Leaning in for expecting parents

In her famous TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg is talking about three fundamentals for women’s career success: leaning in, support of your partner, and not leaving the scene too early — where she refers to “leaning back”. According to Sheryl, too many women “lean back” and seem to give up on their career when starting a family.

9 months pregnant and opinionated

Currently on maternity leave, approaching the due date of my first pregnancy, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the subject matter, based on my personal experience.

I can tell you that there are many people, including myself, that are actively leaning in, while there seems to be this general assumption that we would be leaning back. I’d like to investigate where this perception is coming from, and offer some tips on how to lean in more effectively.

Parenthood: per aspera ad astra

The concept of (becoming) a parent can be described as “through hardships to the stars” — because it is one of the most profound and life altering experiences one can go through.

Unfortunately, there is an unconscious bias in our society, and the mainstream corporate culture more specifically, that rather focuses on the person in question as struggling, limited in their capacities, and how bringing a child to this world might negatively affect their productivity.

This bias fails to acknowledge that being a (new) parent is incredibly inspiring, and can become a massive boost for individual’s growth. Think of how profoundly transformational the whole experience is.

As a pregnant women I can tell you that you’re going through some serious challenges, that definitely push you out of your comfort zone. You’re discovering new facets of self, your loved ones and the world around you, which is a truly enriching experience.

Even if a (new) parent is not experiencing the physical aspects of this experience, for instance, my husband is not experiencing the whole physical part of being pregnant, yet it’s a tremendous transformational experience for him as well, which requires a serious emotional and physical effort, and inspires a lot of personal growth.

I think our modern society has become too fixated on comfort and being comfortable as the most desirable position in life, while oftentimes being terribly uncomfortable is what truly makes us grow beyond our limits, and essentially makes us better than ourselves.

Anthropology of it: liminal stage

There are a few interesting anthropological theories explaining why it’s hard for humans to understand our reaction to pregnancy as a deviation from the norm and unconscious bias that comes with it.

One of these theories speaks about the “liminal stage” — that occurs when individual transitions a status, going from, for example, puberty to adulthood. This liminal stage that occurs at individual or group level is like a cocoon — uncertain of its destination, yet definitely destined to change its shape. Humans have an inherent aversion towards liminality, mainly because of its inherent uncertainty.

The way humans cope with this phenomena that makes them feel uncomfortable, is either by avoidance — disengaging and, sometimes, alienating the person in question from the group, but also by applying stereotypes, unconsciously formulated and ready to be acted upon: to reduce complexity and make decision making less problematic.

What do successful employers do: Google

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to work for a company like Google, where work ethic and culture are very supportive of parents. Throughout my pregnancy I was definitely leaning in, and got promoted with the highest rating you can get at Google, right before I went on my leave.

While care and respect for the human aspect is at the core of Google culture, that, on a material level, translates to most amazing benefits in perks, like 6 month paid leave, free healthy food, and so on. However, to me the most significant element of my support system are the people that surround you at Google.

Because change and diversity are highly valued, there is a stronger support system and less bias towards the (expecting) parents, which has made my pregnancy more easy, and empowered me to remain a top performer regardless of the significant changes in my personal life.

It takes a village

Comparing this experience with another community I’m part of -the great New York city, and more specifically, Manhattan- I found some common traits that made me feel more strong and confident as a mother-to-be.

You might think: what is she talking about?!.. True, New York is super crowded, dirty and people are always running, they’re inconsiderate and rude… Nevertheless, each day throughout my pregnancy, random people, strangers, were showing me more consideration and empathy than I ever expected in a big city, making me feel special and part of a community. I also noticed how people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are expressive and warm in their way of conduct towards me, making my pregnancy feel like a celebration every day. Still each day I walk in the city I get “congratulations” and countless cute little chats about babies and such, which makes me feel very warm and fuzzy in the big dirty city…

Manhattan is an incredible multicultural melting pot, and being part of this vibrant and invigorating environment has made my pregnancy a more rewarding experience.

Leaning back and unconscious bias

Taking good care of yourself is a must, where some leaning back is required in a sense of taking time to find new balance. My personal experience is that feeling an enormous responsibility for the tiny human, whose life and wellbeing depends on me, has made me even more motivated to stay healthy and fit, paying extra attention to sleep, nutrition and exercise.

In a way, pregnancy has made me more efficient at setting priorities and focusing my energy on what truly matters. As a result, I felt a great boost of creative energy and increased productivity overall. I must admit that the second trimester hormones and experience, such as feeling my baby’s first kicks, has made me joyful and even euphoric at times, but the whole experience has also made me aware and then mindful of how important is the physical chemistry for human’s well being and day-to-day functioning.

The challenging aspect of leaning back is being treated differently and being excluded. I learned that no matter how hard you try, some people will assume that leaning back goes hand in hand with caring less about my work and will start excluding you from the group with the best intentions for your personal wellbeing.

Though I was doing my very best at staying tuned, not asking for any special treatment, there were frustrating moments when I realized I was being treated differently and felt excluded. In those occasions I found it was important to keep leaning in and enabling people around you to understand you better by speaking up, communicating what you want and how you feel. Openly talking to friends and colleagues about it made me realize that:

  1. Most people understand very easily where I’m coming from and are able to act emphatic.
  2. Most people have no clue of their own unconscious bias about the matter, and there is no evil intention behind it, it’s called “unconscious” for a reason.
  3. By speaking up you help them become more mindful, bringing the unconscious bias to light defeats the bias effectively.

Still, the bias and the judgment are strongly embedded in our society, and I must admit that at times I almost felt like apologizing for hanging on to my career-woman identity. It was like I had to justify wanting to succeed professionally, while being tasked with the most profound project a woman can carry out in life. I also felt judged for having love for my work and for caring as much as I do for my professional projects.

I understand that being a parent is incredibly important. To me it will be an entirely new identity, that will change me and my life forever. However, I’m still going to be more than one identity, and my creative and professional self remain to be also a fundamental part of me.

Besides, I want my baby to be proud of me not only as his mother, but also as a human being with my own talents and passions. Just like I’m proud of my mother, who is until today my big example of a strong self-made woman, who is also an awesome mom, but one definitely doesn’t exclude another in any way.

Ironically, some women are facing another challenge that comes from wrong judgement: some of my friends who chose to be stay at home moms, told me they also felt like apologizing for their choices, as if they were less ambitious, which is also an example of how unconscious bias and the wrongful judgment are still present in our society.

Final thoughts: disability and diversity

Of course it’s not surprising why people would treat pregnancy as the condition that implies leaning back and might negatively affect performance. There is A LOT of discomfort, physical and emotional, associated with growing a human being. Some people even get to deal with a whole array of serious physical and emotional issues. So, in a way it could be treated as a temporary form of disability, and any type of disability would require an adjustment in the sense that the person can’t function in a regular way.

Nevertheless, we have to bear in mind that disability doesn’t have to mean less productivity, and most definitely doesn’t imply that the person is less motivated and engaged.

I believe that any deviation from “the norm” essentially empowers diversity, that is teaching us about the new ways, and enriching our culture, making us stronger and better individuals as well as our society.

Seeing how successful companies and communities focus on the human aspect, embrace parenthood and cherish new parents, makes me realize that the culture of tolerance, celebrating life and diversity are, in fact, the building blocks of their success.