Lean Sideways



This is how I like to remember it now, so many years later:

I am six and in as deep as I dare. I dive through filtered hot summer sun to check the shadows of clouds on a peeling, aqua-blue canvas below. A push of water to my right abruptly breaks my focus. I turn to see a girl much like me gliding past with big effort, on the wave of small brown arms and the legs of a lopsided kick.

She is precariously close to the abyss.

I hold my breath as she spins to look me straight on.

Her fish-like eyes do not speak, but I hear challenge, clearly.  

A moment later, she breaks jail, sweeping under the rope and into the deep end.

I do not have enough breath in me to think. Without adequate time to consider, I plunge in, sweeping my own brown arms and longer legs to follow her taunting kick to the other side.

It was a small moment, really. Why it sticks with me is this: I would not have crossed into the deep end of the pool had she not bumped into me and dared me to follow.

She caused me to exceed my brink, to cut the bounds where my comfort still touched the shallow. She set me adrift in the big, blue world, perilously close to the drain which lie below the 3-meter diving board, poised to haunt and swish in swimmers, at its whim, extracting them elsewhere, as simple as that.

And I swam.  

Fear of that drain kept me captive on the shallow side of the rope on all previous occasions. In that safe zone, I perfected somersaults where my head reassuringly scraped bottom. I practiced hand stands where my toes still peeked above surface. I dove to the shallow left field spying pennies more easily on the short side of the pool. 

On that day when I bumped into the bravest and strongest of girls, I followed her lead before I had time to think otherwise.

I thought of this incident in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher and in the wake of the conversational hullaballoo stirred by Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”

Having had little experience in the world of corporate board rooms and having seen 10 Downing Street only from a respectable distance of a little ways down and across the street, what popped into my mind was something that happened to me when I was six. In the midst of discussion about whether we do or do not like strong women and the perpetual need for women to lean in and lead, I remembered a little girl who tugged bravery out of me.

I remember her as being one of the first–in a list now a life long–of many females that led me on my way.  

I swam in the draft of other girls and women in the years to follow. My mentors were not Margarets or Sheryls, but I trailed plenty of strong women as they steered me right. And whether they delivered their message with kindness or grace or tough-minded zeal, they prodded me to go past the rope, they handed me courage when I was being sucked under and they gave me confidence with their gifts of attention.

I owe much of my life’s good moments to other women.

But I must say, and I suspect you might agree, we women can be very, very good critics.

We debate the worthiness of the differing roles we women choose and we compare the merit of the varied walks we women make.  We measure women who stay at home against those women who work, we compare women in the ranks with women who make it to the top, we consider women with children as different from women without children, and we measure ourselves, sometimes cruelly, by peering into the mirrors of other women. 

With Ms. Sandberg’s book, we might now measure women who “lean in” versus women who don’t.  She rightly encourages stick-to-it-ness and big effort while discouraging women’s tendency to hold back in board rooms or in response to big challenges. Women, she says, are caught in a catch-22: they can best eliminate external barriers (such as corporate culture and social policy) by achieving leadership roles—but until those barriers are gone, women can’t get into those roles in the first place. She calls it the “ultimate chicken-and-egg” situation. “Both sides are right. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.”

All good points in our continuing discussion.

But may I lean in to make one extra point? 

Shouldn’t we give more careful consideration to what exactly it is we are leaning into?

Given the collective angst in our world, is it wise to lean into tables around which status and strength is measured primarily in terms of power, competition, domination, growth and acquisition?  

What if we women lean toward balancing the table?  Why not use our time and effort and debate to shift our measure of success so that the big arrow that gauges our worth points much more in the direction of character, nurturing, wisdom and caring?

Women are half of the world and mother to the other half, after all.

I clearly hear the challenge in her fish-like eyes.


“It has always seemed strange to me……the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”

 —John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

I am adding one more very important link which refers to a book I learned about after I posted this:

I’ve just ordered the book 🙂 .  I think it sounds like it will add a lot to this conversation!

And if you missed the last two most beautiful photos at Through the Lens of We, here they are:

Flash and Flash Again

Simply Needed

83 thoughts on “Lean Sideways

  1. I appreciate your insights as well as the images you have painted. Here in my small town, some women’s organizations are somehow completely in a different world from others. Many women have let socioeconomic background/race determine with whom they will lean in and in fact could feel threatened by spending lots of time with women from a different background. Some churches might bring people together. But I think it takes constant awareness. Is this a public comment? If not I could easily supply specific names of the groups I mention… Love, Liza

    On Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 6:46 AM, winsomebella

  2. Beautifully expressed. When I first heard the title of Ms. Sandberg’s book I thought: why not stand up straight? Be above the fray.

