I've just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and I really enjoyed it. I know it's been criticized for being elitist and failing to properly address less privileged women, but I think a lot of Sandberg's advice could benefit a vast range of women; especially issues like asking for more pay, increasing confidence, "leaning in" to your ambitions, getting more domestic help from your male partner, and supporting other women rather than competing with them. Sandberg addresses any woman eager to play a more influential role in her professional life, not just those gunning for the c-suite. (I will leave aside other unrelated issues I have with Sandberg connected to this and this.)
It actually breaks my heart a little that I couldn't have read this book when I was younger. I try to avoid regrets but it's hard not to be angry over having wasted so much time worrying about my looks and what other people thought of me. Clearly some of my feminism comes from this; the fact that, despite having all the potential to go really far in a career--being white and middle-class with progressive, equality-minded parents, among other lucky gifts--I still wasted precious years thwarted by insecurity. And I know that's partly a character flaw, but it's one that's been buoyed enthusiastically by society's expectations and shared cultural images of women.
At least I'm finally doing something about it. And Lean In has totally fired me up. It's not too late. How I wish that were also true for my mom, because damnit if she didn't need it so much more than I. My mother's career was sidelined by her starting a family. She met my dad when she was teaching at a university and he took a class with her. After they married, she left her job to get a PhD and raise young children, and when she came back her bosses refused to give her anything but a part-time contract despite having promised otherwise. (Sadly, it seems as though little has changed). I'm convinced my mom's bitterness over what she gave up to be a wife and mother is partly what led to the dark last years of her life.
Until that time, my mom seemed perfect from the outside, to everyone, including those closest to her. She was shy and sweet, strict with her kids and disciplined with herself yet incredibly warm, and a rock of dependability. She revealed a mischievous side to those close to her and was a bright conversationalist. She also kept a gorgeous and welcoming home and made balanced and delicious--often "exotic"--meals every night (though she did always say my dad's diabetes obligated her to do the latter).
But most of all: she was attractive. Besides my dad, I don't remember anyone ever complimenting her on her brain. She punctuated my upbringing with regular complaints about her thighs. Through her eyes these lovely legs took on grotesque, unacceptable proportions. Years later I looked at photos of her in a bikini when she was in her 30s, instinctively comparing our bodies at the same age, and she won hands down--she was beautiful and slim. My mom also let me go on a diet when I was 10. And she seemed (to me) deeply flattered and relieved when told she looked young and pretty (which happened often).
The shitty thing is my mom did lean in to her career, with a lot more dedication than many women her age, but was screwed by trying to lean in to motherhood too. Sandberg quotes Gloria Steinem as saying, "Superwoman is the adversary of the women's movement." That was exactly my mother's problem: she was a superwoman; an all-sacrificing, eternally giving, "perfect" mother who also tried having a career. And I believe it killed her. Never nurturing herself, forever prioritizing her family above herself--at least until it was too late to make a difference--on top of all the bitterness, ravaged her from the inside out.