Almost Fearless

Lean Way In

Worth not having a 401k over? For me, yes.

Being overseas and self-employed means I miss out on most water cooler moments. I pick up hints on Twitter or Facebook so in the last few weeks I’ve been seeing articles pop up my feed about ‘Work and Life Balance’. Can you have it all? Should you? Are women dropping out to raise families? Or is it more like pushed out?


Notably the female CEO of Yahoo had a baby and returned to work two weeks later and then proceeded to revoke work-from-home arrangements company-wide. My feed boiled over with outrage.

At the same time Sheryl Sanberg, the former COO of Facebook, released her semi-biographical call to arms for upwardly mobile women called, “Lean in”. The New York Times accused her of being more concerned with building her personal brand than helping women. In my feed? More articles about what Sanberg didn’t say, than what she did.

So as someone who ostensibly “has it all” meaning I kept my career, I had two kids, I stay-at-home, so does my husband, and we somehow made it all work — let me say one thing: life is messy. These questions about work, life, balance, happiness, meaning, family, kids, time management, inspiration — all of it — are really about a very big question we all must face: how do I want to live my life? The question never gets fully answered until you live all of your days and you’ve settled the what-ifs with what-you-actually-did. Then you’re dead. It’s literally the question of our lives, one we’ll answer in different ways at different times and just as soon as you have it all figured out, everything changes.

What’s interesting to me is that there’s so little room in the discourse for alternate points-of-view. I don’t expect many people to embrace what I’ve done — quit my corporate job, start a new career as a writer post-30, live overseas, have babies, be self-employed — but I’m still surprised at how narrow the discussion is even outside of my extreme case. Are women the only ones that struggle with balancing family and work? I think not. Or are people who choose not to have kids (or can’t have them) less valid or not allowed to bemoan their own work-life struggles? Or can a woman, like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer want to return to work two-weeks postpartum and not be a workaholic, but just, you know, want to go back to work?

If I take the articles coming out of this national conversation to be any indicator, it seems like having babies and working for someone else is the only option. It frames the discussion around a series of assumptions that seem sort of sexist in and of themselves. I know for me, I struggled with work-life balance as a twenty-something. Having kids clarified things for me, but I always knew there was a problem with working to exhaustion every week. I didn’t want to have kids back then, even though I married at 26 — I was terrified of the 60 hour work week + daycare + commute and it wasn’t until I dropped out of my career for other reasons that having children was back on the table. (These days, I’m baby-crazy, not the result of my biological clock, but of having the flexibility to raise my kids in a way that I find appealing).

That being said, what I’ve done with my life wouldn’t work for everyone — or even most people. Most people like living near their family and friends. Or having a community. Or owning more things than what they can fit in a suitcase. There’s a price we pay — happily I might add — but it’s too steep for most people.

What I would love to come out of this conversation about priorities is not a push for women at the highest levels to “lean in” (as if the inequalities in the workplace are because women in senior positions aren’t aggressive enough) but for all of us to look our basic assumptions:

Should we be working for someone else?

Where do we find meaning? At work? In our hobbies?

Is working extremely hard the highest virtue, really?

Do we have enough time off? Or do long breaks from work make us more creative?

Is workplace flexibility inevitable? In twenty years will we all “log-in” into work from home?

I’d like to think we’re at the point that a woman can choose to stay at home with her kids or return to work immediately after giving birth and both choices would be considered valid. Yet, there’s this push, especially in the ‘lifestyle redesign’ genre, for people who’ve “found” work-life balance to sneer at so-called regular folk, to condescendingly imply that if you do work a regular job and commute — or if you have kids and use child care — that you’re some how not doing enough, as if the only way to prove that you’re a thinking, creative person who is making conscious choices you have to make the same decisions that these authors made. It’s the worst form of smugness, as if the majority of people are blind, and conveniently, only those who make the same choices as you are actually doing it right.

On the other hand, as Americans we are obsessed with workplace productivity. We work more hours per week with less time off than any time before then we have babies and we keep going. We feel guilty, that’s right, actual guilt, about taking time off from our careers. Imagine what we could have achieved, we think to ourselves. We don’t view our ability to take time off as the luxury that it is or as equally valuable to work — that’s the fundamental assumption underpinning this entire discussion. For example, if raising kids was seen as equally valuable, there would be nothing to talk about! It’s a sort of sideways discussion because instead of talking about that, about our obsession with work as the highest good, we focus everything on how to raise children without ever taking our foot off the gas pedal of our careers. How insane is that?

Ultimately, I’m encouraged to hear Americans questioning their work ethics and whether their time might be better spent doing other things (and quietly I think many people are doing just that, prioritizing their lives with little fanfare) but we’re still so far behind our neighbors in Europe. We treat parents and the childless with equal disdain, it just depends on who you talk to — and we force people to defend their life choices while not supporting each other. It’s frustrating to read, because it doesn’t have to be that way. This is what I know:

Finding meaning in our lives leads to happiness. Important work is part of that.

