Family Matters

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Leaves Work at 5:30. Should You?

Facebook's COO makes the case that there's nothing shameful about leaving work at 5:30 p.m. every day to eat dinner with your kids. Does she get special dispensation because of her status?

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Shahar Azran / WireImage / Getty Images

That Dolly Parton song in which she warbles about toiling from 9 to 5? As if. With the rise of the Internet, the ubiquity of the smartphone and the need to prove your worth as lay-offs ebb and flow throughout every industry, jobs no longer keep bankers’ hours. It can be hard to waltz out of the office while the sun’s still shining, but take a cue from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: she leaves work at 5:30 every day to have dinner with her kids. And she’s past making apologies.

Because Sandberg is both a powerful executive and a woman, her decision to publicize her early evening routine has resonated far beyond, which has compiled video clips of “trailblazing” women; Sandberg’s clips reveal what heretofore had been her shady workplace secret:

“I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I’m home for dinner with my kids at 6:00, and interestingly, I’ve been doing that since I had kids,” Sandberg says. ”I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it’s not until the last year, two years that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn’t lie, but I wasn’t running around giving speeches on it.”

(MORE: Simple Fix: Family Dinners Help Teens Avoid Drinking and Using Drugs)

With her simultaneous admission that she’s been doing this for years and trying to keep it on the down-low, Sandberg is launching a conversation about why we feel compelled to put job before family. Are we worried about job security? Are we trying to prove ourselves? Are we sticking around because, well, everyone else is? On the other hand, do we truly want nannies to feed our kids dinner every night, then burst through the door only in time to plant a kiss on a sleepy cheek?

Reams of research have highlighted the virtues of the family dinner. It’s not the meat and three that’s special — though with nearly one in five kids obese, it can’t hurt to dish up whole grains, fruits and veggies — but the talk time. Teens who infrequently eat dinner with their families are more than twice as likely as teens who dine with their parents at least five times a week to say they intend to try drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The dinner hour is also a time to catch up on everyone’s day before the chaos of bath/book/bed — for younger kids — ensues. I work from home, but even I don’t always make it. Instead, I power through, hoping to turn in my articles so I don’t have to return to work after the kids are asleep.

Women are not just being neurotic about burning the candle at both ends. “We know that working moms are often stigmatized for their child care and family commitments,” says Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology graduate student who has conducted research about the myth of the “Supermom” (tip: moms who try to do it all have higher levels of depression). “If publicity about this removes the stigma, that’s a good thing.”

(MORE: Why Working Mothers Are Happier and Healthier Than Stay-at-Home Moms)

Of course, it’s unlikely that Sandberg’s admission alone will revolutionize attitudes, but it’s a starting point. Indeed, Sandberg’s “secret” has served as a wake-up call for me. These days, most white-collar employees don’t finish by 5:30 — do any of us ever really finish? — but we can put our families first and take a break by using our digitally connected world to our advantage. Being perpetually plugged in can be a curse in that we never really leave work behind. On the other hand, it can double as a blessing because it allows flexibility. Why not wrap up work around 5ish and head home to our families before logging on again? Sandberg alludes to this pattern, admitting she’d dash off emails at crazy hours to show colleagues she was hard-charging and a devoted mom of two.

She says:

I was getting up earlier to make sure they saw my emails at 5:30, staying up later to make sure they saw my emails late. But now I think I’m much more confident in where I am and so I’m able to say, ‘Hey! I am leaving work at 5:30.’ And I say it very publicly, both internally and externally.”

Sandberg doesn’t address whether she has stopped sending those late-night and early-morning emails; it’s not clear if she simply no longer feels the need to prove a point or if she really ends her workday before dinnertime. The wraparound workday culture is another issue entirely, but it’s hard to believe Sandberg leaves Facebook behind at 5:30.

(MORE: Working Moms Multitask More Than Dads — and Like It Less)

Another really big question mark she leaves unanswered: who makes dinner? Even the super-est Supermom couldn’t commute home and get food on the table in 30 minutes. Someone else is clearly doing the cooking — or at least the reheating and prepping. The Washington Post’s Krissah Thompson wants the nitty-gritty. As a young newlywed who wants children, Thompson is hungry for female role models who juggle work and home. She’s annoyed that it took Sandberg this long to out herself:

My generation has lived through the mommy war debates and heard the “you-can’t-have-it-all” harangues. We’re tired of all the talking — but we do want to hear how you do it. Sandberg’s pronouncement has the potential to change the culture at least a little if we let it… Powerful women like Sandberg have got to be willing to own up to how they manage.

Does she have a cook? Does her husband cook? Does she have a nanny? Is she involved with the school PTA? Is her husband? When I meet a highly successful woman raising small children who is willing to be real, I ask those questions.

It drives me crazy feeling like my generation is left to figure out how to make our lives work when so many other women already have. And is the trail really blazed if you keep it a secret?

(MORE: Working Women Who Try to Be ‘Supermom’ May Be More Depressed)

It’s a great question Thompson poses. And I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that it’s a good thing for more women to publicly proclaim that family is not a liability in the work world. It’s not necessary to choose between impressing your bosses and connecting with your kids. With limited hours in the day, just do both!