Despite some of the predictable criticisms of Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I personally found a lot of value in it, which inspired me to share my story.
To me, Lean In is really about going for it, in every way, no matter how you define your “it” – an empowering message that I think many people are missing. Leaning in is being fearless about your future and ambitious about your goals, but without over-planning yourself into a bind that ends up holding you back. Much of Sheryl’s success, and my own too, is about being nimble and trusting your instincts, even when it scares you to death and you aren’t exactly sure what you are doing or where you are headed. As one of my favorite DMB songs goes, “If you hold on tight to what you think is your thing, you may find you’re missing all the rest.”
I am sharing what leaning in has looked like for me in very specific ways. These are the five biggest decisions I’ve made in the last fifteen years that I believe have had a direct impact on my professional success, some of which are very personal and that I have never discussed before publicly.
Leaning In #1: Starting My Own Business & Picking the Right Man
The first time I really leaned in was deciding to move from northern California to Washington DC in 1998 to be with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Edgar and to start my own business as a copywriter for environmental organizations. That’s where EcoScribe Communications comes from, the domain I still use for my email today.
Before then, I held government and nonprofit jobs and thought that I would always work as some sort of public servant like everyone else in my family (dad, uncles and grandpa were in the Air Force; aunt was a librarian; grandma was a nurse; another uncle worked for a state legislature . . .) I wasn’t the first in my family to go to college, but I was the first to start my own business, and that was a little scary for everyone. Edgar agreed to support me for six months while I tried to make it work. The business took off, and he didn’t have to — which brings me to one of my favorite chapters in the book, about picking the right partner.
It may seem a bit retro to give marriage advice in what’s really a career book, but Sheryl is pragmatic and right on about this. Maybe it helped that we were professional colleagues before we started dating, but Edgar has always treated me like nothing but a full partner in our relationship. He would probably say that I demanded nothing less from the start, and that was part of what we found attractive in each other.
While I’ll admit that it was much tougher when our girls were itty-bitty and so much more physically dependent on me than him, I have never doubted his ability or will to parent our children. The man also loves to garden and cook and will clean house as much as I do (and more in the kitchen). We both have to travel away from our home offices for work, and the logistics of doing that with two kids is challenging, but we work it out together.
There is simply no way that I could have leaned in professionally if Edgar hadn’t leaned in as a husband and father. If you want to have both a family and a career, picking the right partner who will be there for you and your children in every way – and be willing to share in the daily exhaustion — is just as important to your professional life in the long-run as your education or early work experience. Edgar is my second husband, but I got it right this time.
Leaning In #2: Making a Difficult Family Decision
That’s not to say that we haven’t had our difficult moments. In late 2001, six months after getting married, we moved from DC to Edgar’s hometown in North Carolina in large part to help take care of his mom, Jo Ann. We’d already moved her into an assisted living center earlier that year after some falls and early signs of Alzheimer’s. We bought the family home place from her, and moved in to start our life there. The assisted living center was only a five-minute drive away, but Jo Ann felt like she was in exile, and she assumed that our moving to North Carolina meant we would let her come back home and live with us. Edgar, being such a good son, wanted to find a way to let her do that.
But I was adamantly opposed to it, and in retrospect, this was the second time I really leaned in. I was running my consulting business, which had grown well beyond environmental copywriting at that point, fairly sure but not certain that I could continue to make it work from rural North Carolina (I made sure I could get broadband Internet at the house before agreeing to live in it). We also wanted to start our family, and I got pregnant just a few months after moving.
Jo Ann was a bold and independent woman in her own right. We bonded early over teasing Edgar about something, which he did not particularly enjoy. I hated seeing her feel so trapped. I felt like a selfish wife and terrible daughter-in-law, but the mother-to-be and business woman in me knew there was simply no way that I could run the business, have my first baby, and take care of Jo Ann all in the same house, at the same time, while still adjusting to a new life in a small town with few friends.
