Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks wrote a call to arms last week inciting women of the world to recline. In the piece, Brooks explains that she tried to lean in, a la Sheryl Sandberg, stepping up at work, volunteering more at school, pushing, pushing, pushing as hard as she could until, finally, she realized that while she was indeed more successful she was also totally miserable.
And then she had an epiphany. They key to success is not leaning in, because “leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours,” and because of this “women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.” Over 65,000 Facebook likes later, it is fair to say that she struck a chord.
There are a few small bones to pick here. The fact that she ignores the reality of people who can’t afford to recline, and also that she takes issue with Sheryl Sandberg rather than the institutions and people (men! as Rebecca Traister points out) that have put us in this situation in the first place.
And then there is, in my opinion, the much bigger bone to pick. She isn’t totally honest.
Brooks is telling us all to recline… from her office as a law professor at Georgetown University where she pens her columns for Foreign Policy magazine. Saying she isn’t ambitious compared to Sandberg is like saying running a marathon isn’t ambitious compared to an Ironman triathlon when most of us would feel really great after running just 3-4 miles. Point being, many of us are leaning back compared to Sandberg (and Brooks for that matter), and few of us would be foolish enough to view her a model for our own lives anyway.
For Brooks, this Sandberg metric seems to go all the way back to Harvard, where the energetic Facebook COO spent her downtime teaching aerobics while Brooks preferred leaning back on a sofa “with a good book and a nice cup of cocoa.”
Okay. Sorry, but reading a novel on a during your downtime at Harvard, HARVARD, is hardly the image most of us conjure up when we think of female slackerdom. Wonder how Brooks would classify my experience at college, which consisted of a lot pot-smoking at a state school squeezed in between creative writing workshops. Broad City anyone?
The thing is, Brooks is right. Hyper-ambition is an impossible standard to live up to, and is making us all so, so, so tired. I’ve gone on the record as a beta gal myself, while criticizing the fact that the whole work/life debate is being dominated by super achievers kinda like, eh, Brooks herself.
But let’s not match Sandberg’s simplistic call to arms with another catchy, mouse-clicky, phrase. Instead we need to keep reminding other women and ourselves to figure out what matters to them, and then work hard at that while taking it a little easier in other areas. I know, this lacks the revolutionary punch of telling everyone to “Recline!,” but as comfy and cozy as that recliner chair and cup of cocoa sounds, it isn’t ultimately much help. Because we still need to make money and fill sippy cups and might like to occasionally take a jog and perhaps even pursue a dream or two, and not one of those things can happen when we lean on back. I suspect Brooks understands this, and well.
Ladies, we can keep expecting to move forward, fighting to move forward, resisting 24/7 work cultures and making sure our husbands help out on the domestic front, as long as we understand that it’s all — life, work, cycling class, Jeremy’s science fair project, whatever — not going to happen at once. The choice isn’t between the desk chair and the recliner, but figuring out how you want to make the best use of your time in both.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Reclining and Leaning In Aren't Only Options