Losing My Husband Taught Me How to Lean In

The writer believes Sheryl Sandberg's book gave her the language to describe her experience as a young widow. Can it do the same for the Facebook COO?

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In the winter of 2000, I was an aspiring history professor seeking the holy grail of the academy—a tenure-track job at an Ivy League university. I was 33, and six months pregnant. Thanks to the carefully orchestrated black pantsuit I wore for my interview, I just looked a little dumpy. My husband had died just four months earlier, and I wanted to hide that from my potential employer even more. I still wore my wedding ring and the only thing holding me to the Earth was the son I was carrying in my belly. I had a one-in-three chance of getting the job. I’d already mapped out my day-care options, so I could be ready if the offer came. In the end, I didn’t get it, and in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise. How would I have been able to handle a high-powered job and take care of an infant alone? That’s when I walked off the tenure track.

I knew I was going to need a lot of help raising my son, and moving across the country for a job (which is how it works in that line of work) meant we’d be alone. If it was going to take a village—and it has—then I was staying in mine. After my son was born, I didn’t really think much about my professional future. The only thing I could tell myself was that I would figure it out. I took teaching positions at the bottom of the academic ladder, trading prestige and pay for flexibility. I wrote at a snail’s pace, but I wrote. I made sure I had the fullest-time day care I could afford. I had a deep bench of babysitters, and help from family and friends. And by the time my son hit first grade, I had the support of a new partner. I was also fortunate to have an easy-going and intrepid child. At 9, he trundled happily off to sleep-away camp for a few weeks, and for the last 5 years I’ve used that precious time to finish the book I started before he was born.

There are words now for what I was doing in those years, words that have been on my mind a great deal since this weekend’s heartbreaking news that Sheryl Sandberg has lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, a man who was deeply devoted to her and was her remarkable partner in showing the world what a marriage of equals looked like. It’s called leaning in.

There are more than 800,000 widows between the ages of 25 and 54 in the United States, according to the 2013 census. And chances are, if you’re one of them, you’re leaning into one of the biggest economic and emotional challenges that a woman could face. 

Think about it: Women between 25 and 54 are often building careers and raising children. Many are working and trying to figure out how to balance a two-career partnership. Others have dialed back to part time or off-ramped until their children are in school. Still others are stay-at-home mothers. Losing a spouse can make us doubt those choices as we try to rebuild our lives. And we are unprepared for their consequences once we are alone. If you’ve depended on precision scheduling to be sure that one parent can be with the kids while the other is working, it’s excruciating to be torn between work and your kids when you’re the only parent. If your career took a back seat to child-raising, or you depended on your spouse as the primary wage-earner, then suddenly needing to work full-time to support your family presents a monumental transition for yourself and your grieving children. Lots of us downsize to smaller houses or trade high-powered positions and top-dollar salaries for more flexibility—and lower pay. Some of us take time off. Others of us go back to work as soon as we can.

Sandberg’s book—the full title is Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead—was the object of so much criticism I almost didn’t read it. But a year after it came out I was tired of making so little money, and with my son almost in high school, I was ready to make a move. Sandberg’s concept of a career as a jungle gym—instead of a ladder—where there’s more than one way to get where you want to go, reassured me. Maybe I could do this. I kept reading. Take a job with the greatest potential for growth, she advised. I reached for it.

Lean In is an unlikely self-help choice for a widow. The book is primarily a primer for navigating something that so many women want but struggle to balance—meaningful work, a partner, and a family.  No one aspires to being a widow.  Enough people have said idiotic things to me for that to be crystal clear.  But reading the book helped me see myself differently, to take more credit for what I had accomplished, and to fret less about the-career-path-that-might-have-been. That, in turn, allowed me to lean in even more to the essential aspects of my work that I’d fought so hard to preserve, and even launch, when I was the newly widowed mother of a small child. I realized I had lost my husband, not my agency. 

I can’t speak for all young widows, because we are all so different, and grief is never the same twice, but Lean In’s message of self-empowerment helped give me language to describe my experience as a widow.  I decided fifteen years ago that I would not lean back from my loss, as painful as it was to face it head on. Pretty much every day I lean into it and it teaches me remarkable things about myself and about the incredible people who are my friends and family. I lean in every time I figure out how to be the parent I want to be and not give up on the work I love. In that way, I’m no different from any American woman between the ages of 25 and 54.

In the wake of Lean In, Sandberg and Goldberg’s marriage became a profoundly public one. Refusing to opt-out wasn’t just women’s work. She spoke with deep appreciation of Goldberg’s support of her career, and he was so obviously proud of her success. They also had an institutional message to deliver: more family-friendly workplaces made sense for the corporate bottom line, for men and women. Goldberg, a well-respected tech executive in his own right, made the case for workplace flexibility on Glance at any number of pictures of them as a couple and it’s clear how much they loved each other.

Now, in light of a very public marriage comes a very public loss. One of the things I admire about how Sandberg has engaged American society on the subject of gender, work, and ambition is that she has spoken so candidly about how she doubted herself at key junctures in her career. She has been equally forthright, tender even, about how her husband’s faith in her was crucial to her success. This absence, this loss of the friend and partner who believed in you more than you sometimes believed in yourself, this is the heartbreak of losing a spouse. 

Many times I’ve wondered what my husband would think about the life I’ve made for our son and me without him. He was deeply invested in my professional success, which, had he lived, might have taken me down a more conventional path. He softened my anxious edges and soothed my fears. That in turn helped me propel myself forward.  Alone, I charted a new course, and faced down those fears. Leaning into life without him has been full of fierce improvisation and it’s all built on the foundation of our marriage. Even as changes have unfolded before me all these years later, the comfort of his faith in me, and the strength I draw from it hasn’t ever waned. It’s still right there, whenever I need it. 


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