Lean In to Strength

When I started reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, I was preparing my book, Strength in Silhouette: Poems , for publication. As I read my poems juxtaposed to Lean In, my heart ached and my soul cried out for the women who have struggled as I have to embrace being in relationships without sacrificing themselves and their goals. I felt a new sense of purpose for my work to share the idea that women don't have to give up femininity to be strong or sacrifice marriage to be successful or deny our place in the world because it makes someone else uncomfortable.

Lean In begged me to examine my life. I took quite a long time to read the book, probably twice as long as it normally would have. I read a few pages, took some time to think about what I read, read some more, and sometimes went back and re-read passages. As I read through the poems under consideration for Strength in Silhouette, my thoughts repeatedly drifted back to Sandberg's words.

The ease with which we become complacent with where we are struck me hard. I pondered how often I've bitten my lip rather than ask for what I want. I winced as I remembered times I deflected praise from me to my husband or other men - or even other women - in my life because I felt somehow less deserving. I cringed at the fact that I put my husband's career ahead of mine time and again. I regretted that I turned away from everything I believed in college in order to keep peace. I hated that I gave up on the idea of equality for my own life even while believing other women deserved it. I excused it away as my choice, but that was never entirely true. I blinded myself to reality as I made compromise after compromise because I was "the woman" leading me to take on more and more of the traditional female role in my life. I ceased to feel authentic.

I subconsciously sabotaged my efforts at achieving my professional goals because I feared how my success would be received, how it would make my husband feel, how it would make my husband look. I took a backseat in my own life applauding his accomplishments and downplaying mine. I forced myself to appear and act weaker than I am more times than I can count in order to boost his ego or to look like a "good wife" in front of family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances... hell, even strangers.

For a while I was one of those women who thought I had to do it all. I had a job - not a career - but a job outside the home, I wrote as much as I could - the career I wanted, I handled the housework, the errands, and the cooking, and I managed our finances including my husband's 401(k), etc. I was exhausted, but I thought I had no right to say no. He made more money than I did.

Eventually, I quit working outside the home and turned my attention to my writing career, but I kept doing everything else including managing an active trading account. I took on even more responsibility. Every time he asked me to do something, I simply added it to my task list. Every time a friend or family member asked me to do something, I added it to my task list. I felt like I owed everyone around me. I was "the woman", so it was my "job" to nurture and support and help and encourage and... Well, you get the idea. So what if that meant I rarely had the time or energy left to dedicate to the things that mattered to me? So what if the longer this went on, the weaker I felt? So what if I no longer recognized myself when I looked in the mirror? So what if...

And, besides what right did I have to say no? After all, he was "letting" me write.

I remained terrified that if I was successful, it would cost me everything, no one would like me, I'd be considered selfish. I sold myself, even before I married, the idea that a successful career and a successful marriage were incompatible. I believed that if I had one I had to sacrifice the other. I tried to convince myself otherwise but never quite arrived there. Once I decided to get married, I put everything into making the marriage work at the expense of being the woman I wanted to be.

Eventually, a time came when I just didn't care about any of it. I had truly relinquished my strength, my power, my life. I'm not blaming anyone. I bought into the gender roles. A part of me found it easier to accept the role I thought society expected of me than to fight to be who I was at my core. Again, I felt inauthentic.

From time to time, I'd try on the "me" I felt inside. I'd embrace my inner strength and my ambition and all the things I knew I could be. I'd push hard to inhabit that woman. I'd fight for her until I felt pushed back into the role expected of me. I discovered the people around me weren't all that receptive when I tried to change my life in a way that made me less available in the way they expected me to be. I'd back off if I even caught a whiff of criticism or complaint.

I leaned back and right out of my own life far too many times because I didn't want to let other people down, because I thought I didn't deserve success, because I feared what I'd lose if I embraced the life I wanted.

I used to think it was just me, but in recent years I've come to think far too many women fall into this trap.

A couple of years ago, I'd had enough of feeling weak and less than. I started to remember a time in my life when I didn't feel like I "couldn't" do things. Over the years I'd come to doubt my ability to do even the simplest things as well as other people, especially my husband. I went on a quest to figure out when and how I lost my strength, my power, my sense of equality.

I remembered a time early in my marriage when my Mom told me I needed to stop being so independent and let him feel like a man. At the time (a very brief period of time) I made more money than him, and she blamed our marital problems on that. Her words haunted me for years thereafter. Note, it wasn't something he said. It was something my Mom said but not just my Mom. I heard the same idea from many of the women in my life I respected, the women I looked to to learn how to be a woman.

Relinquishing my power in order to boost his caused its own set of problems mostly stemming from resentment and in-authenticity.

When I started embracing my strength again and not hiding behind my husband, I really had no idea how to handle it. I poured my struggle into my writing. I wrote blog posts and poetry about the struggle to be the strong woman I always wanted to be, that I thought myself to be even when I was at my weakest. As I inhabited the strength hiding inside of me and finally decided to wear it loud and proud, my vulnerabilities poured out. I had to face much about myself and grow into the woman I'd struggled to be even as I fought being her.

I realized as I worked on Strength in Silhouette and read Lean In, I had allowed my strength to become a silhouette in my own life because I stopped leaning in. Never again.

From this day forward I vow to lean in to my own strength... I vow to lean in to my own life... I vow to lean in...


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