The XX Factor

Sheryl Sandberg Admits Leaning In Is Harder Than She Originally Thought

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks on Nov. 3 in San Francisco.

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In honor of Mother’s Day, Sheryl Sandberg wrote a long post on Facebook that is part expression of support for single parents and part mea culpa for previously failing to recognize how difficult it is to raise children on one’s own.

“Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home,” Sandberg writes.

The Facebook COO goes on to enumerate the emotional obstacles of raising children without her husband, who died last year, and prudently acknowledges how “extremely fortunate I am not to face the financial burdens so many single mothers and widows face.” Still, money, even more than $1 billion worth, can’t compensate for the fact that her partner in life and parenting is here no more. It’s this emotional loss, the day-to-day reality of losing that one other person who loves and worries about her kids as much as she does, that appears to have inspired her newfound empathy and pushed her to rethink old assumptions.

“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.”

Sandberg begins to atone for this oversight by first acknowledging how common single mother households are today—approximately 1 in 3 families is led by a single parent, the majority of which are led by mothers and 40 percent of whom live in poverty. She goes on to acknowledge how the Lean In rubric, which puts the emphasis on cultivating ambition and confidence rather than demanding systemic change, is an incomplete solution to their struggles. She points out that these mothers need a safety net, that a “missed paycheck or an illness can present impossible choices,” and that “a third of working mothers don’t have access to any kind of paid leave to care for themselves or their families if someone gets sick.”

Sandberg ends her post with a call to “rethink our public and corporate workforce policies” and “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.” She concludes with a “vow to support them, every day.”

This post redeems Sandberg in two ways. First, it offers an important modification to her “get it, girl” feminism, which was widely, and often unfairly, critiqued when Lean In first came out. Sandberg was never as obtuse as many of her critics made her out to be; she didn’t ignore or deny the external factors standing in the way of gender inequality, but instead argued that the path to rectifying them can begin with women asserting themselves in the workplace. While I never had a problem with Sandberg’s focus on internal changes—the fact that a philosophy is not all-inclusive doesn’t automatically render it wrong or irrelevant—I did think she harbored a blind spot to the ways in which external factors can impede our ability to rev up our internal empowerment engines. Reckoning with her own incredibly unfortunate and completely immutable external factor—the tragedy of losing her spouse—has changed this.

The post also demonstrates Sandberg’s fitness as a leader for women, something that was frequently challenged when Lean In, the book and the movement, first emerged. Many questioned whether a wealthy, white Harvard grad, dripping in privilege and pep—or a “Power Point Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots” as Maureen Dowd put it—had any business presenting herself as a voice for women. But Sandberg’s Mother’s Day note shows that she is, in fact, well-qualified, and not nearly as myopic as many presumed. The most striking aspect of her post is the way it reveals a willingness to publicly evolve, and a prioritization of the integrity of her ideas over their consistency. Sandberg gets it. She’s living her life in the shades of gray that make leaning in much more complicated, and she wants to talk about it. Now that she’s renewed our confidence in her as a leader, let’s hope she keeps her vow.