The Highs and Lows of Leaning In

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Sheryl Sandberg's theory is all well and good, but how does leaning in actually work in practice? By Jeni Axline (Techie & Co-founder, Parenthoods Inc.)

I was sitting in the back seat of a car in the parking lot of Y Combinator, pumping breast milk while I quizzed my long time friend and co-founder Siobhan for our entrance interview. The breastpump breathed mechanically with its reh-uh, reh-uhs and we sweat from the heat while trying to answer rapid-fire questions about our startup – hoping ours would be one of the lucky ones chosen.

This was just the tip of the chaos iceberg. At home, our diaper genie overflowed and every open floor surface was littered with foot-poking toys, remnants of my last life-changing experience just eight months before: The birth of my first child.

I hadn’t slept more than four consecutive hours in I don’t know how long, and I’d lost count of all the important tasks that had fallen through the cracks. The chalkboard in the kitchen contained a single aspirational, at times tragically laughable, statement: “Yes we can.”

The Theory of Leaning In

So this is leaning in, I thought in the car. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, came out when I was pregnant. It came out at the perfect time. It was the anthem ladies my age needed. Afterall, Silicon Valley is growing up. What do the women in this industry do? We need an instruction manual, a cheerleader to say keep going.

Me especially. After maternity leave I was looking for a new job and I felt my time away had hurt my chances of being hired. I felt like the momentum I had built in the last seven years of my career was at least partially erased.

After a couple months of job searching, my longtime friend and now co-founder, Siobhan Quinn, suggested we start a company together. It was a total surprise. I had never considered this as option before. It quickly went from a “Yes!” to “How in the hell am I going to pull this off?”

To many outsiders it might look like I’m pulling it off, but it rarely feels that way.

It Takes Two: At Work and At Home

I can see now the specific obstacles of leaning in, and they cannot be overcome by myself. Siobhan is the driving force behind our product and is responsible for giving my career the jumpstart it needed. She can see past the “liabilities” of doctors appointments and last-minute scrambles for childcare. She sees that being a parent makes you take care of business in a serious way. Motivation, organization and no room for BS. That’s how you parent and that’s how you run a company.

Leaning in requires a lot. It takes a true 50/50 partner at home, which fortunately my husband is. And it takes really good childcare. If for one second you think your child is not getting the best out there, game over. You can’t concentrate. Your stomach is full of worry and guilt. And let’s face it, parenting already comes with a heaping dose of guilt, so you don’t need any more.

What’s it like to be a new mom and trying to build your career at the same time? Here’s a taste: You’re stressed because your seed round is closing and your schedule is packed with investor meetings, those meetings mean a bunch of things are left undone with the business, that stress drops your milk supply, so then you’re drinking a gallon of water a day and five cups of mother’s milk nursing tea and typing your business objectives while listening to the Continuous Om on Radio.

The Reality

Ladies, leaning in isn’t pretty. But really, parenting in general isn’t pretty. Let’s be honest, my house would probably still be a hot mess whether I was working crazy hours or not. I’d probably still be missing friends’ birthdays and time with my niece and nephew. And white diaper cream would still be on my black shirt. Maybe just not in front of an investor.

Siobhan and I got into Y Combinator based on the interview we had that day in the car. We launched our app Parenthoods. We raised $1.32M from great investors. Sanity continues to be scarce as both my daughter and our startup mature. My house is still a wreck. I have not cooked in the kitchen for months. I sometimes send my daughter to bed in strange clothing because we’re so backed up on laundry.

But in creating this company, I have a clarity of purpose that I’ve never had before. I get to meet kick ass parents that make me a better parent. I get to build a product to help parents, including myself, survive the crazies. I get to work with one of my best friends and one of the most talented people in the Valley. And I have the support of my family and friends.

Recently we changed the line on the kitchen chalkboard. I felt like we needed to reflect on how far we’ve come.

In my messiest quick-hand it reads, “Yes we are.”

This post originally appeared on Medium. Image courtesy of Parenthoods: Jeni with daughter Evie on the left, Siobhan on the right.


About the guest blogger:Jeni Axline is co-founder of Parenthoods, a mobile app for parents and local community where parents relate with each other beyond the highlight reels of smiling kids at birthday parties. Previously she was Director of Production at Say Media. Jeni lives in SF with her husband and 16 mo old daughter. When not momming, wife-ing and working, you'll find Jeni sleeping.