Michelle Obama on leaning in: “That shit doesn’t work all the time”

No, it does not.
No, it does not.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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Since the publication of her blockbuster memoir Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama has spoken with refreshing candor on everything from falling in love at work to the life-changing magic of marriage counseling.

So it was equally delightful when she pointed out the flaws with the “lean in” philosophy, in the same language many of us use while racing to daycare pick-up or holding things down during a spouse’s business trip.

“It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time,” Obama told a ticketed crowd at the Barclays Center in New York yesterday (Dec. 1).

She apologized soon after for the unguarded language: “I forgot where I was for a moment.”

The phrase “lean in” was popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. In her book by the same name, Sandberg encouraged women not to voluntarily scale back in their careers under the assumption they wouldn’t be able to combine work and family.

Obama isn’t the first to point out the limitations of Sandberg’s signature motto. Early readers of the book, even those who admire Sandberg, noticed that the book failed to address the structural obstacles that keep working mothers from the uppermost echelons of their fields.

“It is hard not to notice that her narrative is what corporate America wants to hear,” wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter, who herself went on to pen a manifesto about work-life balance. “For both the women who have made it and the men who work with them, it is cheaper and more comfortable to believe that what they need to do is simply urge younger women to be more like them, to think differently and negotiate more effectively, rather than make major changes in the way their companies work.”

Marriages, too, are institutions that need changing if everyone is to thrive in them. During her book tour, Obama has spoken often of the tensions that arose in her own marriage during the early years of child-rearing. “When you get married and you have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets upended,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “Now I’ve got two kids, and I’m trying to hold everything down while he’s traveling back and forth from Washington or Springfield.”

She and former president Barack Obama faced the realities many ambitious dual-career couples encounter: No matter how badly everyone wants it, there are simply not enough hours in the day for both parents to pursue full-time careers to the hilt, and to give their children the care and attention they need. Something has to give, and the constant negotiation over who will sacrifice can be exhausting—even for an Obama.

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