Single Mothers Striving for Success in the Professional World

Ever since I read her recent best-seller Lean In, a critical book for everyone seeking a seat at the table (men and women alike), I have been wrestling with something Sheryl Sandberg said:

“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.  I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully –and I mean fully –supportive of her career.” (Lean in at page 110.)

I was raised by a single mother, and I am a single mother, and those words blasted me.  I read and re-read Sandberg’s message.  I ached.  I still do.  What of the thousands of women seeking success (not just hoping for parity but wanting to lead and influence society), who do not have partners –let alone partners who are supportive of our careers?

I fervently hope, with every bone in my body, that my children will make that critical career decision Sandberg talked about, successfully.  I hope they make the right choice, one that lasts a lifetime, finding partners who support them on paths that allow them to do good and to do well, to be successful and happy, and to make the world a better place while bettering themselves and their families.  I wish to see them with a partner who not only supports but uplifts.

But…. the hard truth is that many don’t have that choice.  We cannot turn the clock back.  Our reality makes it such that our decision is either to give in to the pressures (the very real and exhausting pressures) that make it nearly impossible to be in several places at once, or to hang on and hang in and fight –to fight with every bone in our bodies and spirits to simultaneously seize our seat at the professional table (boardroom table, or counsel table, the podium or wherever the power position is) and our seat at the head of the kitchen table.

To say this is not easy is an understatement, but because there are so many of us in this position we must continue this conversation.  We cannot back down and stay quiet because we were not lucky enough to have made the right choice. (And, I do believe there is a fair amount of luck in that choice one makes, often in her 20s.)  We battle not only the stereotype threats and confidence issues Sandberg discusses, but on top of those we also battle day-to-day issues including but not limited to finding the time to be excellent parents and powerful professionals, navigating visitation or shared custody issues, coping with pressure from extended family and friends who all have opinions (some helpful and some critical and hurtful), helping our children thrive within “broken” families, dealing with and paying for litigation and/or mediation in divorce and family court fights, and, for some, in the midst of all that, trying to date!

Since we do not have partners, we must talk about how we, who are single professionals seeking to lead, ask for and receive the support we need from other sources: the village (if we have one and if it’s supportive –big topic and more posts to follow on why the villagers are not always so supportive and what to do about that), and perhaps absorbing the cost of hiring support (and what that means).

Our voices are important.  We must continue to be heard.  Our seat at the table is important.  Future generations were raised in our homes; we must speak up and speak out, no matter how hard it is and no matter how tired we may be.

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