Don’t Cry for Me, Sheryl Sandberg
by Lisa Reifenberg Daniels ’94
And that’s after having a job most people only dream about — being a TV journalist for a major network! An MSNBC anchor and NBC news correspondent for The Today Show and NBC Nightly News. Let the ooh’s and aah’s begin.
I’m guessing Sheryl would like the first part of my story: middle class upbringing, Hamilton College (first in my class, thank you), Harvard Law School (paid off all my loans, thank you) and a great law firm job (how I paid back those loans).
Then I took a big risk. This is the part Sheryl would like. I changed careers and decided to do something I loved: journalism. So I left my big-time New York City law firm job, agreed to a 200-thousand-dollar pay cut, and took a local TV reporting job in tiny Elmira, New York. I was following my dream. I can see Sheryl smiling now.
Soon after reporting in Elmira, I landed a big MSNBC anchor job and became a correspondent for NBC News — The Today Show and NBC Nightly News. I was on national TV, with a six-figure salary and doing what I love. Yes Sheryl, I “owned my own success,” as you like to put it. Aren’t you proud?
But it goes downhill from there. Prepare yourself Sheryl. You won’t like what follows.
I got married and soon after, pregnant. Eight-and-a-half months later, I had a beautiful baby boy. He came early — five weeks premature. I had developed severe preeclampsia, a potentially fatal condition for both mom and baby. Some experts believe it’s caused by stress. Some don’t. In any event, I’m sure the travel and hours I kept with my 24/7 job didn’t help.
Then the big decision: to return to the dream job or not.
Sheryl, sit down. Brace yourself.
I tried to convince NBC to ground me, not fly me all over the country covering stories that end when they end. I asked them — begged them — to give me back my steady cable anchor job or let me cover stories that kept me in my hometown of New York.
They wouldn’t. They didn’t seem to live in your Lean In world. (Your point exactly, I know.) And so I took a hard, long look at the tiny baby in the Moses basket and knew what had to be done.
Sheryl, cover your ears. Close your eyes.
I quit. Then I cried. And cried some more.
Next, I did exactly the opposite of everything you would have wanted, Sheryl. I dissociated myself with everything and everyone in the industry. Cut off all contacts. With everyone — my former bosses, my colleagues, even my mentors. I didn’t want any reminders of a career I couldn’t have on my own terms. Heck, I even threw out the shiny golden Emmy award I had won. (Don’t worry. I put it in the recycling bin.)
And then, I did the unthinkable. Please, Sheryl. Don’t be mad.
I had three more children. Yes three. All full-term. All spaced closely together — two years apart. And I stayed home, without a nanny for most of those years. (Okay, by child four, I wised up and got some part-time help.)
Those were seven critical years, especially in my profession. I quit in 2007, just as the social media world was exploding. As a result, I have very little to show for all my years in the business. Trust me, I know. I tried Googling myself and found only a handful of references and videos of my anchoring and reporting.
So there you have it. The agonizing story of my seven years of Leaning Out, which destroyed a dream career. Undoubtedly a cautionary tale for your next book, The Dangers of Leaning Out.
But Sheryl, don’t write me off just yet.
I want you to know I have a plan. Not your Lean In plan for us women, but a plan I think works better for many moms. It involves resurrecting our careers from the dead with a few necessary modifications. Altering our careers so they fit into our new lives. For me, that new career is being a writer. A dream job of any journalist (and mom). Will it work? I don’t know. But I know you like that I’m betting on myself.
It’s true I would have gone back to NBC if my bosses had been more flexible. In a Lean In world, that would have happened. But in hindsight, it was one of the best things that could have happened. Turns out, I love being home. So do many of the moms I have met along the way.
And that’s the major point you don’t understand, Sheryl. Many women who Leaned Out wanted to stay home. We wanted to see our children grow up without the nagging work world trying to steal our focus from our children. That would have ruined it. Distracted us. Interfered.
Yes, we may have taken a break. Yes, we may have done things the “wrong” way. The hard way. The way it seemed it had to be when raising our kids. But I’d hate to think it’s over. Not for me. And not for the dozens of overly educated, intelligent and creative friends I have who made the same “mistake.”
And if the second act doesn’t work out, then guess what, Sheryl? Then I leaned out and took a step off a work wheel that wasn’t always so glorious. Because even on my bad days — the ones where I’m typing at my computer at midnight after putting four screaming kids to bed only three hours ago — I know I leaned into my ambition of being a mom.
And I’m happy with that choice, sacrifice and all.
Lisa Daniels is a writer, journalist, former MSNBC anchor and NBC correspondent. Her essay originally appeared on Huffington Post (July 23, 2014).