Lean In: Make Your Partner a Real Partner

“We are never at fifty-fifty at any given moment—perfect equality is hard to define or sustain—but we allow the pendulum to swing back and forth between us.”

—Sheryl Sandberg

The PEW Foundation’s report (published May 29)  on “Breadwinner Moms” ignited a firestorm in the media and on blogs.

According to the report, “A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.” That figure is up from 11% in 1960.

Of the 40%, roughly a third (37%) are married and out-earning their husbands. Two thirds (63%) are lower income single mothers.

Both groups have come under firehigh-earning wives for outshining their husbands and allegedly abandoning their families and children; single mothers for being mothers in the first place, and the whole lot of them for pursuing a way of life that “could undermine our social order.”

In her article, “When a Woman Makes a Lot of Money and Her Husband Doesn’t,” Mary Kassian castigates the higher-earning wife marriages as the “alpha woman-beta boy relationship model.”  (Lobbing that grenade should do wonders for ongoing peace talks intended to end The Mommy Wars.)

I may be wrong, but I suspect Chapter 8: “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” might create a little heat over attitudes towards working mothers and changing roles in marriage.

Here goes …

Sandberg’s Take

By the time the PEW Report was released, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, was already flying off the shelves. Yet despite the timing of her book, Sandberg anticipates the rise in bread-winning mothers in this chapter and addresses the kinds of practical adjustments couples face in sharing housework and parenting responsibilities when both husband and wife are bringing home the bacon.

This chapter engages today’s reality for families. Couples don’t all following the same road map in the choices they’re making about home, family, and work. Sandberg doesn’t pass judgment or pit one family’s choices against another. It may surprise some that she so strongly defends the contributions of stay-at-home moms, but she does.

“I also feel strongly that when a mother stays at home, her time during the day should still be considered real work—because it is. Raising children is at least as stressful and demanding as a paying job. ” (p.118) 

If this chapter should cause anyone to squirm, it is probably husbands and dads. Yet, like Sandberg’s husband, more and more men understand they can’t have it all. They get the fact that a working wife and mother means figuring out new ways of parenting and sharing domestic responsibilities at home.

As she does in other chapters, Sandberg offers practical suggestions to manage this shift away from the traditional model. She cautions wives to avoid “maternal gatekeeping” (p.108) when husbands start to pitch in around the house. In other words, “let him put the diaper on the baby any way he wants so long as he’s doing it himself.” (p.109)

She and her husband find it helpful to decide which responsibilities each will take, instead of constantly negotiating tasks. (p.109) They’ve made it a practice to “sit down at the beginning of every week and figure out which one of us will drive our children to school every day,” describing her marriage as “a work in progress.” (p.111).

She argues rather convincingly that, far from taking a toll on children or depriving men of the freedom to kick back and relax when they get home, the partnership models is good for everyone. Kids get plenty of attention from both mom and dad, and dads (many who want this anyway) have greater opportunities and more time to invest themselves in the lives of their children. She even highlights stay-at-home dads (already 4 percent of parents) and the stigma attached to their decision. “Fathers who want to drop out of the workforce entirely and devote themselves to child care can face extremely negative social pressure…. It can be very isolating.” (p.114)

Benefits for working mothers are also significant. 

“For women, earning money increases their decision-making ability in the home, protects them in case of divorce [I would add or the unemployment, disability or premature death of her husband] and can be important security in later years, as women often outlive their husbands.” (p.118) 

The upshot of this chapter?

“As more women lean in to their careers, more men need to lean in to their families. We need to encourage men to be more ambitious in their homes.” (p.120)

My Take

I married a man who, from the age of seven, was raised by a single mom. That proved to be an unexpected blessing since my mother-in-law taught her four sons to pitch in around the house. Anyone who knows the James Gang wouldn’t dare call them “beta-boys” or would be sorry if they did.

From day 1 of our marriage, Frank ironed his own shirts and was quick to volunteer for laundry duty. To this day he rarely surrenders his post as dishwasher. During seminary, he even spent a year as a stay-at-home dad and came away from the experience agreeing with Sandberg: “Men who don’t get to do this are missing out!”

We never had that 50/50 conversation.

To be honest, I was relieved when Sandberg tossed the 50/50 idea as a worthy or even an attainable goal. I’ve always thought the 50/50 mentality sets couples up to keep score. The pendulum metaphor—reflected in her statement that “Each of us makes sure that things that need to get done do indeed get done”— seems to be a healthier, more flexible model and frees both husband and wife to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Overall, I liked this chapter. If anything, Sandberg is a realist. The world has changed. Women have changed. Our lives have changed. Inevitably, that means other changes will follow. She’s raising the right questions and offering helpful ideas for how to move forward.

Divvying up household chores, juggling parental responsibilities, and making sure we have enough bacon are important practical changes that may foster better teamwork. But they leave us talking logistics and fall short of producing the kind of deeper partnership that can make a marriage thrive.

Sandberg doesn’t take us far enough. But then, she probably never heard of the Blessed Alliance.

