On not leaning in, but not leaning out

colourful sketch of a woman sitting cross-legged holding a sun in one hand and a moon in the other

By Brianne DeRosa

Part I: Working

Today, I am well-loved and inadequate. I wake up to the exhausted face of a man I’m startled to recognize as my husband. With two small boys, a surprisingly demanding guinea pig and two full-time jobs, any face time we get typically includes one or both of us being asleep.

By 10 a.m. I have managed to keep all four of us moving in what I think is the right direction—out the door—and now I am sitting in the awkward cubicle that I’m tethered to 40 hours a week. While I’m tamping down the urge to chew off my own arm so I can legitimately request a sick day, the one thought that persists is that my sons are not here with me. And I am not at home with them.


At some point a smart, ambitious and child-free friend eagerly talks to me about “Leaning In” to advance my career. It’s around this time that my boss tells me frankly, that while my work is “excellent,” she doesn’t know how to motivate me to “do more” because I don’t seem to want advancement.

I don’t know how to respond to either of them. I don’t know how to tell the boss that she’s right—I don’t want advancement, or at least I don’t want the complicated calculus and political game-playing that comes with advancement. I want to ask her what’s wrong with simply wanting to do a good job each day and go home without guilt. But it’s clearly the wrong thing to say. I am supposed to be leaning in. And I don’t know how to tell her, or my well-meaning child-free friend, that the only leaning I want to do is in whatever direction holds a surface suitable for napping.

I want to ask myself, sometimes, where my ambition has gone.

Part Two: (Working from) Home

There are thirty-two—THIRTY-TWO—mismatched socks underneath the couch. I have stopped asking why.

I ball them up in my arms as best I can while I cradle the phone between my shoulder and ear. I drop about seven of the dusty artifacts on the way into the kitchen, where the rest get dumped unceremoniously into the basket that holds a too-tall pile of slightly smelly, slightly damp kitchen linens. As I pivot away from the basket I avert my eyes from the egg-yolk-crusted pan on the stovetop and focus on the screen of my laptop, perched on my standing desk, otherwise known as the breakfast bar.

Somebody’s pounding on the door. I hit “Mute” on the conference call and carry the phone with me to the door, where I stand glaring at the solicitor with the clipboard, holding the receiver—on speaker—up to the screen door. I don’t have to say anything. He goes away, and I am left to focus on the afternoon’s work. I can work uninterrupted until 2:15. That gives me…Forty-five minutes.

The dog wags his tail at me and looks expectantly at his leash. The conference call ends, followed seconds later by a call from my mother, who has been beeping in on the other line for the past 20 minutes to ask for a recipe she needs. I send an important email, finish drafting a file.

And make a mental note that if the basket of laundry doesn’t get done by the weekend, I’ll need to head to Target for new dishtowels. And, apparently, socks.

Part III: Goals, Maybe

“You’re crazy underpaid,” my client’s Board Vice-Chair tells me cheerfully. “You’ve gotta do something about that.”

I stare at her for a moment, paused in the act of cleaning up from a consulting session I’ve just finished. I am underpaid, though naively, I didn’t realize by how much until recently, when another client casually mentioned to me what other freelancers are charging for providing far less than I do. I have no idea how other people know what they’re worth. I can only guess that they were all leaning in the right direction while I was pulling socks out from under the couch.

I want to ask her why, as a person with the authority to pay me more, she doesn’t.

Then I study the meaning behind her smile and remember that I’m supposed to be ambitious and want advancement.

But I can’t ask about advancement right now, because it’s a 90-minute drive to the kids’ school and if I don’t leave now I’ll miss my chance to grab a taco to eat in the car, skidding into the parking lot two minutes before pickup time with cilantro in my teeth and guacamole stains in my cleavage.

When I go to hug the kids—who dump their backpacks into my arms instead—I notice that the younger one is wearing two different socks.

“I couldn’t help it,” he says, hiking up his uniform pants to show off one bright orange knee-length affair from his soccer uniform, and a low-cut shark-print crew. “There weren’t any in the clean laundry and all the ones in my drawer don’t match.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him, swishing a lukewarm latte around my mouth to get rid of the cilantro before I smile at the principal. “The rest of them are probably under the couch.”


We get home to find that the hole in the deck has gotten worse. There’s no money to fix it right now, so I make a mental note to find a piece of plywood, right after I find the youngest’s missing socks.

The breakfast dishes are still in the sink.

The elder needs help with his homework, and there’s another permission slip in his folder, the bold-faced, underlined message reminding me that if I haven’t returned this one by tomorrow please he won’t be going to the zoo with his class.

I’ve got a conference call in 20 minutes and we’re out of snacks.

I forgot to defrost the chicken for dinner.

I’m closer to 40 than 30 and I’m still not published. Probably never will be.

I’ve never lost those last five…ish… pounds of baby weight, either.

And I still haven’t figured out which way I’m supposed to lean.

We drop everything in the middle of the messy kitchen and make hot cocoa. I dial into the conference call three minutes late, after setting up Elder with his homework and Younger with a book. I kiss their chocolatey faces. They chirp, “Love you!”

I wedge the phone onto my shoulder. When I log into my computer someone has sent me a Pinterest link on home improvement and someone else has sent me a referral for a house cleaner I’ll never be able to afford, at least not unless the Vice-Chair does me a solid. And a friend who is better than me at all things is posting photos of her hand-crafted headbands, modeled by her daughter, whose face is clean and whose socks match.

My older son looks up from his desk and smiles, giving me a little wave.

Today, I am well-loved and inadequate. But I’m serving more than one boss these days, and these two, at least, are willing to consider me for advancement.

Brianne K. DeRosa is a mother, wife, and self-employed writer and consultant to non-profit organizations. Her days are best measured in conference calls, cups of coffee, and the number of socks found in unexpected places.

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This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Ambition