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How the death of Sheryl Sandberg's husband made her rethink Lean In

Fortune Global Forum - Day 2
Sheryl Sandberg
Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Fortune

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is both famous and infamous for her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She has been praised for frankly discussing the deep gender inequities in the corporate world and for giving women sound advice on how to navigate them. She has also been harshly criticized for presenting a narrow, corporate version of feminism that ignores, or even actively harms, disadvantaged women.

But on the Friday before Mother's Day, Sandberg wrote a long, touching Facebook post that gives both her fans and her detractors something to think about.

Facebook: Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg, who lost her husband just over a year ago, writes about how she never truly understood the difficulties of being a single mother until she became one herself.

She writes about how lucky she is compared with many others: She is financially stable after losing her husband, whereas one in five US widows live in poverty by age 65. Sandberg was in a heterosexual marriage, so she was unquestionably entitled to the things that cohabiting or same-sex couples might not be if their partner dies.

And she writes about how the experience has made her rethink the perspective with which she wrote Lean In:

In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally—and how important Dave was to my career and to our children’s development. I still believe this. Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.

I will never experience and understand all of the challenges most single moms face, but I understand a lot more than I did a year ago. Our widespread cultural assumption that every child lives with a two-parent heterosexual married couple is out of date. Since the early 1970s, the number of single mothers in the United States has nearly doubled. Today, almost 30 percent of families with children are headed by a single parent, and 84 percent of those are led by a single mother. And yet our attitudes and our policies do not reflect this shift.

Single moms have been leaning in for a long time—out of necessity and a desire to provide the best possible opportunities for their children.

Some critics argue that the backlash against Sandberg and Lean In was overblown and unfair — that she was always writing from her own experiences, that she wasn't trying to speak for all women, and that her self-described "sort of" feminist manifesto shouldn't be read as any sort of full-blown treatise.

But it's also telling and important to see how such a dramatic shift in Sandberg's personal experiences might have colored her advice to other women.

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