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Tearing Each Other Down Holds Back All Women

Mommy warsDaylight savings time arrived recently but I’m feeling a lot more falling back than springing forward going on. In the latest controversy about who does woman-ing better, people are tearing down a mother and notable businesswoman for sharing her opinions about what women might consider doing to become more successful.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has written a book called Lean In that has been the subject of much bashing of late. Quick, somebody get the bikinis and fill the arena with mud. I sat down last night to read many of the op-ed pieces and quasi-reviews of her book and I was fairly shocked, even though I know I shouldn’t be. I’ve seen it all before a la the ever-persistent “Mommy Wars.”

In the book, Sandberg shares lots of data as well as her own experience as a career woman and mother, and she provides her advice about things women should think about doing to have a better chance at success and more opportunities for executive leadership. Her ideas are not requirements. She doesn’t insist that it’s her way or the highway. She admits numerous times that she lives a different life than many women do. Still, she ventures forward with her thoughts because she thinks someone might benefit. I say why not?

Lots of other women have said no way.

Jodi Kantor of the New York Times called Sandberg’s movement a “top-down affair propelled by a fortune,” and makes sure to mention the square-footage of Sandberg’s house. Because if your house is big you have nothing worthwhile to say? Maureen Dowd, also of the New York Times, mentioned Sandberg’s private jet and the “blue eye shadow and leg warmers” she wore in college. Because if you started an aerobics class at Harvard and wore blue eye shadow you can’t possibly speak to the everyday woman? Andrea Peyser wrote in the New York Post that Sandberg is a “phony” and is “hazardous to women.” Am I in Bizarro World here?

This isn’t criticism. We’re not talking feedback, or sharing differences of opinion about what’s good for women and mothers. We’re talking questioning how a woman has reached success (“manipulation“), how she got her money and what she does with it, and the type of clothing she wears (“Prada ankle boots“) as a way of putting her in her place. If you thought only misogynist men did that, think again.

I struggle to understand why some people feel so strongly about their own cause that they can’t begin to see that a differing opinion may have at least some value. Is it worth being painfully and sometimes even viciously critical to make sure everyone knows your opinion is wayyyyyy better?

I was asked whether these arguments among women and parents allow us to hash out real issues and points of debate or worsen feelings of guilt and judgment. I say both, but it’s the latter that always worries me.

Moms know what it feels like to be Sheryl Sandberg right now. Heaven forbid you take the opposite opinion of another mother in your neighborhood, online forum, play group or PTA, or you write a blog post or Facebook update about why you feel strongly about a particular way of parenting. Get ready for people to find ways to rip you a new one and talk about what a terrible representative of mothering you are, no matter which side you’re on.

I shared some of my own examples of this recently on the Fierce blog:

Once I wrote about the fact that I’m very uncomfortable with babies. If you know me and my experience with postpartum depression, that probably makes sense, and yet one ParentDish commenter responded to the piece by saying I deserved to have my OVARIES CARVED OUT so that I could never have children. Another time I wrote about how worried I was about allowing my son to skip a grade, and later saw several people in a Facebook conversation about the piece say that I was obviously too concerned with my kid’s grades and success and that he’d probably be a miserable adult.

Talk about how you feel about parenting. Share your thoughts aloud. Get the smackdown. The default attitude is that saying what one thinks infers complete denigration of what other people think, and thus one must be stopped. What one does to achieve success at work or at home as a mother may offend the sensibilities of others, so it shouldn’t be done. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the Washington Post, “There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.” Huh?!

I’m starting to believe that each of the rapidly increasing numbers of wrinkles on my face reflects a separate “Mommy Wars” battle. Formula feeding versus breastfeeding. Public schools versus private schools. Working  outside the home or within. Pro-choice versus pro-life, or pro-abortion versus anti-choice or whatever the acceptable terminology is depending on what side you’re on. This week we’re questioning who is and is not a feminist.

ALL THE SIGHS.

Here’s what I think about leaning in:

{waits for comments on the fact that her college tuition was paid for by her parents, that she prefers cats over dogs, drives a used German car, takes medication for her OCD, and has no business being a woman and especially a mother}

There are two sets of barriers women face when it comes to achieving their goals. One set is concerned with the too-slow advancement of good policies, whether it’s better child care, fair pay, more flexible work options, improved maternity and paternity leave, the elimination of gender-based discrimination in the workplace of any kind, and more. These are important issues and I’m happy to see women speaking up about them forcefully every day.

The other set consists of women’s self-imposed barriers. Some of us don’t ask to be paid what we’re worth. We self-deprecate because it’s not cool to be proud of our success. We remain silent or don’t speak forcefully because we’re afraid of being branded as aggressive and bitchy. Any woman who is honest with herself can see where she sometimes commits self-sabotage. Suggesting women recognize those moments and learn how to change that behavior, as Sandberg does, does not appear to me to be “blaming women for failing to get ahead.”

Lean In suggests we have more confidence about what we know, and become more willing to push back or challenge decisions. I find that advice just as valuable to a mother negotiating with a school district or health insurance company about services for her special needs child as it is for a woman in a corporate office.  Sandberg also recommends forming a small group of women you respect to meet with on a regular basis to share ideas and encourage each other. I’m sure anyone who has ever participated in a free-for-all, unmoderated pregnancy forum can see the value in that.

There are many ways to help all women, all mothers, spring forward. I think there’s room enough for all of them, and I’m convinced that crowding any of them out only holds all of us back.

See more on this discussion here on HLN’s Raising America:

http://youtu.be/Qe3sp5KeVzE

We’re continuing this conversation all this week, because we want that lasting peace, dammit. Read more posts on this subject in this section all week (you can start with Catherine’s kick-off post.) And tune in to HLN’s Raising America (12:30 EST) to watch The Mommy Wars: the Peace Talks, a 5 day collaboration with HLN’s Raising America aimed at wrestling this so-called ‘war’ into peaceful submission.

For more on ‘leaning in’, and for buckets of inspiration toward being intentional and empowered in our choices (motherhood-related or otherwise) and our lives (including inspiring stories from many Babble bloggers that you know and love), visit the Lean In communityAnd maybe join the Lean In community. It’s a movement for all of us.

mommy wars

Lead photo credit: © roboriginal – Fotolia.com

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