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Lean In, Lean Back, Lean What?

Published on: December 30, 2013

tightropewomanposterThis week, one of my favorite websites was taken over by the new “Lean In” women’s movement. One day the tagline underneath every main story title was either “Lean In” or “Lean Back.” If you hadn’t already read about this top-down Facebook COO-led women’s movement already, your reaction might have been “Lean huh?”

No, it’s not about lean bacon, although that would help my bacon-loving body. This is about a book written by Facebook, Inc. COO Sheryl Sandberg called Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead that is being published today by Knopf.

The marketing campaign around this book is enviable. Have you ever heard about a book that intends to launch a women’s movement? I’ve seen mention of this book and said movement in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, my Facebook newsfeed, and The Huffington Post website. I’m frankly surprised when my feminist friends haven’t heard about the book and movement.

Sandberg began talking years ago about how women undermine themselves in the work world. She presented a TED talk on the topic. A line from her soon-to-be-released book description explains that this book “examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.”

As I noted earlier, Sandberg isn’t just launching a book, though (or just working at Facebook or raising children), she is launching a movement. She is head of a non-profit foundation called, which aims to help women learn how to achieve success in the work world. I’m guessing she has been or soon will be on the cover of her college alumni magazine.

What does this mean for me? It means one of my daily Internet pit-stops is all lean-in, lean-back, and I’m all how am I leaning? One of my journalist idols, Lisa Belkin, explains the terms this way: “Leaning in” are “times when women took a risk and followed their ambitions in spite of their fears or insecurities.”

On the supposed opposite end of the spectrum, Belkin writes that “leaning back” is “deciding that it is not the right time to take on a new challenge, for reasons such as a child's birth, a parent's health or a need to regroup and recharge.”

The Huffington Post Women’s Page is littered with stories of leaning in and leaning back, and already I am truly sick of the first-person narrative. This despite the fact that my favorite writing form is the first person narrative.

I get that Sandberg and those infatuated with her new thing are trying to help women find strength in shared stories. I get that privileged women like me are reading these stories. Then we are all sitting back and thinking, hmm, am I leaning in or leaning back or am I ignoring the clean laundry that is dispersed all over my family room floor for ease of sock-finding?

My main problem with this lovely new let’s-give-women-a-leg-up-in-the-workplace "movement" is the same old problem: Who really needs help in our country?

Yes, women deserve equal pay for equal work and equal opportunity in the workplace. But my good friend calls me weekly to report on her first year teaching experience in one her state’s poorest school district’s middle school. This is a place where not one of her students’ parents showed up to teacher parent night. These moms are not reading this blog page. These moms need every single body in this country helping them step up and out of poverty.

My lesser problem is a simple language problem. Lean in, lean back, we are all leaning into our lives unless we are leaning into addictions to avoid our lives (and then we still need help leaning out of the addiction and into the mess of our lives). I can write at least ten different “lean” essays about my life since I had children, but to be truthful I would have to tell you that I have been always leaning into both work and parenting.

Sometimes I lean farther back from work to lean into parenting, like now as I navigate the learning disability world for my youngest child. But does this essay really fit into leaning back? Hell no, I am simply leaning into my life, and this is what my life calls for right now.

And I am so privileged to be able to make any choice around my work/home balance. Yes, I make sacrifices when I turn down work for parenting. But there is nothing but luck and the privileged world I was born into that dictates why I can actually decide to work on a very part-time basis to take care of very real issues in my child’s world.

Yes, I should read the book. Yes, I bet reading it will make me a more successful freelance writer and editor. But the world might be better served by my volunteer hours at a soup kitchen or by my calls to my legislators to demand more money for my state’s woefully underfunded public schools. I’m glad Sandberg is giving people fodder for discussion. But I, for one, am avoiding reading anymore lean in or lean back personal essays.

nancy-altonWriter, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of her memoir about the beginning of Annie’s learning journey. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.

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