Family

When Your Parents are Michael Lewis and Tabitha Soren

Featuring Quinn Lewis, age 19.

Quinn Lewis with her parents, Tabitha Soren and Michael Lewis.
Quinn Lewis with her parents, Tabitha Soren and Michael Lewis.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Quinn Lewis.

In this series, kids (and not-exactly-kids-anymore) review how well their parents balance life and work. To nominate a potential subject, ideally between the ages of 5 and 17, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Quinn Lewis is 19 and currently a freshman at Harvard. She’s from Berkeley, California, where she grew up with her father, Michael Lewis, the best-selling nonfiction author of books such as The Fifth Risk, The Big Short, and Moneyball; her mother, Tabitha Soren, a photographer and former reporter for MTV News; and her two younger siblings. Read Michael Lewis’ long-ago Slate series about Quinn and the birth of her siblings here.

Rachelle Hampton: Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with your parents right now?

Quinn Lewis: It’s changed a lot in the past year and a half—how they view me and how I view them. I feel like we’ve become much more friendly because [now that I’m in college] they don’t have a lot of say over what I do, which I think eases tension on both ends. I’m not wary of being controlled, and they don’t feel like it’s their responsibility if I misstep. It’s like, “She’s doing her own thing now, and mistakes are a part of that.”

My parents are great. I think they’re the best, which is an uncommon thing for a 19-year-old to say, I’m sure, and not cool or whatever, but I don’t care. I really admire the way they lead their lives generally, and their forms of creativity and ambition are very similar to my forms of creativity and ambition.

I don’t want to say we’re friends, because that’s a little bit too casual, but my dad will come visit me, and it is kind of like talking to a friend. He always makes me laugh. I just want to tell him everything. He’s much more interesting than most 19-year-olds.

That’s a mature way of looking at your parents. Have their careers influenced you as you’ve considered what you want to pursue? Have you ever felt pressure to live up to their success?

Totally. I grew up with my parents working at home and so the idea of a desk job in a cubicle, that’s something out of movies. That’s never going to happen. I think I’m going to be attracted to jobs where I am my own boss. I like having a lot of control over what I’m doing, when I’m doing it, and how good it is.

The idea of a commute totally repulses me because why would anyone waste 30 minutes of their life every day for that? You only get so many breaths before you’re under the freaking ground. Why would you spend that in a car? That’s so naïve and privileged of me to say. Definitely not how the world works, but I’m hopeful I can make it so that’s how my world works. But however unrealistic that is, I think their success definitely influences how I view success. The idea of public recognition weighs in on what I find success to be, or how I imagine myself in the future, and I think that’s because of them.

But I do feel like writing has always been off the table because of the idea of never being able to be as successful as someone, because I’m so competitive and I think about how other people think of me, and that kind of stuff. I never want to be qualified by something [my parents] have done. I never want to be the daughter of whoever. Like, Malia Obama’s not about to go into politics, you know?

Hopefully I can find my thing, I’m not too worried about it. I’m 19, so, there’s really no need to be.

That’s a healthy way of looking at it. I feel like a lot of 19-year-olds are very stressed out.

I understand why—it’s easy to be. Being comfortable with sitting with no answers is an intense skill to try and figure out.

Do you think you learned that from your parents?

I think my dad has really emphasized that to me. He’s very optimistic and always thinks things are going to go well. … So, feeling relaxed about the future comes from my dad, but I also think there’s a certain pressure about that, because like, what if things don’t work out?  Whereas my mom, is very like, What went wrong? Let’s triage and figure out what the cause is and go from there.

Growing up, did you feel like your parents’ jobs were cooler than your friends’ parents’ jobs?

I didn’t think about it all that much. I was just happy my dad could be the coach of my softball team. I think I cared a lot less about whatever my friends’ parents were doing. And I knew that my parents were very good at talking, in a way that my friends’ parents didn’t need to be for their jobs. So that was noticeable, but I didn’t really think about that at all, actually. It was more just, are they putting chocolate chips in my pancakes the morning of my sleepover?

You mentioned that your parents worked for themselves, and I assume they’re mostly freelancing. They’re obviously successful, but were you ever aware of any of the stressors that come along with being a freelancer?

Not really, which is another thing that makes me so naïve. I’m my dad’s first kid, and he had me when he was thirtysomething. He had already gone through the apply/reject, apply/reject kind of thing. So by the time I came along, he had already crafted a narrative that he had just stumbled into luck and everything worked out great. And there’s a lot of rejection and pain. But that’s not how he frames it anymore. When you’re a kid, you think like, oh, my dad was born at the age 40 as a writer, you know? Just appeared out of one of those little capsules you dissolve in the bath. That’s how I thought of it.

I think with my mom, the older I got, the more I realized the pains of being an artist, because she’s a photographer, and she’s trying to do so much at once. She had her old career, but now she wants to do something different. How does she make space for herself in this new industry, when 99 percent of it is rejection and a bunch of people who are at the same stage as her are much younger? Which is a crappy feeling, I think.

I would imagine that work-life balance gets a little skewed before your dad has a new book coming out or when your mom has an exhibit. How do they balance time with you, right when they have a big event coming up?

