A couple of weeks ago, Jim and I attended a reception for a company where he had recently joined the Board and started mentoring its 33-year-old CEO. We mingled some with company executives that, as you might expect in this situation, were a whole lot more interested in talking to Jim than to me. And then Jim led me towards his mentee, telling me he had said he’d love to meet me. Sure, I thought – polite gesture.
We spoke as a threesome for a few minutes, and then the CEO stopped and waved at his wife, calling her to come over. He let me know that she wanted to meet me as well. Again, I thought – very kind, polite gesture.
It soon became clear I was way off base. Once his wife was with us, he thanked me for allowing Jim to share a set of letters guiding trustees and guardians that I wrote years ago, when we had drafted our estate planning documents. The couple effusively expressed how helpful and insightful our documents had been, as they had recently worked to craft their own set. The CEO’s wife then asked me about my experience as a CEO’s spouse, and so I started flubbing my way around how I also had an MBA from HBS and had worked at BCG, but how Jim and I had made specific choices about our time and ambitions to be each other’s best partners. Surprisingly, I saw her eyes grow excited. “We have to talk more sometime,” she said. “We have so much to talk about.”
As it turns out, said spouse is a Princeton graduate and a Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the premier VCs in California. And I wasn’t a wallflower to her, a trailing spouse. I was someone like her, just twenty years older, someone who had already managed situations and struggles she knew she would encounter in the next phase of her life. To her, I was someone who might offer valuable advice because she respected my innate capabilities as an individual and my choices in that context. I was surprised, flattered, and intrigued.
Three days earlier, Jim and I had met a BCG Partner and his spouse for drinks. She is also an ex-BCG-er, now at Google. They have a 3-year-old at home, and she works full-time. We went back and forth, telling stories about kids and travel and comparing notes on COVID and BCG. And then she asked me what I do. And once again, I stumbled through my MBA/BCG turned volunteering/parenting/partnering mantra expecting to feel like a trailing spouse. But this woman didn’t discount my decisions either. “It’s so difficult to know what the best course is with kids isn’t it?’ she asked. “I constantly struggle to even understand what I really want versus what I feel like I should do.”
Both of these conversations make me think about how much and how little has changed since I came to terms with the fact that “having it all” is a total myth. On the one hand, when I was making my choices, firms like BCG were just starting to figure out how to make part-time and off/on ramping work, and now they have been at it for 20+ years. It does feel like companies want to retain female talent today and try harder to allow for family flexibility. Still, I think the tradeoffs of a trying to simultaneously succeed in a demanding career and parenting just can’t be eliminated entirely. It’s something that affects all couples and families, but it becomes starker and harder when one member of a marriage has a career role that demands travel and/or more than standard working hours. In those situations, it’s tough to share family responsibilities, and in my experience, it’s family, and kids’ happiness and well-being, that suffers. I wonder if today’s career women actually know this in a way maybe my generation did not – as if by being more openly accepting and celebratory of my generation’s choices, they can advance us all to a point where women can make these kinds of decisions with their “teammates” without feeling like they failed somehow and then be at real peace with their choice.
I have been in many situations like the one with the BCG Partner and his spouse, where I feel fairly validated for my choices, but the one with the young CEO’s spouse felt incredibly different. She actually made me feel successful on my own terms, and in doing so, she made me feel proud of my choices. She and her husband so clearly respected both me as an individual and how Jim and I have created our life together – they seemed to understand that neither of us could have made to where we are if we hadn’t had the other to depend on. It was us as a team that made for professional and family success, a success that is intertwined. Wow that felt good.
A few nights ago, we dined with yet another young couple linked to Jim via business connections, and he too is a CEO. He and his spouse have two kids, 4- and 6-years old, and she sounded a lot like me when I was her age. She made sure to drop her elite college and prior career into a conversation about her current volunteer work, and since I knew exactly where she was emotionally, I celebrated her as an individual and for her choices. And when she asked in return, I spoke about teaming with Jim and about the work I am now doing to help lower-resourced high school seniors with college applications and persistence. To be honest, I couldn’t help but throw in an HBS/BCG reference, but it didn’t dominate. We then had a robust conversation about the work she does on climate change and the work I am doing with high schoolers. It felt good to be able to support her and celebrate us both.
I need to perfect my elevator speech to answer the question of what I do or what I did when Jim and I were in peak career years, but I am realizing now that it needs to come from the idea that I have been an essential part of a team that has enabled success on many dimensions. I have no idea how I will end up interweaving my earlier individual accomplishments into that short spiel, but maybe, at some point, I won’t even feel the need to? I may be kidding myself, but I hope so. For my sake and for all the women I know who struggle with this aspect of their identity.