Flexibility costs very little for employers

Not everyone wants the same thing as you.

Having kids — or not! — doesn’t change things, we should all live balanced lives.

There are no easy answers. You literally can not have it all any more than you can work and not-work at the same time. You have to pick. Information is good. Sharing stories is important, but in the end we all have to decide. Even not-picking is still making a choice.

For me, I’m leaning way in but maybe not in the way Sanberg envisioned. With this second baby, I’m loosing up. I can’t control everything. I can’t be perfect. I’m embracing the mess. I’m leaning into the discomfort, releasing the nagging feeling that maybe I should be doing more or the subtle tug on my heart that wonders what I’m potentially giving up. It’s not easy. But that’s the point. I think if anything Sanberg wants women to live just two degrees north of what’s comfortable. For her, that’s corporate life. For me, that’s a beach town in Mexico. We all have our ways.

(Note: Thanks to Pam for capturing the above photo of Cole at the beach.)



Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • love this, love love. this is the discussion that needs to be had about work/life balance rather than all the time the media spends hating on women’s choices and acting as if work/life balance were not an issue for men.

  • Beautiful and needed reflections on what it means to “have it all” (which is such a loaded term anyhow). Thank you for pointing out that the way the argument has been defined by the media is in itself sexist and shows a lack of creativity and understanding.

  • Hi there,

    Very interesting post. I think the questions you ask are meaningful and ladder up to even bigger questions like “What are we working for?” and “What is the ‘all’ we are meant to have?”

    I’m a professional woman and returned world traveler. I’ve realized that a) my career is my own to design and it’s a matter of taking all the professional experience and connections I’ve invested in and continue to grow and figure out how to sell that in a way to facilitate my lifestyle and b) my career isn’t my purpose in life, but because I spend so much time on it, I’ve designed it to be in the areas that I’m passionate about.

    From a family perspective, I like the idea of flexibility you raise – as you’ve shown – there are many ways to design a family life that doesn’t rely on work at the center of it. I think what you say is true in all relationships as well.

    Thanks for the article!

  • I love this post Christine.

    You said “Yet, there’s this push, especially in the ‘lifestyle redesign’ genre, for people who’ve “found” work-life balance to sneer at so-called regular folk, to condescendingly imply that if you do work a regular job and commute — or if you have kids and use child care — that you’re some how not doing enough, as if the only way to prove that you’re a thinking, creative person who is making conscious choices you have to make the same decisions that these authors made.”
    Thank you. This is the one thing about the whole “location independent” lifestyle thing that makes my blood boil. As if *everyone* can work for themselves if they so choose. Really? And if we all did that, who would work in the service industry? Who would build houses, be police or fight fires, clean the sewers? Who would work in the companies that run the internet which allows these people to be location independent?

    I had the “sexy” job at one point. I was a professional chef. But it was literally killing me. After taking a year off, I went back to work for a company, just not as a chef. Think I didn’t get flack for that too? How could I “give up” my career to work in an office? But I’m happier now, doing my job, being well paid, and yet being able to have a life OUTSIDE my job. Would I like to work for myself? Sure. But I’d also like to keep my house and retire early without fear of running out of money. Not everyone can “retire” at 30 and not everyone can find a job which works for them without working for someone else. This is the big myth a lot of people keep perpetuating.

    I also chose not to have children, which included years of dealing with infertility and the final decision not to adopt. Got judged for that too.

    Sigh. When will we just let others do what they want and what works for them without passing judgement?

  • I love this too. Though I’m a working mom I identify more strongly as a working person. A working parent. The breadwinner of our family. Struggling with what is right for me, my kids and my partner. Often afraid to step out of the boundaries I grew up identifying around me for a different pace of life. 401Ks, preparing to send our kids to college, worried about retirement and dreaming a lot of a more peaceful, less tight life. All good questions. For me, not simple answers….but we keep asking ourselves and we always will. Till we figure some of it out lol

  • I agree that the recent debates have been too corporate focused and your post has left me wondering if this is where we women are doing ourselves a disservice (once again) by not thinking outside another box that was drawn for us to fit into… A lot of the debate boils down to how we measure success. I used to think that it was sitting in a boardroom with a bunch of men who considered me their equal. Now I see it as waking up every day with a bounce in my step and a lust for life.

    Your comment about being baby crazy now you have the freedom to bring them into the world the way you want to really struck a chord with me. I fear my ovaries are twitching in agreement…

  • thank you for this. as a non-parent struggling to ‘find balance’, i sincerely appreciate being considered. because while yes, i imagine it is much more difficult when children are in the picture (or, possibly, easier, as it may become easier to make a decision when it is for the good of your little ones and not just for you), i do believe that EVERYONE deserves a balanced life.

