If you’re a struggling single mother, you have probably had a “Sheryl Sandberg” in your life at one time or another, and by that, I mean a successful woman who seemed to have it all, and didn’t understand why you didn’t too. Or at least, why you weren’t going for it. She may have been sweet and easy to like, but she simply couldn’t understand that even though she cheered you on and believed in your power, why you weren’t catching up to where she was in life.
I myself have had quite a few Sheryl Sandbergs in my life. When my husband abandoned me and my kids several years ago, I threw myself into the workforce in an attempt to pull all three of us onto a stable foundation. Because both of my kids have special needs that require me to work from home and hospitals as much as possible, I launched my career as a freelance writer, and in my “spare” time, I founded a nonprofit that serves domestic violence victims. Yet due to factors far beyond my control (that include the fragile health of my children, the lack of family support, and an ex-husband that makes it impossible for me to collect child support), my kids and I still live below the poverty line.
I’m working as hard as I can, and yet I don’t always feel like I have that much to show for it. So when people like Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg write books like Lean In (her motivational tome for successful women), it just makes things a little bit worse for women like me. Because yes, while I realize the message behind it is all about female empowerment, and not holding yourself back or cheating yourself out of opportunities, it also has an unintentional side effect: Whether we realized it right away or not, Lean In further perpetuated the idea that the only thing women need in order to be successful, is just to try a little harder. To want it bad enough. To go for it — no matter what.
Believe me, I’m trying — I’ve been trying — and it’s upsetting when people seem to think that the only thing holding me back from success is myself. Maybe for some of us, that rings true; but for many others, that’s just not the whole story. And it’s unfortunately something that most people will never understand unless they’ve walked a mile in your shoes.
But last week, Sandberg wrote a post on Facebook that I could finally relate to — because it seemed that now, she does indeed walk in my shoes.
Last May, while on vacation with her family, Sandberg’s husband died unexpectedly, and in the blink of an eye she began walking the path that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: navigating the world as a single mother.
So when she posted on her Facebook page on Friday about how her views on the realities of “leaning in” had now changed, I was shocked … and yet I wasn’t. As much as I really don’t want her to understand the things that I’ve come to know all too well (because I wouldn’t wish tragedy upon anyone), it’s natural that given her new situation, Sandberg would come to learn what so many single mothers have been trying desperately to get the world to understand for quite some time now. And that’s this: You simply cannot measure our determination and efforts by our financial status, corporate success, and any other means of tangible evidence.
“On Mother’s Day, we celebrate all moms,” she opened. “This year I am thinking especially of the many mothers across the country and the world who are raising children on their own.”
“I will never experience and understand all of the challenges most single moms face, but I understand a lot more than I did a year ago. I never understood how often the world would remind my children and me of what we don’t have. For many single mothers, this is the only world they know. Each and every day they make sacrifices, push through barriers, and nurture beautiful families despite the demands on their time and energy. Single moms have been leaning in for a long time — out of necessity and a desire to provide the best possible opportunities for their children.”
And then Sandberg did something amazing, by not taking the easy way out, and admitting that she simply did not get how hard it is to go it alone.
“In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally — and how important Dave was to my career and to our children’s development. I still believe this. Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.”
I have a lot of respect for women like Sandberg — or really, anyone in a position of power — who can admit publicly that they were wrong once they realize it. Because if nothing else, it makes other people question their own viewpoints. And in this case, her words forced others to stop and listen to what single moms everywhere have been trying in vain to get the public to understand for years.
“The odds are stacked against single mothers in this country,” Sandberg confesses. “Yet so many give everything they have and go on to raise incredible children.”
And then she lays out a call to action:
“We need to rethink our public and corporate workforce policies and broaden our understanding of what a family is and looks like. We need to build a world where families are embraced and supported and loved no matter how they fit together. We need to understand that it takes a community to raise children and that so many of our single mothers need and deserve a much more supportive community than we give them. We owe it to them and to their children to do better. We must do more as leaders, as coworkers, as neighbors, and as friends.”
Yes, yes, and yes to all that.
While I may not know Sheryl Sandberg personally, after reading her powerful words, I honestly feel like she knows me — and all the single mothers out there who are trying to survive. Even though she may never read this article or know my name, I want to say thank you Sheryl — for giving us a voice that people can hear. Because even though I wish you didn’t understand what it’s like to be doing this on your own, I now know you do. And I’m proud to have you on my team.