My dad’s a bit of an odd duck. He doesn’t care about what other people think to a bit of an extreme. What needs to get done will get done, but he’s still going to go to softball practice. He’s still going to make time.

That being said, he would go on a book tour for a month. When we were really little, he’d yank us out of school, and we’d go to the bookstores with him. There are 10 copies of Moneyball floating around out there with Quinn Tallulah Lewis signed in the front cover, because people thought it would be funny. I put hearts and stars all over my name and “Don’t give up on your dreams, Love, the 7-year old who has no idea why she’s here or what’s going on. … He’s really good at bending the world, to make it really enjoyable for him. I think it’s a beautiful thing to have that come naturally to you.

When my mom’s working on stuff, and you knock on her cottage door and interrupt her, you can tell immediately whether or not you’ve interrupted something important. You can just tell from her tone. My dad, if you knock on his office door when he’s being obsessive about whatever he’s doing, he’ll tell you blatantly: “I need my time. Please leave.”

I also was a very independent kid. I just wanted them to be there for the important stuff, and I’ve gotten better about asking them to be there. For example, my dad is going to say this did not happen, but it very much did happen. When I was moving in to college, my mom called me [in Cape Town, where I was for my gap year], and she was like, “Look.” My little sister had school starting, and my dad was going to fly back from the East Coast with her and miss moving me in to college. That was just a punch in the gut. I was like, “Whoa.”

A lot of times, if something doesn’t matter to him, it doesn’t occur to him that it might matter to somebody else. It’s not in a malicious way. I was like, “Hold up. First of all, if Obama can find the time to move Malia in to college with a Secret Service detail, my dad better be there for when I’m moving.” I don’t know why, but this means a lot to me. I want my dad there when I move in to college. He did miss a couple birthdays when I was little. The first one kind of hurt, but I got over it the second or third time. He only missed two or three, it was not like he just didn’t [care].

Did you ever get to travel with him on a book tour?

Yeah. That was always great, because I didn’t have to go to school. Not that many times, obviously. Now, the thing that’s the biggest plus of his job is that people have decided he’s interesting enough to put on stage and listen to. Basically, he has a free plane to get to Boston whenever there’s an offer, which is pretty often. Since the beginning of school, I’ve seen him four times.

That’s a huge perk. When my mom’s free, she can also come. … And then I get to raid the hotel minibar and take all the snacks back to my dorm room, and always the toiletries. That was the big thing when I was little, when I’d go on these road trips with my dad, I actually had a collection of all the mini shampoos from the fancy hotels. I remember very distinctly taking them every day because that means housekeeping would give me more. Then there’d be times where we were trying to get through security, and security would pull out this gigantic bag of lotions, and my dad would be livid.

I’m not a low-maintenance kid. None of us is though, so whatever.

Have your parents ever taken time off of their careers to focus on you and your siblings?

I feel like they always do, honestly. They don’t really hit pause, but I don’t think of them as people who work all the time. I feel like they’re very present when they’re around the house. In a way, it did feel like I had two stay-at-home parents because they are so present.

The one thing my dad is bad at, though, is if he’s working on a book, it’s all he thinks about. Something we have in common is that we’re so good at getting interested in whatever we’re working on, so at all of our family dinners, for instance, we’d end up talking about behavioral economics. Or, after some of the books, I’d think I wanted to be a psychologist or I wanted to be an economist. He made it sound so exciting. He bounces ideas off of us, like on the way to softball practice he’ll be thinking out loud about what he’s working on. Obviously that makes us feel important, like we’re involved in writing.

Were there ever times with either of your parents where you felt like you had to say, “Get off your phone. Stop checking your email. Stop taking this work call.”

I would say they’re both very fixated people. So, my mom and my dad, if they’re checking their email, that’s what they’re doing. If I come up and I start talking to one of them, especially with my dad, I can’t expect them to listen. My mom always jokes that if my dad’s doing something and you start talking to him, he doesn’t think, “Oh, I’m having a conversation now.” It’s almost background noise to whatever activity he’s going to choose to do. It’s like, “Isn’t it interesting how a soundtrack started playing and it sounds like my daughter’s voice. That’s funny, I didn’t realize there were speakers in this room.” … He’ll literally walk out of the room when you’re in midsentence.

I don’t have to tell them to stop working, because if they’re working, they’re working. That’s just how it is. But if they’re with me, they’re with me. That’s also how it is.

Would you guys have family dinner every night, when you were living at home?

Oh, no. Our family, we’re very nontraditional. Neither of them cook. I learned how to make Annie’s mac and cheese at the age of 6. I’d take my little step stool and haul boiling water over to the stove so I could make myself food because I was tired of eating Grape-Nuts or whatever.

There’s no, “Dinner’s ready!” kind of thing, unless it’s a babysitter cooking. Or me. I like to cook sometimes. Just not for my family, because they’re critical. Sunday nights we do have family dinner. We go out, because again, no one cooks.

What’s the best piece of advice your parents gave you when you were in high school?

