My first thought on hearing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s video ode to leaving work at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with the kids was “say it loud” and “it’s about time.”
Though it’s a little late for me, I understand colleague Krissah Thompson’s lament that by speaking up early and often, Sandberg could have been a more helpful mentor to young women embarking on their own juggling act of work and family.
I do believe Sandberg – spilling her “secret” now -- is lending a supportive hand and not just trying to make the rest of us feel bad.
But when I heard her talk about sitting down with the family at 6 p.m. after leaving work at 5:30, I wondered how she accomplished that miracle. I hardly see her ordering dinner at the drive-through. Does she have a cook or a husband who gets the pots on the stove and the roast in the oven? Is there a favorite gourmet-to-go as close to home as her workplace apparently is? Or does she cook up a storm on Sunday and freeze it for the week ahead? If that last one is the answer, it would really send me over the edge.
How Sandberg manages to be a super successful superwoman, with a full and fascinating home and work life, probably takes a lot more than a less-than-minute-long video clip could ever reveal. One part of the equation, I’ll bet, is that thing that many of us, men and women, crave and few have – flexibility.
She has the kind of job that may require e-mails late at night and early in the morning, keeping up with the round-the-clock young men populating her world. (Though she’s long since proven herself, I can’t imagine she’ll ever slack off.) But – on the plus side – that still lets her help the kids with homework and read a bedtime story.
The rest of us, hit with more mundane realities of layoffs and cost-cutting, would be a lot more reluctant to be the first to leave as disapproving eyes follow no matter if we started the day at 4 a.m.
Flexibility means choices and the ability not to have to make some truly tough ones.
I’m not complaining. As a working wife and mother, I created my own blueprint. I may have had to return to work when my son was 3 months old, but it’s also true that I wanted to, and I had it a lot better than someone tied to a clock or an assembly line. A newsroom demands long hours, but it can be flexible, too. If I had a school emergency or orthodontist appointment to cover, it wasn’t that big a deal.
I chose the life of an editor in those early years since it was more predictable. An arrangement with a mom who worked days and dad who worked evenings left my son needing only a few hours with a baby sitter to bridge the gap. It meant my husband and I didn’t see each other much, but that’s another column. Sometimes I think just having family pictures on my desk back then was kind of radical in a go-go newsroom filled with ambitious young men and woman; I concede that may have been partly my imagination and insecurity.
It didn’t hurt that my kid was flexible. When the dread holiday rotation rolled around he knew how to load a backpack with books and games and observe at a distance, though I owe an apology to the folks on The New York Times national desk for the year he hogged their holiday sugar cookies. He learned to appreciate the jittery joys of a newsroom on election night and the intangible perks of being in the know.
That deal delayed my life as a columnist, with unpredictable days and nights, but I don’t regret a thing.
I didn’t have all of Sandberg’s choices — but I was lucky and knew it. She can leave at 5:30 and good for her. But maybe the best advice she or anyone could offer is for women and men to drop the guilt trip, even as the minutes tick away. The secret is there is no secret – just doing the best you can with what you’ve got.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3