As I was thinking about “My Take” on this chapter, I had one of those conversations with Frank that reminds me of what a “real” partnership can be like. He was working on a project and started telling me about it. I was interested and began asking questions that sparked new thinking. It was one of those invigorating iron-sharpening-iron experiences where we enter into what the other other is doing, and something new and better comes from engaging one another.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes that kind of alliance—a real partnership/a deep friendship—as he lamented the death of his beloved wife Joy.

“For a good wife contains so many persons in herself. What was [she] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress, but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more…. Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left?” 

So What’s Your Take?

What challenges have you faced (or watched other women face) as a breadwinner mom? In your experience, how are working mothers viewed in the church? How can we, as Christians, set a different tone in the career versus stay-at-home mom debate among us?

And more to the point, how can we make progress towards forging that Blessed Alliance in our marriages no matter where we work?

Lean in with your comments!

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12 Responses to Lean In: Make Your Partner a Real Partner

  1. I made more than my husband for nearly all of my paid employment,though it ended shortly after our first child was born. He thought it was great. On the other hand, higher income, or any income at all, if you're not careful how you handle it, can be a kind of golden handcuff, cutting off a family's choices.

    The single-income family model is not obsolete. It worked for our parents (typical for the time), for us (about 50/50), and most importantly it still works for our children (unusual). But it takes deliberate effort and a decision to live on a lower income. I've seen too many women's desires to be home with their children derailed by having become accustomed to living on two incomes. (We insured ourselves against that by banking most of my income during those years — as a secondary blessing, that came in mighty handy when we wanted to buy our first house.)

    I'm firmly in the camp that we need to be encouragers one of another, whatever our career and family choices. What makes my heart grieve, however, is the number of women who have said, “I wish I could stay home with my children / breastfeed longer / homeschool but we just can't afford it” — because they made choices early on that cut off those options.

    I'm with you 100% on the benefits for all of greater involvement of fathers with their children. Despite being the family breadwinners, our sons-in-law recognize how important and difficult is the job of “home-making,” and are great at everything from changing diapers to fixing meals to teaching. They've even made choices enabling them to have more time at home than most fathers these days: one to develop his own business that can be done from nearly anywhere, and the other to live and work where he can bike home at lunchtime. Some things have improved over the “good old days”!


  2. Carolyn says:

    Ah yes. You are right, Linda. It can be done. It isn't by far a thing of the past. And more power to those who choose to manage on a single salary and men who bike home for lunch with their kids. I'm totally with you in hoping that “camp” of “encouragers” will mushroom as we learn to support others who are making different choices for all sorts of reasons. Thank you for saying that.

    Finances and lifestyle are not by far the only motives. Issues of calling, of facilitating the callings of others, of sacrificing for others, of stewarding God-given talents and giftings, of saving for kids' college, of philanthropy, the list goes on.

    I grieved when a brilliant cancer specialist dropped out of her practice to home school her kids—not because I didn't completely support and appreciate her choice and the terrible dilemma she faced in making it, but because her research and expertise are so desperately needed.

    There are tough choices all around. Which is why I take strong exception to alpha/beta labels being indiscriminately applied to this discussion.


  3. I have heard from hundreds of Christian Working Moms over the years. Some desperately wish they could stay home, but cannot for one reason or another. Many have felt tremendous guilt coming from the church. Women Bible studies are held during the day and MOPS groups are held during the day. Christian Working Moms tell me they need support too, why does everything for Moms assume they don't work outside of the home. So, I think churches could do a lot more to encourage all mothers.

    I'm also hearing a growing number of stay at home Dads in the Christian community. Those Dads are even more isolated than Christian Working Moms.

    My prayer for a long time has been all women and men, for that matter, would be supported in the church for how each family chooses to earn their income. We are to encourage one another and not continually judge one another because a family does something different than we do.

    Carolyn, I appreciate this discussion and it continues to encourage me to use the gifts God has given me. One final thought the idea of a mother working outside the home as being “wrong” is really a Western idea. In most countries it takes both parents working just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head. That roof could be a mud thatched roof with a dirt floor.

    May we build one another up in Christ instead of tearing down.


  4. Over the course of my ministry to women in the church, I have seen a shift in the past 10 years. We used to offer bible studies two mornings (with childcare for preschoolers) and one evening a week. Gradually those preschoolers entered school and moms began taking part time or full time jobs. No new moms rose up to take their place as they continued to work the jobs they had before children came along. Now we offer one morning class and two evening classes a week. Moms who choose not to work outside the home are becoming the minority.

    I posted two quotes from this chapter on my Facebook page (re: Sandberg’s stats that working mothers reduce divorce rates) and received nothing but “likes” and positive comments. And I live in a fairly traditional and conservative county. I am wondering if the alpha/beta labels are (thankfully!) slipping into the background in some spheres?


  5. Carolyn says:


    At least part of the reason for guilt feelings and habitual unhappiness about being in the workforce comes from believing work outside the home takes a woman outside God's true plan for her as a woman and is second best.

