Sheryl Sandberg has got it pretty good.

The 43-year-old chief operating officer of Facebook has a stellar career spanning two decades in the upper echelons of major American institutions and organisations (before joining Zuckerberg et al she held positions at the World Bank, US Treasury and Google), and is now ranked as one of the most powerful women in the world, earning a jaw-dropping £30 million in 2011.

Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg. Picture source: HarvardCPL Flickr.

All this, and she still manages to leave the office at 5.30pm most days to have dinner with her husband and two young children. She’s even there for bath-and-storytime.

And now she’s written a book, called “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”. In it, Sandberg says women must “learn to sit at the table” when it comes to the world of work and, perhaps most controversially, that women should not let having children become an obstacle to their career. That the more we demand working conditions that allow children to become part of our ambitions, the more quickly this will become part of the natural order.

Cue backlash, the tone of which Janice Turner succinctly summed up as “Well, it’s ok for Sheryl…”. She’s at the top of her game, earns an eye-watering sum of money, and doesn’t have a clue what it’s like to be a regular, work-a-day mum (I sometimes get frustrated with this kind of criticism. She’s an individual, writing from her personal experience – she’s not claiming to speak for all women. Would you rather she didn’t contribute to the debate at all?). But as the debate flowed, familiar battle lines were drawn – “the stay-at-home mums versus working mums” – and the conversation was wound up another notch on this side of the pond when research revealed one in seven women had been made redundant while on maternity leave.

Then in her Times column, Sarah Vine said that “for all the talk, we are still a nation that disapproves of working mothers”.

“You see it everywhere,” she said. “In magazines, adverts, on the faces of friends and relatives…it’s at the school gates…endless scare stories about how women who work are shrinking their children’s brains.”

Both Vine and Sandberg talk about working mother guilt, and I’ve seen this, quite acutely at times, in my own mum. She went back to work when I was six months old, did the same with my sister three years later, and has worked full time for almost our entire lives.

Her choice was partly financial, and partly because she wanted to continue her career as a solicitor, but she always seems to have borne a big burden of guilt. Even now, with my sister and I both grown up, and (I think!) fairly well adjusted, there are still times where she cannot shake the feeling she was an inadequate mother because she chose, or had to, work.

But here’s the thing – I wouldn’t wish it had been any other way. Before I set out why, let me say I’m not saying that deciding not to work is in any way the wrong choice. If the Sandberg debate has taught us anything it’s that every situation is different, with mums making their decisions based not just on what they’d like to do, but what they have to do given their individual set of circumstances. Plus, I don’t yet have children of my own, so couldn’t possibly judge what a tough choice this is.

But I think my mum has always felt that working crazy hours, getting up in the middle of night to squeeze in another 25 minutes of dictation, arriving home shattered only to have to play with two excitable under 10s, or referee between two screaming teenagers, before dredging up the energy to cook dinner, and falling asleep on the sofa before 8pm, made her in some way a bad role model.

Actually, she was a great role model. Not because she was some sort of superwoman who took it all in her stride (and if I wrote that she’d know I was lying), but because she worked a really stressful job, ran a home, worked on her marriage, raised two girls, and the strain of it SHOWED. But in showing that strain, in at times coming close to breaking point, she taught me and my sister that ordinary life can be hard (and that’s without crisis points like bereavement, relationship breakdown, or major financial worries), but we always find a way through it, we always survive.

My mum, sister Becci and me.
My mum, sister Becci and me.

She taught me patience, the value of maintaining your identity and interests outside of the home, and through our childcare arrangements (a combination of childminders, after-school clubs and the houses of multiple friends, god bless their parents) I was introduced to lots of other family set-ups, and role models entirely different to the ones I had at home.

As Sandberg said about writing her book: “We cannot please everyone all the time. We can’t even please ourselves all the time. So part of this process for me is learning to let go, and learning to do the very best I can every day and forgive myself and others.”

Whether we work or not, we’re all just doing the best we can. But what we need is to make sure women actually have a genuine choice – that employers and governments are putting measures in place that mean mums and mums-to-be are able to assess both options, not just be boxed into one.

Yes, it might be alright for Sheryl. But let’s not lose sight of that wider point in all the infighting.

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