    Clarity, balance and adaptability in any and all situations seems like a worthy goal. While leaning in & getting more involved in the games that boys play, doesn’t seem to me like the best way to measure success. I like your definition better.

    • I think the book I mentioned in my reply to Al above might be the better book to read…..I learned of it in a post my brother-in-law coincidentally wrote today in which he said something like—forget Lean In, read this! I just ordered it.

  3. I’ve never had the desire to lean in and become part of the power brokers in this country. I admire women who can. But it’s a shame that after all this time, we have to be exhorted to “lean in” when men should have learned to not stand so elbow to elbow, keeping women out.

  4. Poignant. Following the journey of that young swimmer pushing into the depths, experiencing her growth into a most successful writer (and photographer); she who could find words (or the perfect angle of the lens in the perfect light) to touch the essence, strength and quiet power of Woman. Well done! Beautifully executed! To me, success is being able to touch and dwell — and bring back some semblance of description — of the mystery behind us all. I choose your success and leaning sideways and peeking into the depths …. Gorgeous. Thanks.

  5. This is so so true and so well presented. Following in the wake of leading women will be familiar to many of us, and the dilemma between nurturing and leadership remains perplexing. I think we are deep-down afraid of our own potential for power (and so are many men).

  6. I didn’t know about the hullabaloo abut the book but will look into it. And you quoted one of my all time favorite books and authors. I need to read more Steinbeck in the near future. Thanks for the lovely post.

  7. Very insightful and thoughtful. On my “About” page on my blog page, I mention that I admire strong women. My mom always taught me to be a leader, yet also have compassion at the same time for others. I’ve had several women in my life growing up who I viewed as mentors as mothers and leaders. Phylicia Rashad (Claire on “Bill Cosby”) was the perfect example of a good women who was poised, feminine yet wicked strong! I always wanted to be a mom like her and I think I am with my only son. We have a lot of fun! Great blog!!

  8. I’m so removed from corporate culture now it’s hard to put myself into the ‘lean in’ mindset. However, I feel that I leaned as far as I could, when I had to.
    I think it’s always going to be a struggle for women, because we are nurturers by nature. The corporate world would benefit from having more women in positions of power, definitely! But, would the next generation be better off or not? It’s always going to be a balancing act, don’t you think?
    I love how you paint pictures with words Stacia! such a gift.

  9. I really related to this, Stacia. Our daughter is a consummate professional who is not only a leader, but a wonderful mother to our granddaughters. But I know she struggles with some of the issues you talk about. I’ll be sending her over to read this. Great post!

    • Thanks Al. My brother-in-law, a “truly” successful businessman and father of four fabulous daughters, posted just today a link to a book which I have just ordered. Sounds like it elaborates on the ideas I was trying to touch on here. It is called The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. Your daughter might enjoy 🙂

  10. LIke Barbara, I am also removed from that corporate culture now. I haven’t read “Lean In” but it sounds like one of the many books I would have read at the time I was fighting my way in. In an odd twist it was the older more established men that taught me the way to go while the young women tried to claw their way over me. When I got to where I was headed I tried to use what those wise men taught me to help the ones behind me. They still clawed their way over me. It was an overwhelming feeling of betrayal and sadness to realize that these young women that I gave opportunity and support to would so viciously cast me aside. I haven’t read any books that have ever helped me make peace with that.

  11. I finally found the comment button on here…several posts back I searched to know avail! Anyway, I too remember that rope that hung across the pool and that daring moment when I dove under and followed someone! While we women can be such caring and loving mentors to one another we also can be the harshest critics…what is it in the feminine that causes this…I don’t quite see it to the same degree in males, or perhaps it is that I focus more on the depth of female relationships.

    • I am sorry you had trouble finding the comment cloud—if I could figure out how to change that on this theme, I would! I guess some ” mean girls” grow up to be mean women but I think most grow wiser as they age. You are right about the depth of female relationships. Thank you.

  12. “Why not use our time and effort and debate to shift our measure of success so that the big arrow that gauges our worth points much more in the direction of character, nurturing, wisdom and caring?”
    I think this is what women have always done. The dilemma is exactly as captured in that Steinbeck quote (which I don’t remember- thank you for that). Those qualities aren’t measurable in terms of money or power, which are the usual standards for measuring success. And as a practical matter, it’s hard to pay the mortgage with caring.
    Very thought provoking post!