Oh geez. High school. Again, my dad [has] the whole “luck” thing. My mom grew up [with her dad in] the military. She knows what it’s like to not have very much and have to restart at a school every two years until she was 18. She did not have a hometown. My dad kind of just stumbled into shit. He got in to Princeton with C’s because his dad went to Princeton, and he’s Southern, and his parents could pay for it. He majored in art history because that’s what he felt like doing. He decided he didn’t want to do anything in art galleries and started writing, then went to grad school. Things just unfolded a weird way.

I think because of that, when I was in high school, he was like, “OK, I don’t care if you’re getting a C in physics, but figure out what you love, and you’ve got to be getting an A at that class.” I still got pretty good grades.

It seems that he really believes that I can excel at whatever I do, and everything will work out. There are pros and cons to that, I think. Underneath it all, because he loves me so much and because he’s convinced that his kids are the best people in the world, there’s an expectation of success. Because, why wouldn’t things be super successful for my kids who are so smart and kind and interesting?

In terms of golden nuggets of advice, there’s no great epigraph I can give you, unfortunately. I would say the thing that really sticks out in my mind is my mom really believes in working hard and setting yourself up to be in a good position, and being very tactical about things.

I think that has to do with her upbringing, right? Caring is privilege. Doing what you care about is a huge privilege because it means that everything else is taken care of. My mom didn’t have that privilege for her childhood. She was the kid who showed up at NYU, hit the ground running, was in the library until 2 a.m. looking at different types of scholarships, reaching out to CNN, reaching out to these people, working her ass off, knowing everything she could about bands. So when she showed up as an unpaid intern for MTV, and someone asked, “Who’s the keyboardist for this band?” She could say, “Oh, this person.” She would always make herself useful.

My dad never really had to do that because for some reason things were set up for him in a way they weren’t for her. I think being able to learn from both of those types of people has made my approach to life great. I think they both have their weaknesses, in terms of happiness versus just survival. I feel they’ve given me a happy medium in terms of my outlook. And they’re funny. They always make me laugh. They try to be very encouraging and sweet, so that’s always great.

What do you think stresses them out the most about their respective careers?

I’m going to focus in on my mom with this. Because my dad, he’s an easy-going person. He’s very extreme. It’s like, everything’s amazing, or it’s the shit hit the fan.

But my mom, she’s fighting an uphill battle, she’s trying to get into the art world. … I think that is stressful. Am I gonna be liked enough? I like my art, I think it’s good, but that won’t get me far enough. The idea that the amount of hours or time you put into something is not reflective of how successful it is in the art world. You have to be trendy, you have to look a certain way, you have to be a certain age, you have to have a certain backstory. If you’re a woman, you have to be commenting on being a woman. My mom doesn’t want to talk about gender. That’s not her thing. … And then being a mother on top of that, talk about work-life balance. Trying to start all of that and then having three kids. My parents joke that they have three only children because we’re so high maintenance.

I am amazed at how good my mother is at everything she does. You’d think she’d have to sacrifice, but I think she worked so hard, that she’s able to be great at both, the work and the motherhood, in a way that my dad is not required to. Men are not required to find “work-life balance.” Because it’s understood that your family will adjust to your career because you’re a man … he’s going to get pissed at me for saying that.

I think my mom is managing as well as she can. I think upholding that, it takes a toll on her. When I moved out, I realized not only how much she does, but how many tools she’s given me, how hard she worked to give me those tools, how hard she works to be a good mother, while also launching a photography career.

On my last day of third grade, she showed up and she was like, “We’re going to go on an adventure.” She drove me to Six Flags out of nowhere. That’s something that a stay-at-home mom has time to do, but she’s working full time and still makes that happen, because that’s how she thinks maternal energy works. You should see our Christmas presents, the woman … she’s like Martha Stewart. You don’t want to touch the wrapping, because she’s embossed them, she makes sure all the Santa presents have completely different wrapping and completely different handwriting than all of the parent presents, and they’re different colors and in different stacks.

It’s like … she’s Superwoman. But she’s not. There’s a very haunting kind of residual anxiety [for her] about, Am I doing enough? Which is obviously ridiculous, but I think it still eats away at her, and that’s been very hard to see from afar. Like, what about her happiness, you know? When’s the last we hit pause for her, and just made things special?

What has all this taught you as you figure out what you want to do in life?

This is a weird thing for a 19-year-old to say, but, when I get married, that person being wildly supportive and pitching in equally will probably be huge for me. Obviously I don’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, but no, it’s not equal because they’re interested in different things and their strengths come out at different places. My mom said, “Oh, honey, Quinn wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard if it wasn’t for your support.” And my dad was like, “If I was a single dad, she wouldn’t have gone to college.”

It just makes me think, in a partnership, in any team, how is the work being distributed? Are people being taken care of? Are people happy? How do you meet people with kindness even if initially there’s a little bit of shock in terms of how demanding they’re being or they seem ornery and you don’t know why? So, like, meeting that with kindness instead of being like, “Oh, fuck you, whatever,” as everyone would naturally do, is definitely something that I observe from my mom’s struggle. I wish I had been kinder to her.