Behind every good man, there’s a good woman. But that idiom works both ways. LORRAINE COURTNEY suggests the key to a successful work/life balance is compromise.
Bill Clinton recently admitted to making a deal with his wife, Hillary. She supported his political career for 26 years, staying on the sidelines as he ruled the world. Now, Hillary has come into her own: “I told her when she got elected to the Senate from New York, she had given me 26 years, and so I intend to give her 26 years. Whatever she wanted to do was fine with me.”
But this raises some uncomfortable questions. Were her talents wasted in supporting her husband? Could she have achieved more, and sooner, if the priorities had been reversed? We’ve come a long way from the days when Don Draper came loping home from work with his fedora angled jauntily over his forehead. But forever ambition and creativity have grappled uncomfortably with the more prosaic considerations of everyday life, like relationships, children, and home, and it’s a conflict that’s still going on.
There will often be a natural ebb and flow, a time when one partner has to give more support and perhaps take a step back in their own career in order to do so. Childcare costs and punishing work hours mean that more and more couples are choosing who will stay at home and who will go back to work after maternity leave. More and more men don’t think it extreme to make this choice either. In fact, men from all walks of life are determined to get more involved in their children’s lives, to adjust their hours to spend more time at home. The 2011 census found 18,040 Irish stay-at-home dads.
Anyone who is striving to be something and manage a relationship at the same time, particularly with a partner who is striving to be something as well, will be all too familiar with the pressures. And babies make the situation even more complex, as mothers struggle with the madness and guilt of trying to have it all. Eimear left her job in IT to stay home, and thinks that the notion of a “supermum” is very wrong. “It’s wrong to talk about the supermum. Within a relationship, one of you has to be career- oriented and the other person has to be more flexible. Occasionally, I have pangs of missing out on professional moments, but if you have children, you have to be prepared to compromise.”
We also know that men and women can feel equal amounts of self-loathing for being unemployed or meagerly employed. Looking after children and a home is low-status, poorly rewarded and self-esteem-sapping. David Kavanagh, a family therapist, says, “I’d rather have two people on lesser incomes, who are content, rather than a couple where one is powering ahead and the other is resenting it. Resentment is a hugely damaging emotion. It’s very difficult to feel love if carrying resentment at the same time.”
David also believes that it’s crucial to support the partner who’s taking the back seat and to put them on a pedestal for the sacrifices they’re making. Communication is crucial because just listening and being empathic can inject a rush of goodwill and warmth into a relationship. “You can’t have enough communication in a relationship, and that means taking time every week to physically sit down opposite your partner at the kitchen table and asking if there’s anything you can do now to make them happier and more content. You should really listen to what your partner has to say.”
It is possible, however, for both partners in a relationship to have successful careers. Many relationships thrive on this, and it makes for very stimulating conversation in the evening, when you’re both running at an equal speed. Having two incomes hedges against microeconomic disaster, and as many women who “opted out” have found out, leaving a career isn’t like putting a bookmark in it and setting it down. Jasmine and Daniel tried to figure out the best way of splitting childcare and maintaining both of their careers. All the conventional arrangements seemed a bit archaic to them. “After months of debate and discussion at home, our solution was for us to ask our employers for a four-day working week. I have Mondays off with our son and my husband has Fridays off. Our son spends the remaining three days at a childminder’s. My husband never expected his firm to say yes to flexible working, as no other man there had ever asked for this. Surprise, surprise, he is now branded a hero at work.”
“Our solution seemed like the fairest division of labour between us, and has helped to reduce those clichéd conversations between parents about who is doing more childcaring versus working. We are also both keen to spend as much time as possible with our son, whilst attempting to keep our careers alive. We’ve both invested so much time in our careers until now, so it seemed a bit unfair for one of us to take the back seat whilst the other zoomed ahead at work.” So it seems that relationships are fine with either partner taking a supplementary role, so long as that doesn’t involve idling aimlessly around the house with a vague ambition to make toast … later.
Follow Lorraine Courtney on Twitter @LorraineCath