My mother used to drive herself home from chemotherapy treatments. She went once a month for six months and took the next day off of work so she could sleep. When she woke up, she slipped on her clogs and one of the velvet broom skirts she was famous for, and went back to her job as the leading salesperson for the pharmaceutical company she worked for. My mom specializes in “leaning-in,” a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg that, to me, means climbing onto your hypothetical rooftop and shouting, “I am here and what I have to bring to the table matters!” My mom lives this. She leans toward things that scare her. She commands respect. She shows up, and makes herself a presence.
Before a recent job interview, my mom told me, “Remember to lean in toward your interviewer.” I remembered, and I did it. I felt empowered, in control. One small movement in my chair gave me confidence. Driving home after the interview, I thought about my mom. I thought about sitting with her while she slept after chemo. I was thirteen. I remembered eating the heart-shaped pancakes she made me the next morning before dropping me off at school on her way to work. Then I realized the reason she leans in is because at one point, all she had was Option B.
Option B comes from Sandberg’s most recent book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which speaks to building resilience and finding strength through life-altering challenges. It is what you are left with when life doesn’t go according to plan. For Sandberg, Option B came after the sudden loss of her husband. For my mother, it was weeding through the fog of chemo brain while mothering two children. She had to plan for a future she wasn’t sure she’d have.
I am now twenty six years old and I talk to my mom every day. Breast cancer was not her option A, but it was the only option she had, so it had to work. We all have our Option B’s. They are decisions we make because there is no other choice. It is feeling like you’ll never know joy again in your life because the person you love most is gone. It’s the first time you sit up in bed and there is more hair on your pillow than on your head. It is resilience in any amount, in any form. Option B is picking up the pieces of the fractured puzzle of life, and making them fit.
Leaning-in was born as the business equivalent to being brave. For me, it’s taking pride in being a woman and knowing that what I have to offer is significant—not compared to a man or anyone else—it’s just significant. But that bravery, that pride, comes from somewhere. There is a reason we believe in ourselves. There is a reason we have the courage to apply for jobs, lead meetings, and prove that we can indeed perfectly balance work and life. It’s because of all of the times we’ve been left with only Option B.
There is no leaning-in without Option B. It is the reason we lean in, because we are so scared of falling off the cliff that we have to lean away from the edge, until we realize we aren’t going to fall. It is resilience and grit. It is fear and the courage that arises from it. To lean-in is to champion our Option B’s. It is to honor ourselves and all of the times we had no choice but to be okay, to make it okay.