Anne-Marie Slaughter "had it all" -- aka work/life harmony -- right up until she didn't. It wasn't the grueling stress of her job alone that made her think twice about her State Dept. job -- it was the grueling stress of her job combined with her nervousness about not being on deck as her son approached the most important years of his pre-college academic life.
About a decade ago, I began hearing parents say "if I had to apply to my alma mater today, I'd never get in!" While that may or may not be true, the fierce competition to win a coveted spot at a great school has never been harder.
Here was the dead giveaway in Slaughter's article in The Atlantic: "I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other -- or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me... My husband, who has always supported my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends."
Slaughter might not have been thinking about Princeton for her son but she was smart enough to know that unless he pulled himself up academically that he would have a very challenging time getting into the college of his choice in the future. Whether Slaughter's son was "acting out" because he needed her support and guidance to help him handle the academic rigors of junior high is, at best, just a guess. But I do think Slaughter intuitively knew that her son couldn't maintain his less than stellar grades and his "I don't care" attitude and somehow miraculously "wing" his way into college.
The other point worth making -- Sheryl Sandberg can "lean into her job" because her children are still young. Right now, stressing out about PSAT's, SAT's, and ACT's is not a concern.
When my daughter Meredith was in her early teens, she serendipitously discovered the joy of painting. She spent almost every Saturday with Barbara Herzberg, a wonderful art teacher, in North Salem. They painted together for hours. Mer had done well in school but was not a great test taker. We decided that Wheaton College (MA) would be a good fit because it had a great Studio Art program and submitting one's SAT scores was not mandatory. Wheaton is a small, liberal arts college with a beautiful campus and as Mer said: "Mom, I am so happy to be attending your alma mater now that it's coed!" I am grateful to Wheaton for making that tough decision in 1987 as it turned out to be a spectacular choice for Meredith.
In 2007, I became a solo parent just as Chris was starting his sophomore year at a new high school in New Canaan. The drive to school from our house in Bedford took a half hour. Every day, Chris and I chatted about how we were both psychologically adjusting to our new life. After struggling for a few months to get the hang of St. Luke's, Chris got into the groove. He made amazing new friends who spent many a happy hour at our house at 810 Old Post Road. When Chris was a senior, our house was named "best party house" which made me immensely happy as it was important that our home be a warm and accepting place to hang out.
Chris didn't have many "extracurriculars" except for one, his passion for squash. He starting playing when he was 6 and over the years, worked long and hard at his game. When he was a senior, he told me he was "squashed out" and was tempted to chuck his racquets for a lacrosse stick. I told him whatever he wanted to do was his decison. Just as in squash, I made it to every one of his high school lacrosse matches. I could do that because I was an entrepreneur and could manage my time/hours around Chris's academic and athletic schedule.
In 2008, Chris and I went down to NJ to meet with Bob Callahan, the men's squash coach at Princeton University. Bob told us that Princeton routinely "denied" thousands of valedictorians who applied for admission every year. Chris and I both looked at each other and thought omg...
In the spring of Chris's junior year in high school, he won acceptance to Dartmouth as a "student athlete." I was massively relieved that the pressure was off and was elated that it meant he could enjoy his senior year. Chris just completed his junior year at Dartmouth, having played #1 for the men's team all 3 years, and was named a scholar athlete (to make the list, you need a GPA of 3.5 or higher), was named First Team All Ivy and again, had the honor to be ranked as one of the Top 10 best college squash players in the country. He's made great friends at school and never stops telling me how lucky he is to be part of the Dartmouth College community.
So here's my take: I worked long and hard hours when my kids were growing up, never once taking my foot off the gas. When I became a solo parent I realized that I had no time to think about why or how my world had imploded. I thought about how much my kids needed me to guide them, to clap for them, to be proud of them and to stay strong for them.
Lastly, sometimes you just get lucky. In Chris's junior year at St. Luke's it was clear that he needed to get his grades up. He had become an ace party goer but he was scoring poorly on his PSAT's. I called St. Luke's and asked for their advice. The gal in the guidance counselor's office gave me the name of a young man who lived not far from our home in Bedford who had graduated from Harvard and had been drafted by the Chicago White Sox when he was a junior. His name was John Wolfe. John had his own SAT tutoring business so I hired him on the spot.
As I love to say, timing is everything. John told Chris to just do it which was the push that Chris needed to tack into the wind academically. John taught Chris how to have discipline and how to say "I will" instead of "I can't."
John visited us on Nantucket last weekend. Hands down, he is one of the coolest guys on the planet. After graduating from Columbia Business School, he joined the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs. Mer and Chris were so lucky to have Barbara and John help them "go the distance." In my book, that's called having it all.