The view from the top of the career ladder looks different to Anne-Marie Slaughter, 53, than it does to Sheryl Sandberg, 42.
For clues about why, maybe we should look at what happens to working moms during the decade in age that separates them.
Slaughter, of course, is voluntarily dialing her career down a notch and sparking lots of reaction with her cover story in Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.’’
The article hit just as Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, ascended to become the first woman to serve on the company’s board of directors.
But it’s not just their crossing arcs that cast them as opposites. They’ve got different views on what’s possible for women with both careers and children.
Slaughter characterized their differences in the Atlantic Monthly piece: “When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.”
“Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach,’’ Slaughter wrote. “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”
Is Slaughter too cynical? Is Sandberg naive?
All I can say is that when I was Sandberg’s age, I saw the world much as she describes it. I believed women can have it all if they lean into it.
Now that I’m the same age as Slaughter, my mindset is much closer what the ex-State Department honcho (honcha?) had to say in the Atlantic article.
I felt an immediate affinity when Slaughter opened her essay by reminiscing about clinking champagne glasses at a glamorous Washington reception, while fretting internally about her troubled 14-year-old son back home.
Hello, you’ve got a teenager.
What Sandberg may not know now, as the parent of two children under age 8, is how she’ll feel when her kids are no longer home asleep by the time she’s reaching for the second glass of bubbly.
Picture her getting a text from a troubled teen that says “I hate myself!’’ Picture her missing a chance to hobnob with the Obamas while she looks for a quiet corner to text back. Picture her waiting nervously for a response. Picture her wondering if she should duck out early.
A couple years of living like that take a toll.
The truth is, a lot happens to children over the course of a decade. It’s impossible to look at your second-grader and know whether the road ahead includes an eating disorder, a drug problem, a learning difference, or simply bullies, mean girls or the adolescent blues.
And even the best support systems can give way unexpectedly. My mother died when my daughter was 4 years old. A couple of years later, we lost a close friend who was like a doting aunt. I couldn’t replace them but their absence made it all the more important to be visibly present at every track meet, school open house and sleepover.
None of us knows in advance how much each child will need us. That’s part of the mystery and joy of parenting. The Mommy Police don’t come along if we fall short on meeting their needs.
But we know. Until the workplace becomes more flexible, as Slaughter describes, some of us will duck out early – and pay a price.
Lori Stahl covers politics and culture from Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LoriStahl.