  • this is great. everyone (woman or man, parent or not) should read this and understand the importance of having a choice. work/life balance is so personal, who is anyone to judge the choice of another.

    • I did… I bought it last week and read it over the weekend, just to see what the hubbub was about. But this piece was inspired more by the backlash and the discussion around the book (which started well before the book even came out, then there was backlash against the backlash and so on) and sort of spiraled out from there, taking on it’s own life.

  • That’s what I like about AF – not just travel fluff, but reliably something most thought-provoking.

    In particular:

    “…just two degrees north of what’s comfortable.”

    Love this. But if you add 10 degrees, then you’d pretty much have my entire life.

    That said, I must say that as someone who’s led a decidedly “alternative” life (single mom at 30, hits the road w/ 2 small daughters, grabs a couple of degrees, starts her own int’l tour biz at 40, then dumps everything to start a wholly new (EFL) career in a g-forsaken rice paddy at 60)…

    I’m not sure I can even comprehend what this “lean in” business is all about. I guess you could say that I never bought into any of it, and have always soundly embraced “lean OUT”.

    True, my life choices and yours Christine, surely aren’t for everybody. But I guess I’m just a bit sad that more women (at any age/circumstance) don’t take the trouble to set their own course, and consider leaning OUT.

  • There’s an important book in this post, Christine. I know you are working on one but I wonder if there isn’t a separate, concise piece we need from you about just this topic … or perhaps we just need to somehow make this post go viral … you crystallize the issue of balance and make sense of it through your experience.

  • Bravo, well said. You covered all the bases. I think the words that sum it up best are, “I’m embracing the mess” and “Not everyone wants the same thing as you.”

  • What an incredibly insightful post. It’s rare to read something that doesn’t insult either working moms or stay-at-home moms, and even rarer to pose new questions, important ones. I work part time from home and am struggling to find balance because I never feel like I’m giving enough to my son or to work…and I sometimes end up alienated by both stay-at-homers and back-to-workers. Speaking of which, as someone who had a baby exactly a year before you (c-section as well), I have no idea how you managed to think this coherently let alone get it up on the blog! Anyway, I normally read via RSS but couldn’t resist commenting on this one. And congratulations – she’s beautiful!

  • I think there’s a terrible problem with context. There’s definitely a growing awareness of other options – but when you’re surrounded by a tightly-packed, steamrolling status quo, it’s really hard to get your head outside the box. The default cultural response in too many societies to the question “What don’t I have what I want?” is “Work harder”. And working harder is drowning out your ability to stop and assess. I really hate to see the sneering you mention, the “you have no excuse to not do [x] TODAY”, because it’s actually bolstering that status quo. In a sly way, it’s often saying “work harder”. The message is valid but the tone destroys its potential value, and even makes it part of the problem…

    I reckon deep down most people know that the “rules” (baby or career? Job or happiness? etc.) are a crock. But they don’t know how to stop and listen to themselves and to other people worth listening to, usually because of work. They literally cannot hear themselves think. And the messier the solution, the more thinking is required.

    There needs to be a mechanism for stepping away and thinking everything through.

    And, appropriately, it has a name that ends in “ravel”. 😉

  • Great post! I live in Costa Rica and have a 10 month old baby. I deal with this push and pull of work and child all of the time. I am always telling myself there has to be a balance but like you said I think it is just getting the the point where you are comfortable with giving up one more than the other and owning it and loving it. I feel like I at that point, I work part-time from home and will not budge on the part-time, I choose to be as involved as I can as a mom. Congrats on baby #2!
    Cheers~ Erin

  • Very eloquantly written post! And I love the photo…my son wears his Superman outfit everywhere (its actually his pajamaz, but that doesnt stop him from wearing it out).

    I agree work/life balance is a mess in the USA. Too many people work crazy hours, and miss enjoying time with their family. I think its the consumerisim culture…too much buying of stuff, too much debt.

  • I think the American mentality has plenty of room to evolve in allowing for valuing more than just careerism. Unfortunately the opposition has what seems like a decent excuse in that they accuse anyone of not working hard as being lazy. It’s weird accusation. It’s not like those people don’t have hobbies too, but any discussion of “maybe Americans should get more than 2 weeks off per year” ends with “you just want to be lazy” or whatever, as if taking a vacation with family is synonymous with a lackluster work ethic. Sigh.

  • Its amazing how you found your balance in your seemingly messy life. Sometimes when we cannot sort it out,we might as well ’embracing the mess’ and make the most out of it.
    traveling all around the world while raising children sounds like a crazy idea,however when you manage to do it successfully, it becomes a great idea.
    Originally there were no roads on earth, roads were created by brave people who were willing to take the first step. You are truly living your own way.

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