On the subject of finding the right partner, first we heard from Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive who advised other women, in her bestselling and controversial book, Lean In, to “marry well.” Sandberg wrote:
“The single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”
That statement, among others, caused all hell to break loose. Blog post after blog post criticized Sandberg for her smugness. Yet some of those same posts simultaneously extolled the virtues of finding the “right” partner. Recently,The Broad Side’s Eileen Youens found fault with Sandberg (choosing someone who will support your career is “not exactly something you can put on your to-do list and cross off,” Youens admits). But on the other hand, she validates Sandberg’s theory (“picking the right partner is a make-or-break-your-happiness kind of deal”).
I agree with many of Youens’s points. But I nevertheless feel compelled to ask her, Sandberg, and all the other women who have expressed similar opinions about the connection between a happy marriage and career success: Do you really think most women, including many successful women, thought they weren’t “choosing well” when they made their choice?
Sandberg married her current husband in 2004 (in other words, not that long ago). She has two young children. Youens has been married for 12 years and also has two young children. I really and truly hope that the supportive marriages they’ve written about remain happy and last forever. But statistically speaking, these women may not turn out to be so lucky. And if they aren’t, will that be because they didn’t “choose well”?
Not necessarily. It might mean they chose well but that somewhere along the way their marriage ran into trouble spots that couldn’t be overcome.
When I married my husband in 1997, I believed I had chosen well. I still do. I married a brilliant man with (attention, “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton) a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We started out as friends. He was kind, thoughtful, and sensitive and couldn’t have been more supportive of my career. In fact, we moved from Washington, D.C., to New York City for my career, not his. We had similar goals and values and shared them openly. So far, we met all the criteria for a successful match as stipulated by others who have made successful matches.
We had a son less than two years later, and my husband fully shared the childrearing and household chores. (More points for us.) He did the grocery shopping, the laundry, and the baths. When our son was an infant, we each worked from home one day a week; three years later, we enrolled him in a cooperative preschool where we both volunteered in the classroom. Through all this, I had a demanding job and my husband never once (attention, Sheryl Sandberg) complained about my hours. After all, he had a demanding job himself. When I needed him to be home, he was there, and vice versa.
Our marriage was blissful—and then it wasn’t. By 2006, we had separated. We now live in different homes in the same town and are raising our son together.
My son’s father remains, to this day, one of my greatest supporters in all matters, personal and professional. He is the first person I call when I have a problem, and he still steps in when I have work-family conflicts. I do the same for him. When he comes over for dinner, he does the dishes.
I married a great man—an enlightened, involved, egalitarian man—but our marriage didn’t work. It doesn’t mean I didn’t choose well. It doesn’t mean I didn’t think about all the things I was supposed to think about in advance of getting married. It means you can’t foresee all circumstances no matter how hard you try. And it would be nice if the happily married women of the world acknowledged this.
Which leads me to my second question to the women who champion the idea of marrying well: Do you really think there is so little chance for happiness and success outside marriage? If you don’t choose the “right” partner, does that mean you can’t become a Facebook executive? Or that you can’t have a rewarding career and a family at the same time? That you can’t pursue your dreams, whatever they may be?
Nonsense. Just as having a happy marriage doesn’t guarantee career success (for men or women), not having one doesn’t guarantee failure. If you need proof, look at Nora Ephron, Madeleine Albright, Maya Angelou, Condoleezza Rice, Carly Fiorina, and the thousands of other women who succeeded professionally despite not choosing “well” the first time or not choosing at all. Did you know Maya Angelou married three times? And although she doesn’t publicize it much, Sandberg is on husband number two.
I have tremendous admiration and respect for anyone who picks the “right” partner on the first try. But for those who don’t, please don’t believe this will make or break your career success or your happiness. It won’t. Those things, for the most part, are up to you.
Guest contributor Andrea Barbalich is president of Andrea Barbalich Consulting, an editorial and marketing firm, and previously held positions at Meredith, iVillage, Scholastic, and other media companies. A nationally recognized expert in motherhood and women’s issues, Barbalich lives with her son in Westchester County, New York.