Shortly before the end of my maternity leave, I called my boss to discuss my new schedule. We’d agreed that I would work from home two days per week—but which days, we hadn't decided.
“How about Mondays and Wednesdays?” I asked.
“I don’t think I want you doing that,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to smooth the edge of alarm in my voice.
He’d changed his mind, he said flatly. He needed me to be in the office full-time. Every day.
I was stunned: We’d agreed that I could telecommute months ago, with no hesitation on his part. I was a good, productive employee. Other people in our organization worked remotely, and those of us who didn’t might as well have—we spent most days hunkered alone in our offices. We rarely even held staff meetings.
This must be a misunderstanding, I thought. I could fix it if we talked face to face. I bundled up the baby and took him into work.
It was not a misunderstanding.
“I don't want you doing that. You need to be here.” He lowered his voice. “You could become a senior editor.”
Early in my pregnancy, I had raised the possibility of working from home part of the week once the baby came. Though “possibility” is not the right word. As soon as I became pregnant, I knew I wouldn't be able to handle my commute, day in and day out, while zonked from broken sleep and midnight feedings.
You see, I was an extreme commuter. I traveled nearly two hours—by car, train and subway—from my tiny Baltimore rowhouse to work in downtown Washington. It was a drag, but it made a young journalist's paycheck go a lot further.
If my boss said no to the idea, I told my husband, I’d have to look for a job nearby. But he said yes! I was delighted that I could keep my job and we could stay in the home and city we loved.
After my boss reneged, he stonewalled my pleas for a compromise. (“Just let me do it for nine months…six months?”) I had coffee with a colleague in Human Resources. She was genuinely sorry, but told me there was nothing she could do.
I could request that my boss and I enter mediation. Of course, even if I got the result I wanted, it would come with a price: my boss’s lasting resentment. That seemed like a bad tradeoff, especially when he had just offered me a promotion. Sort of.
So I leaned in. Monday through Friday, I got up, dropped my son off at his daycare by the Inner Harbor, drove to the airport, and hopped a train. Two hours later, I'd shut my office door and drowsily pump breast milk. Then I'd turn around and do it all over again.
I kept up this routine for about 10 weeks, bone-tired and disoriented from always being en route to someplace else. Finally, my husband and I assessed my options: quit and stay home; go part-time; get a new job; or move.
We couldn't afford for me to stay home or go part-time. I doubted that I could get a new job closer to home in a hurry. Besides, I liked my current job, and it had growth potential.
That seemed to leave one choice: keep leaning.
My husband and I put our house on the market. We found a condo outside Washington, the first one we looked at (no time to comparison shop). We signed the papers.
The day of the closing, my boss was asked to resign, and he obliged.
He was okay, I heard—hustled out with a generous severance package. I never learned why he’d suddenly changed his mind about me working from home. The acting editor who replaced him didn’t care where I worked.
It was the middle of 2006, right when the housing market careened off a cliff. Our Baltimore house wouldn’t sell, and we struggled to pay two mortgages along with daycare fees. We got into serious debt. I can’t blame my former boss for the real-estate crash, of course, and I’m sure he didn’t intend to land us in it—but, unthinkingly, he did.
We were okay. The house finally sold. I was lucky enough to get a new job in my field and hold onto it through the recession. Little by little, we paid down our debts.
When Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In came out, I bought it, and discovered that it was a how-to-succeed-in-business guide rather than a feminist call to arms. And that’s fine.
The problem is that Sandberg’s advice—to lean into risk—only makes sense if you have a boss with the authority and desire to help you succeed, or failing that, if you’re far enough along in your career to have built a supportive network and made a few friends at the top. These are the buffers that protect against a risk gone bad.
When you’re just starting out, you don’t have any power at the office, and chances are your boss doesn’t have much, either. He may not be able to swing you a raise. She could get reassigned to Phoenix next month, or fall victim to the next round of layoffs.
Would a young Sheryl Sandberg have relocated her family if a middle manager had asked her to? Of course not. She’d have leaned the hell out.
Seven years ago, I was 29 and desperate to avoid the label “stay-at-home mom” in case it stuck forever. But how much damage would I have done to my career, really, if I’d told my boss: I quit? Or: See you in mediation?
Looking back now, I wish I’d leaned out. Leaning in was a gesture of timidity. I was too scared of what I might lose, and ended up sacrificing the good situation my family already had. We could have found a way to get by.
So, my advice to the working mothers (and fathers) of America: Think carefully before leaning in. Remember that not every risk is worth taking. And make sure your boss puts everything in writing.