Jo Ann cried often about wanting to come home and my chest still hurts when I think about Edgar telling her, “Not right now, Mom, maybe when you get better,” knowing she wouldn’t get any better. She passed away suddenly in February 2003, when our first born was three months old. I still believe we made the right decision, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t agonizing.
Leaning In #3: Hiring a Nanny
Fast forward to late 2005, with baby girl #2 on the way, when we decided to hire a nanny. Ava was a pretty easy-going baby, and I didn’t hire any help at all until she was almost six months old. But now she was three, and with a newborn on the way, I knew that I wanted to keep working full-time, and that I needed steady, reliable help.
Until then, we had made due with a series of college students helping with babysitting a few hours a day. We didn’t have the luxury of an extended family of caregivers who would keep the kids for free like many of the families in our small town. If we weren’t with the kids, with very few exceptions, we had to pay someone to be with them.
We hired Shirley, a woman in her 50’s, who treated this as her real job, unlike the students before her. For six years, she worked anywhere from 20-35 hours a week for us. It wasn’t much more expensive than daycare for two, and since I had a home office, I wanted them to be around. The girls are now 7 and 10, so we’ve since scaled back her hours significantly, but I trust Shirley with my children’s lives and they love her like family.
Hiring a nanny and paying the nanny taxes – like any form of decent child care — is not cheap, and that’s a huge societal problem that holds women back. But once again, Sheryl’s wisdom is spot on: paying for high-quality child care when your children are small is an investment in your future earning potential. Until the United States gets its act together on affordable child care, you’ll have to make the decision about paying for care or doing it yourself.
Hiring help allows you to keep growing professionally, rather than hitting the pause button on your career for several years. If you want to hit pause and stop working to take care of your children full-time, good for you. But I didn’t. I had a great husband, but to really lean in, I had to have a great nanny too. It was well worth the financial sacrifice to get us through the toddler years.
Leaning In #4: Starting Over, Almost from Scratch
Now comes the big one, where if I leaned in any harder, I would have fallen over and cracked my skull wide open.
Early in 2007, I decided to end a retainer contract with my longest running and biggest client that was worth about $75,000 a year. After almost nine years of serving as their de facto communications director, I was miserable working for this organization. When you wake up hating your job every day, and you work for yourself, you have no one to blame but yourself. I knew I had to make a change, no matter how drastic. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I talked about the financial implications, which were huge, with Edgar, and told him I was sure I could get more clients to make up the difference, but that it might take a little while. He told me he trusted me, and I should do what I needed to do.
I bought the domain NonprofitMarketingGuide.com on January 27, 2007, not exactly sure what I was going to do with it.
Over the next several months, I picked up several new, small clients and also invested more time in several e-commerce sites I had started in 2005, including one called Writing911.com, where I sold business writing tips, and another called NonprofitAnnualReports.net, where I sold an e-book on writing annual reports, which was a mainstay of my copywriting client work. (I have since shut down both.) I had also started blogging about nonprofit communications in late 2006.
By the end of 2007, I decided to transition my business from mostly consulting with a little bit of training to mostly training with a little bit of consulting. Affordable webinar technology was coming online and I started experimenting with webinars at the end of 2007.
By the spring of 2008, I was all in, launching a paid webinar series at NonprofitMarketingGuide.com. That fall, I met Katya Andresen in person, and in our hour-long conversation, she convinced me that I could write a book and offered to introduce me to both her publisher and her book agent, who within a few months became my publisher and agent too. I signed my book deal with Jossey-Bass/Wiley & Sons days before my 40th birthday, in March 2009. The Nonprofit Marketing Guide: High-Impact, Low-Cost Ways to Build Support for Your Good Cause was published in June 2010.
Leaning In #5: Taking on Serious Debt
The online training business, as well as my paid in-person speaking schedule, continued to grow. But so did our credit card debt.
I financed everything that happened, from dumping my biggest client to starting a new training business to taking the time to write the book, on six different credit cards. Everything that required cash — the mortgages, car payments, the nanny — was taken care of, but a lot of regular living expenses like groceries and diapers, and all of my business expenses, went on credit cards. Those monthly expenses didn’t get paid off immediately.
