I have a close friend who has a successful, decade-long career in the fashion* industry. Four years into her last relationship, her boyfriend still rolled his eyes in frustration when she didn’t make it home for dinner.
Though the man (a self-labeled progressive) claimed to appreciate her ambition, he was actually just waiting for her to lose interest and get down to the real lady business (making quilts and hoarding engagement rings on Pinterest?). It was as though her career was a side project that happened to pay the bills.
The relationship came to an end when he broke up with her and married one of her friends — somebody fresh off the “whatever you want, honey” conveyer belt. He wanted a wife, not a CEO.
These outdated gender roles come at a time when “breadwinner moms” are on the rise: 37 percent of working women (5.1 million) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, according to recent Pew Research study. Four in 10 households with children have a woman as the sole or primary breadwinner (a fourfold increase since 1960).
My friend isn’t Betty Draper and never pretended to be. And she isn’t alone.
Successful novelist Jennifer Weiner went on record with The New Yorker earlier this year that her marriage to a political-law attorney concluded in 2010 after her career became too prosperous. As she put it:
“We expected that things would proceed one way — he’d be the primary breadwinner, a successful attorney, and I’d make less money, stay home with the kids, with fiction essentially a lucrative hobby. When it didn’t work out that way, I think we both had a hard time rewriting the contract of the marriage.”
“Lucrative hobby” doesn’t even begin to encapsulate Weiner’s career: She is the author of nine best-selling books, including eight novels and a collection of short stories, with a reported 11 million copies in print in 36 countries. Her novel In Her Shoes was made into a film with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette — debuting at no. 3 at the U.S. box office on opening weekend.
Ashley*, a notable digital entrepreneur with two children, found her marriage on the rocks for going full steam ahead on several projects after having her kids.
“I had to spend my nights and weekends hiding in the bathroom to send work emails, and make up excuses as to why conferences I wanted to attend were important,” she says. “Sad to say, our marriage ended. I still have to explain to my kids that ‘mommy is a butterfly’ — but in truth, I'm just ambitious.”
Lila* was ambitious too when, fresh out of undergrad, she was making $100,000 a year working in private equity. Her then husband, also a financial executive, openly bragged about her achievement, telling friends, “My wife can do anything.” Until she had kids.
The mother of three opted out of her high-earning career when her first two children were 4 and 2 years old. After her third child was born, she was admittedly “miserable” and went back to work.
Lila started flipping high-end houses as a designer and general contractor. Her homes were selling for more than $1 million and she was on track to make $250,000 a year.
“It was a very viable business,” says Lila. “But he always viewed it as a hobby that was getting in the way of our traditional family. Every time I would advance, he would sabotage it. My job, in his mind, had to be a hobby or it would threaten his ability to be a provider.” Consequently, the marriage ended.
As former contributing editor at Vanity Fair Leslie Bennetts told us recently, “the [happy homemaker] idea is more powerful than the reality.” Yet the notion that women’s careers are pink little Erector sets that keep us occupied until a devoted partner (or baby) comes along keeps to an enduring cultural narrative — no matter how very inaccurate.
*Names and some professions have been changed to protect the identities of the women who would not put up with this bullshit.