  13. Wonderfully said. I think the biggest issue with the Lean In campaign is Sandberg reaching beyond the boundaries she should be. Her book was targeted at women in technology and women in the corporate world, instead they chose to get greedy and claim that the new age of feminism has been established by her. And she is one of the reasons it will be alive and kicking. They got greedy by suggesting it be the bible for all women. She would have pissed off far fewer groups of women had she stuck to her corporate camp. I am one of those corporate women. And I have leaned in for the longest time. I had to quit the big bad corporate world and start my own company to truly lean ‘wherever’. And that doesn’t mean spending all my time on Facebook or email all the time!!! She does make some really good points though – again, targeted at my types!

    • Yes, her thoughts apply best to that subset and makes it harder to extrapolate to the general population. It sounds like you have good stories to tell :-). Thank you for visiting.

  14. Excellent and thought provoking post… too good, actually. It got you Freshly Pressed. Congratulations… but unfortunately you can no longer be a member of the “Never Been Freshly Pressed Club.”
    We will miss your valuable contribution to our organization. I will move your name onto the NBFP Alumni list. I am sorry, but we will not be able to refund any of the dues you paid for this coming year. The Treasurer informs me that he ate them all – and suggests a currency other than dark chocolate might be advisable.

  15. I was reading thinking ‘so good’ and then remembered I found this cos of you being freshly pressed so obviously it’s so good! 🙂

    Specially liked this ‘Women are half of the world and mother to the other half, after all’ – makes me feel quite strong reading that…

  16. well said! I like the concept of balance. Without the chicken, we wouldn’t have the egg and like wise=) Character is the moderator in my book..doesn’t matter if a woman is in the CEO of a major corp. or at home being CEO of her children. It’s important for both to have good character in order to succeed in their life’s call.

  17. I love the idea of bringing balance to the table. Despite what some may want to think, there are differences between men and women as well as differences within the sexes. What’s needed is for society to value those differences and the contributions that we can all bring to create a better world for all its inhabitants.

  18. I was just thinking about this today. Actually, I was thinking about how my leaning has changed. When I was younger, I’d lean in to secure most any cause, especially my opinion. Now days, I evaluate the situation and what “leaning” will cost or accomplish. I find I’m enjoying both my time and the results much more now.
    Lovely post.

  19. Awesome story. I love the image of you in the pool. I too was afraid of the deep end for a long time. So that struck a particular chord with me. I do think it’s unfortunate that women are so critical of each other. Being a mother is a huge commitment. But not having children is also a valid life choice. Neither is better than the other. Except for the person making the choice. And hopefully they choose what is better for them and get the life they want. 🙂

  20. I love the frame of the pool story, the way you describe one young girl “tugging” the other into bravery. And I love the way this makes me think — about values, ambition, what I’d like for myself, for my daughters. Beautiful and moving.

  21. This perfectly expresses how women can use their strengths. I love the question you pose about what we lean in to. And I loved the story of how the other girl moved you out of your comfort zone and gave you a moment that you can draw from even now. Loved this.

    • Why thank you Elizabeth. Glad you stopped in and found something that hit a chord. I had lots of fun remembering the pool incident—guess we all have those kinds of moments :-).

  22. I love how you brought a childhood experience and related to adulthood experiences, past, present, and future. You are accurate in stating “women are very, very good critics”. I wish women were not critical of self and each other. But rather, use that energy to better self and the world around, build up rather than down. I am analytical and driven, characteristics typical of a man yet are there for the woman as well. When we get beyond flaws, and with faith, we can fly!

    • We can be our own worst enemies for sure. I think the criticism of self is the worst and it ends up spilling out as criticism of others. Thank you for stopping in and saying hello 🙂

  23. Powerful post, Stacia. Makes me want to read that book. The powerful woman who encouraged me to be more than I thought I could be was Peggy, our principal. She urged me to apply for the position of dean. I told her I didn’t think I was qualified, and she said I was perfectly qualified. She wouldn’t let it rest until I finally applied for the job and got it. Loved this post, Stacia, and how you tied the message in with that childhood memory.

  24. Oohhh, so fascinating! I find myself at those tables all the time. But, it’s just not in my nature to lean in…which in itself makes me reflect. I MUST find and read The Athena Doctrine! Looks like I have some catching up to do here, winsomebella…

  25. Pingback: Saturday Edition – What We’re Writing and Reading | Live to Write - Write to Live

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