This whole time, Edgar had a job he loved, albeit at a nonprofit salary, so the hole in our finances was one created mostly by my decisions to lean in — to change my business strategy and to hire a nearly full-time nanny. And while we do not live extravagantly – we drive old cars and 95% of my wardrobe is from Old Navy, Marshall’s and Kohl’s — we didn’t live within our means either. We like to eat and drink well and to take an annual beach vacation, which we never missed despite the growing debt.
By the summer of 2010, the combined credit card debt for our family and my business expenses was over $80,000. And as a sole proprietor, it’s really all the same. Trust me, I wasn’t happy about it. I broke down in tears several times. We attempted to sell some farmland we own, which has its own mortgage payment, to relieve some of the pressure. But given the recession, the land didn’t sell (which we are actually grateful for now, in hindsight).
But I never once thought that I needed to give up on what I was doing or that I had made some terrible mistake. I always knew that at some point, these investments in my business — and trust in myself — would create some kind of breakthrough. I knew it. If I hadn’t leaned it, I would have lived a bitter life full of regret. I believe that to my core.
I knew it was a big risk. Everywhere I turned — the media, family, friends, even church — it seemed that someone was preaching about the perils of credit card debt and how stupid people were to rack up those kinds of liabilities.
I just sat there nodding quietly, knowing I was doing the exact opposite of what everyone said was the right thing to do. I felt constantly judged by people who didn’t even know they were judging me. The dialogue that came out of my mouth (“Oh, yes, that is so terrible that these people have charged so much to their credit cards! So irresponsible! So short-sighted!”) was in complete conflict with the one in my head (“I am trying to make some shit happen here. Back off, bitches. It’s going to work out.”)
I didn’t call it “leaning in” at the time, but that’s exactly what I was doing those four years — leaning in, and hard.
And it worked.
Registrations for webinars, paid speaking gigs, consulting clients – it all starting flowing in, the phone starting ringing with strangers practically begging to work with me, and by the end of 2010, the tide turned. My income went way up, and the debt went down. By the end of 2011, it was under $60,000. With both kids in school, we needed the nanny a lot less. I hired my sister, Kristina, half-time in 2012, allowing the business to grow even faster. I created some new offerings and business partnerships, and by the summer of 2012, the debt was under $40,000. By the end of 2012, it was completely paid off. Ta-da! It took more than four years to build up that debt and about half that to pay it off.
Leaning In Worked for Me
At the beginning of 2013, I hired Kristina full-time to help me keep the business growing. My second book will come out in August. I am more happy and relaxed and excited about the future than I have been in a decade. Leaning in all these years means that I now have a successful business that supports my family and my sister’s. And my credit rating is excellent.
At times, it has been incredibly stressful. Pregnancy and parenting toddlers were just as tough on me mentally and physically as transforming my business, and it was all happening at the same time. I don’t want to minimize the stress of those years and or the anxiety the debt created – it was significant. My path has demanded a lot of hard, hard work. If I didn’t have naturally low blood pressure, it might have killed me.
But my marriage and my kids are no worse for wear. In fact, I think we are all better for the experience. My daughters see a strong mother and a strong father who are a unified team in every way that really matters. They see their parents work very hard and care deeply about the world around them, but they also see incredible love for them and for each other. I know I feel stronger and more confident in myself at age 44 than I ever thought I would. I am five months older than Sheryl Sandburg, and while I am not the billionaire grown-up in the room at Facebook like she is, I can say that I do actually feel like a grown-up now.
I have no idea when I will need to lean in again as hard as I did during these five times, but I have no doubt that I will again someday. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing five months from now, let alone five years. Maybe it will all go to hell. But I don’t think so, and so for now, I’m going to sit back and relax a bit, so I’ll be ready to lean in again when the time comes.
My path is not your path. But I will tell you this: Trust your instincts. Decide what you want. Make it happen. Step up, and lean in.