“Lean In” Is a Different Story When There’s No One to Lean On

by Barbara Ray


I finally got around to reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Her book is in many respect is the echo call of Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, which kicked off this debate of “can women have it all?” While I’m a bystander to this debate having opted not to have children, I’ve been struck by one thing: the assumption in each of these pieces that there are two partners raising the kids.

Sandberg talks about how she and her husband balance it. Slaughter also. The most recent addition is a quiet piece by Michael Winerip, a 61-year-old journalist whose kids are now grown, writing about “A Man’s View of ‘Having it All’”— or a short essay about his life as a stay-at-home dad / reporter for the New York Times. As he puts it, “My wife …anchored the first decade; I did the second.”

Ah, if such were the case for the 29% of U.S. children headed by a single mom or dad. I do tire of this myopic view of life in the United States.

As Knot Yet coauthor Brad Wilcox writes in Slate,

“Almost 1 in 2 babies—47 percent, to be precise—born to twentysomething women are now born to unmarried parents.

Hard as it might be for Hannah and Mindy [of “Girls” fame]—and their viewers—to imagine, most American women without college degrees have their first child in their 20s. These young women and their partners—who make up about two-thirds of twentysomething adults in the United States—are logging more time at the diaper aisle of the local supermarket than at the local bar.

In fact, twentysomething women now have the majority of children outside of marriage, which—given that 30 is the new 20—makes them the new teen moms.”


As we’ve written before, not all women are doing it on their own. Many are living with their boyfriend. But the odds are high that they will have a couple of stints between relationships when they will be on their own with their children.

Without acknowledging this fact, the conversation, whether sparked by Sandberg or  Slaughter or the blogosphere, then becomes framed by the struggles of parents who have each other to lean on. They might complain that dad doesn’t do his share, or that mom has to work the double-shift of work and housework, or whether women can or should try to have it all—that is, be a successful business woman and a happy mother. But it leaves precious little room for a larger debate about the even more stressed, and much larger, group– struggling parents further down the food chain, who could probably care less about having it all since they already have to do it all.

I’m not the first to note this of course. Here’s a balanced reply from Daniella Gibbs Léger in Essence Magazine.  Or there was Ann Friedman writing in New York magazine. And I don’t expect Sandberg’s book to take on all comers. This is her story from her vantage point after all.

But it needs correcting again.

So what would a conversation look like that started with the nanny’s life or the call center employee’s life versus the journalist’s life?

It might look like this:

It would start with an alarm clock ringing at 4:30 a.m. for mom, and a quick shower. She’d make the lunches while the kids slept until 5:30, when she’d rouse them for breakfast, a brush of their teeth, and a hustle out the door by 6 a.m. She’d probably drop the youngest off at a neighborhood day care operating out of someone’s home. She’d then drop the older child at her sister’s house, who would later walk all the kids to school. Mom would then head to the first of three bus stops to her job in the city’s better neighborhood, or if she were living in the countryside, she’d stop at the gas station and put a few dollars of gas in the tank for the 40-minute drive on empty highways to the larger town where all the jobs were.

Once there, she’d put in a full day of work, either tending to other people’s kids or calling people late on their hospital bills in a room with thirty others and a clock on the wall ticking down to remind them that they have only 4 minutes to get the result. If her son’s school called she wouldn’t be able to get away lest she risk losing her job, and instead the principal would label her as an “uninvolved” parent.

When she’d made the last call of the day or closed the day care door, she’d get back on the bus or back into the car for the reverse commute, collect the kids from the babysitter, pay a late fee again, and hope the car made it home before that “check engine” light meant business. At home, she’d throw the dinner in the microwave, and after the dishes were done, collapse in the armchair, too exhausted to help her oldest with his homework.

There would be no one to talk to about her day. There’d be no cheerleader keeping her spirits up. Only her to look back on the life plans that got away and to concede to a life that was not the one she’d dreamed of.

And her kids? The most resilient will have the grit and toughness to thrive, but most likely, they will struggle in school and act out and have a higher risk for delinquency and other problems down the road. Family scholar Ariel Kalil and coauthors (me included) wrote about this struggle in “Mother’s Work and Children’s Lives.” The book focused on low-income women, mostly single mothers, and chronicled their kids’ outcomes after the 1996 welfare reforms mandated work in exchange for support.

The researchers find that working per se doesn’t hurt kids, but when the job is a soul-draining, dead-end job with little flexibility and erratic hours—the type of jobs those with the least education often get— it leads to tired, stressed, and burnt out parents. It is the kind of grind that Sandberg and Slaughter and their followers know nothing about. They may be stressed and exhausted from the juggle, but it is not the kind of stress that leaves them empty and hopeless.

Strikingly, when jobs are not such a grind—when they have room for advancement, challenge the brain, or are more flexible—there is little effect on kids.

Some of this negative effect can be buffered with an income cushion. One interesting experiment, called New Hope, shows what a little extra cash—even in a less-than-stimulating job—can do.

New Hope offered low-income families (not necessarily on welfare) a stipend of about $125 per month, plus health insurance, and a child care subsidy of about $700 per month (back in the mid-1990s). It was this income boost, the program’s evaluation proved, that was responsible for the better behavior in school among the participants’ children, even up to five years later. As the years went by after the program ended, the kids were more engaged in school, they were less likely to have repeated a grade, and they were less likely to be in special education, and they had higher grades than highly similar children in a control group.

So maybe we should be having a conversation about family-friendly policies that include wage bumps for individuals who are among the most vulnerable—both men and women. Providing a wage stipend to men with the least education might make them more “marriageable” in the eyes of women, and providing such stipends for women might allow them to work a little less, spend more time with the kids, and bring some greater stability to their budgets, which can in turn reduce stress and improve parenting.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution mentioned this wage stipend in a forum last week on the topic. It’d be worth thinking more about. Families who are working hard at low-wage jobs, struggling to make ends meet and get their kids off on a good foot deserve the support.