Lie Back or Lean In? How about Leave Me Alone?

Of course I was happy to see a well-written retort to Sandberg's "Lean In" appear in The Washington Post. Advising women to "Recline," the author upholds the value of things I also find valuable: reading a novel, having a real conversation, making intentional choices to spend more time on fewer things.  The sense that everything is always frantic, the list of things to do that only ever seems to get longer (and that, I find, runs like a memory-sucking app in the back of my mind, draining my battery but accomplishing nothing) -- these are bad enough. It's worse that women get pressured (lured? suckered?) into taking on the particular, gendered obligation to manage everything on all fronts all the time, to be distracted and worried so others can relax and focus, to skimp on sleep and exercise so others can be well, never to be the one sitting on the couch truly unconcerned with what "the plan is for dinner." 

I remember that when I chose not to have children, part of the reason was that I simply couldn't see how I could possibly "do it all" and do it well.  At the time, not a few of my friends and family members told me that I'd regret it, but I never have. I'm not suggesting it is the right solution for every woman. I am suggesting that in our society today it is a challenge to achieve economic sufficiency and stability and also have a personal and domestic life that is worth having.  As a result, we see a wide range of choices. The economic transitions of the last several decades, particularly stagnating wages, declining benefits, employment instability, and increasing productivity demands have made this problem far more acute by steadily, relentlessly eroding comfort and security for most Americans (yes, most).  For many, a decent life is completely out of reach despite holding down what would, in our parents' time, have been a good full-time job sufficient to provide comfort and stability.  

In such a context, talk about whether women should "lean in" or "lie back" is the latest iteration of the debate about the virtues of scaling back, a discourse generated mostly by people like me -- white, urban professional women with graduate degrees.  A typically American blend of pragmatism and expressive moral individualism, this contemporary discourse is the latest example of a long-standing pre-occupation with women's role as the moral guardians of the family and, hence, the culture. Debates about leaning in or lying back are conducted from a perspective of affluence and safety, ignoring both economic instability and systemic racism -- not because those writing in this vein are particularly conservative but because they live in a world in which the ability to choose is taken for granted.  If you are writing about whether or not to "lean in," you are thinking about whether to settle for the very, very good job or take the truly high-powered one, whether to pack organic lunches made oneself or settle for expensive takeout (or hire a nanny and be done with it). 

Don't get me wrong, women ought to be able to aim for the top, and it is worthwhile to think and talk about what it takes for women to get there, especially to envision together what might have to change in order for that to happen. My concern, however, is that all this talk of leaning in or lying back is still focused on women and how they spend their time and make their choices. Are women doing "it" right or do they need the help and advice of experts to manage "it" all? Such a focus keeps alive the idea that it's up to individual women to "make it all work" by simply being better people who make better choices.  This systematically directs attention away from the fact that the range of available choices is terrible, and getting worse.

The Lean In Woman solves this problem by saying, in effect, "Oh, that's okay, don't reorganize paid work, don't pressure men to be the ones to worry about whether there is a dinner plan, don't truly value and pay for the domestic things we all crave, I don't mind that when I speak in a meeting my male colleague gets the credit for my idea -- that's alright, I'll just get an hour less sleep, meditate when I'm stressed (but keep some Xanax around for emergencies, you know), be feminine-yet-assertive, and it'll all be fine."  And the Lie Back Woman solves the problem by saying, "I'm just going to skip sending Christmas cards, swing by the deli for a week of pre-packed lunches, tell my husband to pick up some takeout dinner (reminding him to get gluten-free), and take the 45 minutes I saved to power-drink a glass of chardonnay and read a chapter of a novel."

(And The Patriarchy sits and laughs quietly as we choose up sides and judge the women who made a different choice.)

I think I would rather be Leave Me Alone Woman.  Leave Me Alone Woman doesn't have an overall strategy for managing "it" all.  Rather, she refuses to take that on as her personal problem and if people want her to, her response is an assertive, "Leave me alone."  (No, I don't mean "feminine-yet-assertive.") Perhaps it is age talking, but my strongest desire at this point in my life is simply to keep my own counsel and be left alone to do as I see fit.  I actively and wholeheartedly reject the idea that women's moral choices are what really need working on, what need to be socially engineered with the aide of expert advice.  

I understand I can't escape basic constraints of limited time and resources.  But honestly, I've been poor -- and this ain't it. My problems are those of the fortunate.  And having worked hard to be among the fortunate, I am not willing to give my happiness away to worrying about whether or not I'm doing it right.  So if you want me, I'll be over here sometimes baking bread and cooking a healthy meal and sometimes swinging by the deli for takeout, sometimes really going all-out at my job and sometimes leaving early for a long bike ride, all the while grateful that these are my choices.

And if you, like me, are a fortunate woman, my advice is to reject all expert advice about how you are making your choices.  Seriously, if you're in a position to worry about leaning in or lying back, you're probably doing okay on the choice-making front, yes? Instead, really focus on the upcoming presidential election and learn about your options so you can cast an informed vote. And then pick one thing you can do right now (small or large, giving time or writing a check -- just one thing) to bring about a better playing field with better choices for all of us. Because our choices are getting worse, and they won't get better unless we turn our gazes outward and hold others accountable for giving us better options, instead of reworking ourselves to fit into an increasingly unworkable system.