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How My Father Gave Me the Courage to “Lean In”

In Lean In, I talk about the importance of self-confidence in combating the insecurity and intimidation that women so often feel. From my own experience, I know that feeling self-confident is easier said than done. I also know that believing you can do something is often the first step to learning how to do it. My father was the first person to teach me this. So on this Father’s Day, I want to thank him for that — and so much more.

My siblings and I grew up in a traditional 1970s home. My father, an ophthalmologist, went off to work every morning (and I mean every morning — he’s never taken a sick day in his life). My mother worked in the home, taking care of us and doing volunteer work.

Despite this traditional division of labor, my parents had the same expectations for my brother, my sister, and me. They encouraged the three of us to excel in school, do equal chores, and engage in extracurricular activities. Since we lived in Miami, which meant year-long sun, we were expected to play sports as well. My brother and sister were proficient athletes. Not me. I was the kid who got picked last on the kickball team, could never quite catch a ball, was always caught easily in playground games of tag. Long after everyone else in the neighborhood was riding their bikes around, I was afraid to even try.

We cannot achieve the equality we seek without the active participation of men.

To this day, I would not know how to ride a bike if my father hadn’t convinced me that I could do it. And how did he convince me? He said he would teach me. We wheeled the bike to the street and I got on. I tipped and swayed, but he ran alongside me holding the bike seat steady.  After a while, he was ready to let go, but I stiffened with fear and yelled, “Don’t let go, Dad!  Don’t let go!”

He patiently ran up and down our street like this many times. Once he was sure that I could manage on my own, he told me that if he did not let go, I would never learn. So the next time, no matter how loud I yelled, he said was going to let go — and he did. He let go of the seat, but he kept running right alongside me. With the comfort of him by my side, I kept peddling — and after just a few scrapped knees, I was riding a bike.

I was grateful to him then, but I am even more grateful to him now. He wasn’t just teaching me how to ride a bike.  He was teaching me how to be a parent. Throughout my life, my father told me I could do things. He also helped me learn how. And when it was time, he let me go.

No one shows more determination than my father. At the age of eight, he had his first job delivering groceries in his neighborhood. At 16, he decided to become a doctor after he was stricken with acute appendicitis. He got through college and medical school with the help of scholarships, loans and summer jobs.

He taught his children that we could do anything if we were willing to work hard enough. When we were not feeling well and wanted to stay home from school, he would come into our rooms and urge us to get out of bed. If we were home over a college break and moving slowly after a night out with friends, he would argue that the best antidote for a hangover was a brisk run. No matter the problem, his answer was always some version of: “Get out of bed, tackle the issue head-on, work until you find the answer.”

My father was always an active parent. He played basketball throughout school and college and in all of those years his parents were only able to attend one game. For me and my siblings, he never missed a ceremony, contest, or event. When I competed in oratory contests, he would listen to me practice over and over. If he ever got bored listening to me, he never showed it. He still doesn’t. This past March, when I headed out for the Lean In book tour, my husband (and excellent father) Dave stayed home with our kids and my parents joined me on the road, spending the entire ten days with me. Each day, I would urge them to skip a speech or to take time off to rest, but they never missed a single event.

Lean In is about building a more equal world, breaking down the barriers that women face at work, and living lives more equally shared at home. We cannot achieve the equality we seek without the active participation of men. Men need to step up and many are.

On this Father’s Day, I would like to celebrate all the dads who want their daughters to be ambitious and achieve their highest potential, including my own father. As an adult, I still turn to him for advice. He says what he’s always said — anything is possible if you are willing to work hard enough. And he does what he’s always done — stays right by my side giving me the courage to get the job done.

So thank you, dad, for setting such a great example of determination, hard work, support and love. I could not be more grateful to you on Father’s Day, and every day.

We’re celebrating Father’s Day by celebrating leaning into fatherhood and by recognizing the extraordinary men that are our own fathers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own dad or the dad who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning into parenthood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.

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