The Problem with Ambitious Husbands
A few weeks before we were married I remember saying to mr. mraynes that I would gladly give up my dreams so that he could reach his own. I said it because that is what you say when you are young, naïve and in love. I also said it because I knew mr. mraynes would make the same sacrifice for me. Of course, I didn’t really believe this would be required of either of us. Our dream was to go to grad school together; to live a life of art, academia and love. I was full of idealism, hubris and entitlement, a dangerous combination for dreams. So when the inevitable disappointment came early in our marriage, I was not prepared to deal with the reality of my earlier words.
Over the past four years I have watched with pride as my husband’s dreams have blossomed, knowing that I am a large part of his success. I supported mr. mraynes through his doctoral program, I created a home and provided him with much longed-for children. And now I fulfill my role as the “perfect conductor’s wife”, appearing at events looking graceful and sophisticated. I know that my presence at mr. mraynes’ side will help to give him the kind of career he dreams of. It is well documented that married men are happier and more successful than their bachelor brothers. It has even been shown that men whose wives stay at home and do housework like I do, earn significantly more. (As you might suspect, the reverse isn’t true. Working women receive no benefit from having a husband and if those women happen to have children, they can expect to be heavily penalized.) I know that just by being, I provide mr. mraynes financial, professional and emotional benefits…but I am deeply ambivalent about this knowledge.
Recently I read a profile on the Obamas’ marriage where I saw similarities to the situation that I, and many women are in. First, let me be clear, I am in no way equating my small difficulties to the enormity of what our President and First Lady face. They are not the same. I have also struggled with how to approach this post without coming off as self-congratulatory and whiny. I realize that mine is a privileged position, one that I am not ungrateful for. Despite of this, having an ambitious partner has interesting feminist implications that bear examination.
Something I have admired about the Obamas is their apparent partnership. Both are Ivy League-trained lawyers, both have had notable careers and both take an active role in parenting. But of course, reality is always more complicated than outward appearance. I was surprised in reading this article to learn exactly what Michelle Obama has sacrificed to further her husband’s political aspirations. Obviously she had to quit her job to become the First Lady but more importantly, she had to give up her dreams of an idyllic family life. The equal division of labor she desired was impossible due to the absences required by her husband’s political career. This was a life she never wanted but supported despite her misgivings. When asked how the first couple could have a truly equal relationship, Mrs. Obama responded,
Clearly Barack’s career decisions are leading us. They’re not mine; that’s obvious. I’m married to the president of the United States. I don’t have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that — you can’t even measure that.
What is unspoken in this article is the gendered expectations placed on women who happen to be married to aspiring politicians. Barack Obama, or any presidential candidate, need their wife to get elected. Once elected, the First Lady is expected to fulfill a public duty despite having no formal mandate and no recognized power. One can argue that this is a unique situation but I believe that the high-profile nature of the presidential marriage partnership makes it emblematic of gender role expectations in this country.
Although more subtle than it was fifty years ago, women are still expected to stand aside for men; it is something that is socialized into us from the time we are very young. It is for this reason that Michelle Obama had to give up her job and dreams of equal partnership. I also left a job and a life that I loved so that my husband could start his career. Of course my reasons for doing this were more complex than I was just socialized to sacrifice my life for mr. mraynes; indeed, I sacrificed because my husband’s career is important to me and because I believe he is capable of greatness. But this doesn’t negate the fact that in order for him to achieve this greatness, I had to get out of his way.
I’m sure the First Lady felt a similar tension. This tension is difficult to acknowledge because it goes against societal expectations for wives of powerful men. All you have to do is look at political wives that didn’t fare so well in public opinion such as Hillary Rodham Clinton or Judy Steinberg Dean to know that these gendered expectations are a force to be reckoned with. These were women who were routinely criticized as selfish and, gasp, feminists! Can you imagine the reaction Michelle Obama would have gotten if it appeared she was standing in the way of her truly inspirational husband? Women like me feel this same pressure, although to a much lesser extent. It is difficult to ask your husband to miss a networking opportunity or work fewer hours or travel less frequently so that he can spend more time at home; difficult because you know that in so doing, he is sacrificing the reach and importance of his career. I still haven’t figured out a good balance here and I suspect that this is something mr. mraynes and I will be experimenting with for a long time.
And then there’s the power issue. Exactly what power do you have as a wife of a powerful man? Obviously I have no formal power over mr. mraynes’ orchestra but do I have the power to determine tuxedo styles and repertoire choices? What rights do I have as an individual and how does that juxtapose against my role as a conductor’s wife? Or, for an example a little closer to home, what rights or power does the bishop’s wife have when her role is only formalized by her husband’s calling? These kinds of questions are relevant for any couple where one partner plays a role that is informal. I don’t have any easy answers for these questions but it is interesting to think about.
I have to admit that reading this article made me a little despondent. Having an ambitious husband has guaranteed that I, the wife, make profound sacrifices and that I continue making these sacrifices. I am torn about this; would I make those same sacrifices again? Probably. Will I continue making sacrifices for mr. mraynes? Yes. But that doesn’t change the complexity of our marriage; I have my own dreams and needs and ambitions that I somehow have to balance against my love for a man with dreams of his own. mr. mraynes is fortunately aware, sensitive and even uncomfortable with this tension and for this, he deserves a lot of credit. He also would and will sacrifice his career at any point, for any reason, to ensure my happiness. As he pointed out to me this morning, he could be a lot worse; he could be completely clueless or indifferent as many powerful men so often were in the past. Instead he acknowledges the inequality in our current situation, comes home and contributes his fair share to childcare and housework and promises to re-negotiate when we can. Perhaps this is the benefit of being married to a modern, ambitious man: acknowledgement and the aspiration towards equality.