Leaning Out — Ever So Slightly

I burned my bra in the sixties (although truth be told, I hardly needed to wear one in the first place.) I fought for choice and women’s control over their bodies in the seventies. Birthing two children over the next decade came with the responsibility of lobbying for universal childcare. But by the nineties, I was so busy growing a business and raising a family, I had little time to fight for anything at all.

I leaned into my career in a way that no other generation of women before me ever has. Part of the early boomer generation, we had that perfect combination of mothers who wanted their daughters to achieve professionally what wasn’t available to them; women’s rights advocates like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dwarkin who assured us that not only could we have it all — it was our inherent right to do so; and husbands who were only too happy to have the burden of bread winning more equitably shared, especially because we still did the cooking and childcare as if we were stay-at-home moms.

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I leaned in. Full time. Flat out. Working as hard, as long and as smart as our male colleagues. (Actually, likely smarter.)

I grew up at a time when public discourse described the four-day work week, and “Freedom 55” — the banks’ advertising campaign that linked sound financial planning to being able to retire early, while you were young enough to enjoy it. What the bankers didn’t know is that life expectancy would increase dramatically, and that for many, there would still be another 25 years or more to enjoy the retired life.

Freedom 55 didn’t work out for my parents because my father passed away at 53, necessitating my mother’s entry into the work world for the first time, and having to stay there until she was in her 70s out of financial necessity. When I turned the corner of 55, I had just sold my PR company — a company I had built from the ground up — to Edelman, the largest PR firm in the world. Part of the sale was an agreement to stay on for at least five years before retirement could even be contemplated. And when that time came, I re-enlisted for a few more years.

I considered whether re-upping was because I loved my work, or because I worried about what it would be like to not work. This turned out to be a topic of conversation among almost every group of women I knew — women who had spent their entire adult lives in the workforce, in satisfying, professional, mostly well-paying work.

For some women, they continue to work because they don’t have the financial means not to. Others continue to work because their identity is wrapped up in their career, and like many men, they don’t know who they’d be or what they’d do without work. And for some, and I’ve learned this is the category that applies to me, it’s because we feel we’re at the top of our game and are still leaning in.

We just might not lean in quite so far, quite so full time, quite so flat out. In my case, I’m going to lean out ever so slightly and return to my roots of being an independent consultant — saying yes to work where I think I can add value, no to where I can’t, and taking the time to know the difference between the two. Whether I can pull this off is yet to be seen — because I haven’t yet left Edelman and I’m already almost fully booked for the next 7 or 8 months. Still, you have to start somewhere, and I’m excited about what lies ahead.