Couples & Careers in Transition
How Many Do You Plan On?
I’ve been thinking a lot about couples and careers this week – and the personal roller coasters we ride as ever greater gender balance is navigated at home. Particularly, the essential renegotiations that happen (or are avoided) as couples move into their Third Quarters. And whether planning has a role to play in the personal and professional transitions that await us. The research is starting to say yes. Are we ready?
Partly because I’ve been watching The First Lady, a television series about three activist American First Ladies – Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michele Obama. In somewhat fictionalised flourishes, it explores the dynamics of their couples and three very different women’s attempts at having a role and a voice in their marriages, in office and in different historical contexts. The strange contradiction of the First Lady role, its combination of fame and expected frivolity, is explored in (sometimes excruciating) detail. The actresses (Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Viola Davis) are a delight and a welcome reminder of these women’s largely unknown or forgotten impact and influence. Their popularity and courage were leveraged, sometimes successfully, to help their husbands’ careers - but not always their own. They mirror the evolution of women’s century long push to conciliate careers and family described in Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin’s research, described in an earlier post. And the knotty, endlessly subtle issue of how even enlightened husbands consciously want to support – but often unknowingly undermine – their wives’ dreams. And how the gratitude or resentments play out over the decades.
An interesting, related piece in HBR article by Erin Reid, tracks the shift from men’s breadwinner to share-winner status and its impact on male psyches. This, she suggest, may have more to do with how the wife’s career is perceived (by him and society at large) than it is about the actual money or job. Breadsharers (the 60% majority of her research sample) “described their wives’ work in glowing terms, regarding it as high status and worthy of respect.” Breadwinners, on the other hand, “accorded low social status to their wives’ work, which seemed to prime them to view this work as having little financial importance to the family.” This is a useful lens in evaluating any couple. Is your partner a breadwinner or share-winner? Are you competing or complementary?
Another strange couple in more contemporary news is the UK’s bad boy, Boris Johnson and his latest bride. Boris has finally hit his wall and I give The Economist the winning headline for “Clownfall.” His rather large Achilles heel was most beautifully described in lyric, mythical parallels by the same magazine, “The messengers spoke. The chorus wailed. The hero fell.” The writing is worth the read. Many are describing his rather catastrophic legacy through a multitude of angles and perspectives. I am also wondering about the women and children he leaves in his wake: three wives and some seven kids. His current wife is 24 years younger than Johnson, the same gap as Trump and Melania (and Macron and his wife, Brigitte, but in the other direction). Boris seems to have parallel approaches to love and work. Opportunism, spreading his rather toxic seed with a seemingly seductive charm, and then moving on when the tides turn. Wedding vows or international treaties are treated similarly. Sticky as long as they serve, and then ruthlessly left behind. It makes me think of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote "If someone betrays you once, it's their fault; if they betray you twice, it's your fault."
"If someone betrays you once, it's their fault; if they betray you twice, it's your fault."
It's not just men, of course, who are evolving through multiple careers and couples. Former Financial Times journalist-turned-maths-teacher Lucy Kellaway participated in an Intelligence Squared debate on The Value Revolution, Reimagining Worth this week. Her book, Re-Educated – How I changed my job, my home, my husband and my hair, is a classic of the Third Quarter pivot from profit to purpose genre. She shifted from a Q2 role as the FT’s eminent snarky voice on corporate farce, to become a teacher (like her mother) and invited other executives to join her through her charity Teach Now (500 have so far). In the transformation, she left her husband and bought a beautiful old house. In her book, she describes falling instantly and passionately in love with the modernist home in London’s Hackney. Her time living alone was her version of Michele Obama’s “becoming.” She describes Q2 as prioritising money, giving her “the luxury” in Q3 of prioritising purpose. It’s a privilege she insists to be able to make that choice. Many of the kids she teaches, she says, don’t have that luxury. They are focused on getting the cash they need to get out of where they are stuck. The next-gen environmentalists, she warns, aren’t ‘the young’ as a whole. They’re middle class kids with the privilege to be purposeful. During the debate, she shared that she’d just done another shift. She fell in love with another house – and seemingly a man to go with it – and is moving up to Newcastle, where she knows no one, to begin again.
Beginning again is a life skill dear to the Buddhists and to many of my ALI colleagues as they look back on their lives. Something we may want to be ever more ready for in our uncertain, fast-shifting times. A Georgian colleague I was interviewing, Ketevan Vashakidze, woke up to this truth when the Russians invaded her homeland on her 17th birthday, and her family lost everything that they had built. Another colleague, Marcy Syms, who has multiple roles and her finger in many fascinating pies – from lobbying for the ERA in the US to education and radio - quotes Eisenhower “plans are useless, planning is everything.”
The research is starting to support the claim. Resilience is grounded in readiness, and readiness in the relationship you have with a not always well-known human - your own future self. Thanks to my colleague David Vrba, for sending me a BBC piece suggesting “we should think more about whom we'll be in the future, because doing so has profound consequences for our health, happiness and financial security.” How close you feel to your own future self, familiar with their wants and needs, makes you more likely to prepare for their wellbeing – and more satisfied with the actual outcome. It’s based in part on research by Hal Herschfield - a mine of interesting writing on where the ‘present’ self ends and the ‘future’ self begins, and our difficulty in integrating these two people and their respective interests. He explores the idea of ‘prospection’ where you travel to meet your Future Self, something that was very present in my own coaching training (and a visualisation I regularly do with clients).
How Many Have You Had?
So let’s look at how we match these trends in our own lives. How many careers and relationships have you had - so far? And how many are you planning for?
To all your loves and life Quarters!
Thanks for reading.
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