May 19, 2022

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Motherhood + career are possible: An interview with Lean In president Rachel Thomas

Rachel Thomas is the president of LeanIn.Org, a women’s empowerment organization inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Lori Mihalich-Levin of Mindful Return spoke with this awesome executive, entrepreneur and mom of two on Motherly’s behalf to find out how new moms can make the transition from working adulthood to working motherhood go more smoothly, and how millennial moms might learn from Lean In.

Lori: How did you get through this often stressful transition from professional woman to working mother?

Rachel: Like most women, I felt my way through it. It is hard to predict what exact challenges you will face when you go back to work, so I had to stay really open to trial and error and avoid fixating on a strict definition of what success looked like.

I’ve also been fortunate to have a husband who is a true 50-50 partner.

He was ‘all in’ as an active parent from the get-go, but I had to learn to get out of his way. My biggest realization was that I didn’t have a special parenting gene. I know his time with the kids is just as valuable as my time with them, and it’s liberating.

Lori: What advice would you give women who are now pregnant or on maternity leave about how to navigate the transition from working woman to working mother?

Rachel: First and foremost, let go of perfect. Women and men today spend significantly more time with our children than our parents’ generation did. Yet expectations of what it means to be a good parent have only gone up.

Parents—and I think especially mothers—need to stop holding ourselves to unattainable standards.

Second, mothers often face a “maternal wall” at work—they are seen as less competent and committed because people assume they can’t be good mothers and good employees. As a result, even well-intentioned managers make assumptions that mothers want less work and responsibility when they return to the workplace. To counteract this, have an honest conversation with your manager. If you still want big assignments, say so. If you are open to travel, be clear about it. If you don’t tell your manager what you’re up for, she or he may make the wrong assumptions.

And finally, form a working-moms posse! When you go back to work, ask the other women in your office who have kids out to lunch and set up a regular rotation to share your experiences. Better yet, start a Lean In Circle—a small peer group that meets regularly to learn and grow together.

Lori: What is your definition of the verb ‘lean in’?

Rachel: ‘Lean in’ means going for it in all areas of your life. Men apply for new opportunities when they meet six of the 10 criteria, while women often wait until they meet all of the criteria before they apply. Women need to close this confidence gap. We can’t change the way we feel, but we can change the way we think and push outside our comfort zone.

Lori: Can a stay-at-home mom learn from Lean In, too?

Rachel: Yes, absolutely. I use Lean In principles everywhere in my life.

Women do such amazing work outside the traditional workplace. They are leaders on school campuses, advocates for their kids, fundraisers, volunteers… you name it.

These are all situations where women can sit at the table, speak up and take the lead.

Lori: How can new working moms be leaders to those coming up through the ranks after them?

Rachel: Women can talk openly about the highs and lows of being a working mom.

Yes, there are tough days, but there are also incredible days where everything comes together and you are so grateful for your family and your job.

Younger women need to see how amazing it can be to lean in to both sides of your life.

Lori: Are there any other major cultural shifts you’d like to see that affect working moms?

Rachel: Our culture needs to celebrate women as leaders and men as nurturers. We need to get to a point where women and men can be their whole selves without fear of pushback. Breaking down gender stereotypes isn’t a women’s issue; it’s an “everybody issue.”