A Mom to Lean OnSheryl Sandberg
No day goes by without me thinking about my mother. I have so much to thank her for.
On my first day as a freshman in college, I had a crisis of confidence. The morning began with an introductory lecture by the university president in stately Sanders Theater, a dark wood 19th-century hall. The lecture was meant to be welcoming, but as my classmates nodded along, I struggled to understand what the Harvard president was saying. He used so many big words and unfamiliar quotations. At the public high school I’d gone to in Miami (think Fast Times at Ridgemont High), no one spoke like that.
When the talk ended, I couldn’t wait to get out of the stuffy hall. My parents were with me — as many parents were. As my eyes filled with tears, my mother asked me what was wrong. I blurted out the truth. The admissions office had clearly made a mistake admitting me. I didn’t belong.
Without dismissing my feelings, my mother soothed my concerns. She did what she’s done my entire life; she calmed me down and boosted me up. (My father did this with her, as he always did, but this letter is for Mother’s Day.)
My mother is still the first person I call when I’m upset. She’s also the first person I call when things go really well. As a steadfast optimist, she always finds a silver lining in the bad news; and she gets very excited by the good.
My siblings and I are extremely lucky. We grew up in a traditional 1970s home, but our parents had the same expectations for my sister, my brother, and me. They taught us to believe that as long as we were willing to work hard enough we could achieve any dream.
This was not the case for my mother growing up. When she applied to colleges in the early 1960s, her top choice did not allow women. Once she graduated from her second choice, she believed she had two career options: teaching or nursing. She chose teaching. She began a Ph.D. program, got married, but then dropped out when she became pregnant with me.
And then she leaned in to her family with all her heart.
She took incredible care of her children, as well as my father. As she always says with pride, “You kids were my life’s work.” In later years, long after we’d left home, she spent the majority of her time caring for her aging parents and aunt. She has always cared for all of us with joy, compassion, and true dedication.
She also taught us, by example, that we have a responsibility to help others. During my childhood, she devoted herself to helping persecuted Jews and political prisoners in the then-Soviet Union. More recently, she founded Ear Peace: Save Your Hearing, a nonprofit to prevent noise-induced hearing loss in young people.
Family remains her top priority. My sister Michelle is a doctor who lives near me in Northern California and neither of us could do what we do without having our mother in our lives … and our children’s lives. Watching my mother play with my kids gives me an even greater appreciation for my childhood. She is unfailingly kind and patient. She knows when to follow their imaginations, and she knows when to stop the game and help them understand something. She parents so naturally and does it with such love.
My husband Dave and I try not to be away at the same time so that one of us is at home with our children. This past March, when I headed out for the Lean In book tour, was no exception. Since Dave could not come with me, my parents did spending the entire ten days on the road with me. Each day, I would urge them to skip a speech or Q&A to take time off to rest, but they never missed a single one.
One event was at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. A lot had changed in the twenty-six years since I first entered that theater and listened to a talk that I did not understand. I walked onto the stage and encouraged college women to pursue their dreams with gusto — whether that means running a company or pursuing a creative life or leaning in to motherhood … or doing all three at once. I urged the women to believe in themselves and shared the story of how I felt when I first sat in their seats and believed that I did not deserve to be there. As I looked out into the crowd, there was my Mom, with me as she has been since the day I was born.
So thank you, Mom, for inspiring me and encouraging me to lean in from my childhood until today. And thank you, Mom, for leaning in and making your children your life’s work. I could not be more grateful on Mother’s Day, and every day.
Editor’s note: We’re celebrating Mother’s Day by celebrating leaning in to motherhood, and by recognizing the extraordinary women that are our own mothers. We hope that it will inspire you to thank your own mother, or the mother who most inspires you. Find more letters and stories about leaning in to motherhood here. And, of course, find your own Lean In inspiration at LeanIn.org.