    God doesn't work in little boxes like that. Until we start to grasp God's freedom and creativity in leading us into all sorts of different callings and venues, we are unable to embrace his unique purposes for us and are prevented from becoming true partners/ezers with our husbands. I was miserable as a young wife in the workplace until God opened my eyes to see that.

    And please add an exclamation point behind the statement your final thought: “the idea of a mother working outside the home as being 'wrong' is really a Western idea. In most countries it takes both parents working just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head. That roof could be a mud thatched roof with a dirt floor.”

    I fear our western evangelical anthropology doesn't translate into other cultures and scenarios very well.


  6. I'll admit great ignorance of most of the cultures in the world, but one critical difference I have observed in other countries is that even where it is the norm for both parents to be earning money, life is much more home-centered than in the U.S. I'm not just talking about agrarian societies where men, women, and children might be working in the same fields, but also very-western France, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, where I have observed children walking home from school for lunch (as I once did), and their parents coming home from work for the same purpose.


  7. Carolyn says:

    “Home-centered” is a relative term. Yes, there are many families where everyone works together and the bonds are strong. That was true of a Rwandan woman I was with over the weekend who described 6 years of her life living in Ugandan refugee camps. Family bonds were probably stronger than what we'd settle for here, but the conditions were appalling, they had bug infested food, and time together was hardly what comes to mind when we think of “home” and “family.” But trust me, her mother, my friend and her 4 sisters were all living out their callings as ezer-warriors! It was amazing to hear her story.

    It's so essential to think global–really global–and to stress test our ideas within that larger context. Helps us boil down our theology to the basics that include everyone. Very illumining.

    Thanks for your comments, Linda.


  8. I just heard Lisa Endlich Heffernan on the Today Show (6/20)http://www.today.com/video/today/52262542#52262542 talk about her recent article in the Huffington Post, “Why I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom”. Interesting. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grown-and-flown/why-i-regret-being-a-stay-at-home-mom_b_3402691.html


  9. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for the link Eva. She highlights the fact that there are trade-offs no matter which path you choose. I think everyone would agree. Interesting.


  10. As much as I wanted to think about the academic implications of this, or the deeper possibilities that Carolyn's questions led us towards at the end, or use phrases like “western evangelical anthropology” in my comments 🙂 this chapter just got me thinking practically and personally.

    I'm relatively newly married and we've worked hard towards an equitable distribution of labor. Like Sheryl, we've found it helps to have duties assigned to one partner or another. If you're alternating who is responsible for dishes, or cleaning one week, it's too easy for someone to let it go until it's not their turn anymore (I learned that one living in a group house with 5 other women!).

    Then we had our first child 7 months ago, and it's a whole new ballgame. We're trying to negotiate life between sleep deprivation, work commitments, and biological realities.

    I'm in the middle of the intense physical labor of an infant and it's hard for me right now to get my full motivation up for career opportunities. But I also recognize what Sheryl says that “every stage of life has its challenges.” My husband and I are both trying to figure out a way to line up our careers so we can be available as parents for the next 18 years (and beyond, of course). These early years are important, but I don't think it's any less important to be available for a tween amidst middle school angst. And we both feel a strong call on our lives to work, to contribute our professional gifts to the world. So we want to figure out how to do both well. (I'm looking forward to the next chapter on “the myth of doing it all.”)

    I'm sensitive to making sure household tasks are distributed reasonably not only for our sake, but also for the sake of our son – he is going to be deeply influenced by what he sees each of us doing around the house. But this conversation goes much beyond who does household tasks and into how to make sure both partners are having the opportunity to live out God's call on their life. It is even more important for my son to see that both his father and I value each other's callings and contributions to the family and the world. It's way more than just whose turn it is to do the dishes.


  11. My husband and I have taken turns as “bread winner” over our 7 years of marriage because he's been in seminary most of that time. As long as our bills get paid, I don't care who's making the greater salary. I used to do the lion's share of the housework/childcare (and still do since I'm currently on maternity leave), but with 4 kids 5 and under (including infant twins), my husband has taken on some chores and will continue to do some when I return to teaching in the fall. I do most of the baby care and want it that way since exclusive breastfeeding is important to me.

    Unfortunately, I have rarely been able to attend women's events at our church. There is an evening Bible study for thoe of us who work, but there's no childcare. At different times my husband has worked, been in class, or had to study at night; and we can't afford a babysitter. Other events are held on Saturdays and it's assumed dads are home to watch the kids, but my husband has worked Saturdays for most of our seminary time. A single mom would be excluded from these activities as well. No one means to exclude them, of course, but I have been disappointed to miss out.


  12. Carolyn says:

    Elizabeth and Heather,

    Your stories sound a lot like Frank's and mine and the challenge of two callings and minding the home front. And yes, it is taking the church a long time to catch up with what's been happening for years, although a lot of churches are wrestling with how best to reach out to women and some groups are doing a great job of keeping up with the changes. We've had panel discussions at Synergy conferences about how ministry to women needs to adapt to the changing and varied lives of 21st century women and girls. It's a great challenge, and I hope will provoke hard questions and produce the kinds of creative solutions that are needed.


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