Skip to main content

Working moms, don't try to be perfect at home

By Courtney E. Martin, Special to CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Courtney Martin: "Lean in" at work, but learn to "lean out" in other areas of life
  • Martin: We need to stop trying to be perfect at home life, motherhood
  • Let go and let others take care of birthday parties, doctor visits sometimes, she says
  • Martin: Stop being guilty, accept when we can't live up to expectations of perfection

Editor's note: Courtney E. Martin is a writer and speaker who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women," among other books. Follow her on Twitter at @courtwrites. Join CNN Opinion on Facebook for a live discussion about women and the workplace on Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Watch CNN's special coverage of "What Women Want" throughout Monday and Tuesday. Plus, watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18th.

(CNN) -- In her new, already much-discussed book, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg argues we need to "lean in" more to our careers. We need to ask for flexibility even when the thought of doing so scares us, say yes to the promotions and the big projects, and radiate our own worthiness at cocktail parties just like the Harvard boys. Agreed.

But to prevent falling flat on our faces from all that forward momentum, we also need to learn to "lean out" in other areas of our lives.

Too many women might let their employers off the hook, shying away from salary negotiation or accepting policies that prevent working mothers from thriving, but more still never let themselves off the hook.

Opinion: Why women must seize this moment

It's time that women wave the white flag of surrender over our own messy, beautiful lives. We must accept imperfection -- physical, domestic, social -- and strive, instead, to be whole, bold, interesting. We must embrace psychologist D.W. Winnicott's decades-old idea of the "good enough mother."

Courtney Martin
Courtney Martin
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



At the TED conference last week, surrounded by uberachievers, I was chatting with a superstar organizational leader in the hallways, and she told me that it was her 4-year-old daughter's birthday. "It must be hard not to be with her. It's such a special day!" I said.

"Not really," she immediately responded. "We all turned 4 -- it's not that special. There will be plenty more birthdays, and she's having a great day with her dad."

Photos: The historical analogs of brilliant women

I was stunned. Regardless of what you think about her nonchalance, you have to admire this woman's capacity to shed the preciousness of motherhood so publicly. In this little exchange, she was boldly "leaning out" of the gender-based expectation that she would be tortured about missing her daughter's birthday. Instead, she owned that she, in fact, was excited to be at a conference that promised to boost her own career. The bonus: Her husband had an opportunity to strengthen his bond and build more memories with his daughter.

Another recent, and rare, sighting of a woman "leaning out": A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting around a coffee table, eating Thai takeout with a circle of women in their 20s and 30s. Another high-achieving friend showed us a photo of her young son, sitting on a hospital bed, smiling enthusiastically while holding out a big thumbs up. Turns out that while she was away on a business trip, he'd fallen out of a tree and had to go to the hospital. The bowl-haired little boy had asked his father to snap this photo with his iPhone to send to his mom so she could see how brave he had been, even and especially without her.

The myth of balancing motherhood and a successful career

Women have long struggled to reach equality in pay, and while many argue that equality has still not been met, here are 10 women who have risen to the top of the ranks among women in the business world.
In 2011 Safra A. Catz made $51.7 million as president and CFO of Oracle, making her the highest-paid female business executive in the United States.
To see more of the highest paid women in business check out CNNMoney's list. Women have long struggled to reach equality in pay, and while many argue that equality has still not been met, here are 10 women who have risen to the top of the ranks among women in the business world. In 2011 Safra A. Catz made $51.7 million as president and CFO of Oracle, making her the highest-paid female business executive in the United States. To see more of the highest paid women in business check out CNNMoney's list.
Highest paid women
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Photos: Highest paid women Photos: Highest paid women
Laura Bush: My girls help others
TIME looks at the woman behind Facebook
Cosmopolitan editor defends Sandberg

Instead of "leaning in" to guilt that she hadn't been there to supervise his stitches, she "leaned out" with a proud smile; her son was already learning the power of resilience.

So yes, part of the revolution is asking for what we're worth at work, but part of it is also not overestimating our worth at home. We must give ourselves permission to be less responsible in the parts of our life that women have micromanaged for decades -- the dishes, the carpool and even the thank-you notes. Too often, we want our friends, our family, our employers to all consider us infallible and "good," what author Rachel Simmons calls the "curse of the good girl."

Work and family: How do you and your partner make it work?

Instead, we need to sharpen our serenity, cut through the guilt and the expectations and the perfection and accept when we just can't live up to our own or others' expectations of perfection.

We need to practice big, radical shrugs: the all-too-rare and oh-so-powerful, "Oh well," of a woman who has accepted that she couldn't be everywhere at once or be everything to everybody.

My own mom is a seriously talented, dynamic woman, but cooking is not one of her favorite things. Even so, she spent almost every night of my childhood cooking up homemade meatloaf, slow cookers full of oxtail soup, chicken casseroles and other Midwestern specialties just like her own mother had done, just like she thought she had to. Sadly, and to my mom's palpable frustration, I don't remember any of these meals. Instead, I remember my mom screening documentary films, jumping on the trampoline, going on power walks in the park with her friends. These are the things she loved. These are the things that shaped who I am.

While Sheryl Sandberg has become the new icon of "leaning in," we need a wide variety of women -- diverse in their ethnic, economic and geographical distribution -- who embody a new era of "leaning out," too.

Editor's note: Join CNN Opinion on Facebook for a live discussion about women and the workplace on Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Bring your questions and thoughts!

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Courtney Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT