I have spent some time on this site commenting about the TV show, Parenthood. Today is no different, especially since Parenthood’s ambitious and successful working mom, Julia Braverman, appears to be the poster child for the latest development in feminism: Sheryl Sandberg and her advice to women to “lean in.”
The media is abuzz about a new book by Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer. In Lean In, as in her TED talk several years ago, Sandberg ruminates over why, despite the fact that more women than men are graduating from college, women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. She pinpoints the problem: women have to make harder choices between personal and professional success. Then she offers a solution: women need to reevaluate the messages they tell themselves and their children and reconsider how they structure their relationship with their spouses.
A message we women often send ourselves is: don’t get too deeply involved in your work because at some point, you will have children and it will be harder to balance both kids and a demanding career. As Sandberg points out, women start limiting themselves—or “leaning back”—long before they ever have kids. She relates the story of a young woman approaching her with concerns about work-life balance even though the woman had no kids, was not married, and didn’t even have a boyfriend!
The mere anticipation of things to come induces women to scale back—separate from external obstacles to success, women erect a series of internal barriers that limit their success too early and completely unnecessarily. Importantly, only when we cultivate passion for our work before we have children are we likely to feel compelled to return to work after we have children. And when that happens, we need to get our husbands to step up and shoulder a significant portion of the housekeeping and childcare burden.
At first glance, Sandberg’s advice comes off almost militantly feminist. Some may read it as suggesting that everything, family included, is secondary to professional success. However, despite Sandberg’s strong admonishment to women to stay at work and find their way to the top, she acknowledges that “[t]here are many powerful reasons to exit the workforce. No one should pass judgment on these highly personal decisions. My point is that the time for a woman to scale back is when a break is needed or a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance.”
This aspect of Sandberg’s message is what ultimately gives it credibility and strength. She recognizes the real life dilemma of work-life balance but wants women to adjust how they counsel themselves about it and how—and when—they structure their lives to accommodate it. Her advice boils down to: Excel in all spheres of your life—work included—so that you can move more easily from one sphere to the other.
This is Sandberg’s advice, and Julia Braverman in Parenthood follows it to the t. Although her story on Parenthood begins several years after the birth of her first child, we see her journey before and after she adopts her second child, Victor. She is a high-powered attorney well on her way to law firm partnership. She is forceful and confident in the workplace, and loving and attentive at home. And she is comfortable asking her husband to help with childcare and housework—Joel is a stay-at-home dad and he embraces every aspect of it.
Indeed, for much of Parenthood’s run, Julia and Joel represent an ideal model of feminism—everything Sandberg could want for women and more. But what really makes their story instructive and fully representative of Sandberg’s advice is how they continue to be a model couple even in the face of unexpected hurdles. Their decision to adopt Victor, an adolescent boy from a troubled home, proves trying as he struggles to adjust to the family, fit in socially and do better in school. Julia becomes increasingly distracted at work and ends up making a mistake that costs her firm millions. She suffers a panic attack and when called in by her boss to answer for her mistakes and reaffirm her commitment to becoming a partner, Julia decides she’s had enough and quits her job. She realizes that at this moment in Victor’s tumultuous adjustment process, she needs to be focused on him.
In so deciding, Julia does not violate the Sandberg guidelines. She has a powerful reason to exit the workforce and does not start limiting herself professionally until she does. And the very fact that she has that record of professional success is what allows her to leave, knowing full well that she could reenter the workplace at a comparable level when the time comes.
And there is no doubt that Julia will eventually return to and continue to excel at her work. Her first few weeks after quitting her job are trying as she realizes she is not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom, but she embraces the opportunity to focus singularly on her family. She shows us viewers what it’s like to excel at work and to excel at home, and how to be able to move from one sphere to another without compromising that excellence. She would make Sandberg proud.