Lean In Or Recline Back?

I have read many articles about how women should approach work and I have just one word for my feelings: enough.

Enough of this constant whipsawing between Lean In and Recline Back. Why haven’t we figured out that there isn’t one answer? Why do we insist on arguing the rightness of one position versus another? Why do we let ourselves be guilted twice, once because we work too much and a second time because we don’t work enough?

Come on, ladies. We’re smarter than that.

Every woman in my professional and personal circles is intimately familiar with the limits of time and the challenge of prioritization in their lives. I see them make hard choices every day between important aspects of their lives. I’ve watched a woman take a fellowship that will open doors for her professionally but will keep her on the road Monday through Friday for years away from her children. I’ve watched a woman who always planned to have a career decide to exit the workforce to be the primary caregiver after her second child was born. I’ve watched a woman work holidays to get two weekends off in a row to attend her child’s collegiate sporting events.

I’ve watched friends and colleagues navigate graduate school, parent care, child care, long distance relationships, international transfer, infertility treatment, medical emergencies, job transfers, layoffs, divorce, dating and tax season. And you know what I saw in every single instance? Great women living lives of purpose, making trade-off and hard choices with grace.

Each woman that I know is living a unique experience under different circumstances. To say that any one of them is doing it wrong is so simplistic as to be laughable. There are hundreds of variables (including professional aspirations, financial well-being, field of work, marital relationship, life stage, etc.) that have impacted their decision making; change one criteria and each of them might have made a different choice. They have made different choices.

And that is why I reject the idea of either Leaning or Reclining. I’d rather SWR: Swivel without Regret.

Choosing SWR over Leaning In or Recling Back is about picking flexibility. It recognizes that no single action or choice defines you, and it empowers you first and foremost to listen to the little voice in your head. The one that tells you that what you are doing is right or wrong, the one which nudges you when you need to be nudged or reinforces you when you need to be reinforced. In my experience, the little voice knows the right answer before you even know there’s a question.

Maybe I like the SWR mindset because it’s worked for me. If I had tried to operate as either a Leaner or Recliner, I would  have walked away from great professional opportunities or missed personal moments of zen.

When I chose to leave a high-octane career in industry it was a big deal. I had been leaning in hard since making the choice to go to graduate school and pretty much every choice I had made since then was a choice to lean in. And then one day, that voice in my head started to point out evidence that maybe I was leaning too far. Eating fast food on the drive home and arriving with just enough time to tuck the kids into bed. Getting angry when they would ask for another bedtime story. Falling asleep on a toddler bed or on the couch without even realizing it was happening. Mandating “No Cook Friday” so we could eat together one day a week.

The voice poked at me and said, “Yes, we know it’s working for you professionally, but is it what you want? Is this the life you want?”

When I made the decision to recline back, taking a less demanding, lower-paying job in public higher education, people thought I was crazy. My closest professional friend and mentor took me to lunch and tried to talk me out of it. My successful female boss took me for drinks and tried to talk me out of it. My husband even tried to talk me out of it. Didn’t I realize how capable I was? Not everyone could lean in, so why the hell would someone who could do it choose to recline?

It was the voice that reassured me that I was smart enough to know what was right. Maybe not forever, but for now.

For six years I went down a different and slower path. I ate more meals with my family. We went on more sails and bought season tickets to hockey. I was cookie mom and went to Girl Scout camp. I had dinner once a week with my grandfather after my grandmother passed away. In a hundred different ways and moments I shifted the equation, choosing to recline back. It was the right thing to do, until it wasn’t. The voice spoke up again, “Hey, I think it’s time to lean in again. The kids are older, more independent. It’s ok.”

I swiveled again.

Because of my experience, I try not to suggest a right way for anyone. Even people who might be natural Leaners or Recliners have a right to embrace an SWR life. So maybe I do believe there is a right way — swivel, as much or as little as you need to. Don’t let someone else tell you what is right for you and don’t regret listening to your voice.

Your voice knows what it’s talking about, even if it’s not a bestseller.

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Middle-aged business exec who had aspirations of being a writer someday. I believe that lifting people up through authentic and vulnerable storytelling creates connection and possibility. My story may not be the most inspiring, but it is the one I know the best and have the right to share.

2 thoughts on “Lean In Or Recline Back?”

  1. Brilliant. We cannot judge another’s choice. We all choose to SWR based on our own situations and best judgment. We are fortunate we have options.


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