriously? Aren’t many offices unfriendly to employees with young families? Sadly, and as Mike just discussed, yes. Recent studies have found that women and men alike are penalized for being explicit about slowing down when they have children. But there’s some good news. If employees manage to slow down without drawing attention to the fact that they’re doing so — being subtle; fudging a little bit here and there as necessary — they can remain in their company’s good graces.

women, particularly those with young children, were much more likely to request greater flexibility through more formal means, such as returning from maternity leave with an explicitly reduced schedule. Men who requested a paternity leave seemed to be punished come review time, and so may have felt more need to take time to spend with their families through those unofficial methods.

The result of this is easy to see: Those specifically requesting a lighter workload, who were disproportionately women, suffered in their performance reviews; those who took a lighter workload more discreetly didn’t suffer. The maxim of “ask forgiveness, not permission” seemed to apply.

Here’s the bottom line: “the consultants who quietly lightened their workload did just as well in their performance reviews as those who were truly working 80 or more hours a week.”

All you might have to do to continue to thrive at work, even once you have kids, is “pass” as a workaholic. In a world this chaotic, random, and occasionally cruel, I’ll take small comforts where I can find them.

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