Though I consider myself a progressive (yes, a liberal) I like to read columns by conservative columnist David Brooks, of the New York Times. I follow his writing because I find him reasonable and wise–and refreshingly unpredictable, a rare quality to find in a writer of political commentary.
Today’s essay, “The Way We Live Now,” is one that particularly resonated with me. Brooks treats the inherent conflicts in the life of the achieving woman, and he shows great sensitivity to the conundrum she faces. Brooks takes, as a case in point, the current nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.
He tells us that Sotomayer’s father died when she was 9, leaving a relationship void–and he reflects that it is amazing how many people who suffer the loss of a parent between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become workaholics and astoundingly high achievers. That struck a deep cord in me, for I lost my mother at age 9. I would like to know more about the relationship of loss to high achievement/workaholism.
Anyway, it is true that I became an intensely focused student, particularly during college and graduate school, and then became a high achiever in my work life. Like Sotomayor, I had an extended family that expected me to succeed–at least in school. And like her, I attracted mentors who paid special attention to me and guided me along the way.
Sotomayor’s profile as an adult is different from mine–apparently she was “upbeat and social,” whereas I was mostly depressed and anxious, and tended to turn inward, to my books.
Her marriage broke up after only two years, and she says, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I wa leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.” I note her use of language: she is pulled back, guarded and formal.
My marriage broke up after six years and the births of two sons. My husband, a surgeon, didn’t leave me–he would never have left, and that is one of the chief reasons I married him. But I couldn’t endure the role of the doctor’s wife, living a conventional life and giving dinner parties in order to get referrals for my husband’s practice. It’s not that he demanded that of me–I demanded that of myself, if I was to be his wife. So I was the one to leave–to find my work and do it. A domestic, at home with young children, I was in a constant state of distraction. What am I supposed to be doing?
Later Sotomayor finds love again, only to lose it once more. She said of her then-fiance in a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.” She said that he had filled the emptiness in her life, that he had altered her life profoundly. Quite a wonderful public tribute. He must have been pleased. But not pleased enough to stay.
Writers who have researched Sotomayor’s life picture her as having a frantically busy work life, which brings its own kind of fulfillment, no doubt, But nobody holds her in bed at night after she has been questioned by some half-witted Congressman who projects his own failings on her and calls her “racially biased.” When she wakes up ill at 4:00 a.m., there is nobody there to take her to the emergency room and hold her hand while she’s waiting to see the doctor. Basically, there’s nobody there, period. She can’t earn love or achieve it, in the way she has approached her career. She knows that. She is making a choice.
As a matter of fact, the achieving woman lives with a painful irony–she finds that the more she achieves, the less chance she has of finding a satisfying relationship. Such a woman wants someone she can talk with, on her level, someone who respects subtlties of language, someone whose conversaton carries the same kind of incisive humor as her own. But where is he to be found? And this is the point at which Brooks falls short in his analysis–in a couple of important ways.
Brooks says of Sotomayor’s choices, “It’s the story of people in a meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.” From my perspective, the “meritocracy” Brooks speaks of is not gaining but rather losing strength. I know doctors who have dropped out of practice to raise children or study calligraphy. I know corporation folks–lots of them–who’ve dropped out of that race: they are doing stuff like raising vegetables and working in non-profits. I know an architect who is a stay-at-home dad. My own son just quit a prestigious job as a Federal prosecutor to teach in the Washington, D.C., school system–for about 1/3 the salary. Maybe I know these people because I live in Portland, OR, and not in New York City.
Be that as it may, I have diverted you, dear reader, from the question at hand–what about the woman who is addicted to work? Ignoring gender issues, Brooks says that these pressures affect men as well as women. But how does the woman differ, if at all, from the addicted male? Well, in several ways. First of all, women are not supposed to be addicted to work–culturally speaking, they are supposed to be addicted to relationships. Do you think anyone, anywhere, would have written an article about a male Supreme Court justice nominee, criticizing his ability to relate intimately, because he works so hard? Laughable! Males are supposed to work hard. And die young.
And the other unmentioned fact is that behind every high achieving man is a female support system that is fueling his physical and emotional life, so that he can function in this insane fashion. If I hear just one more statement by a highly honored male who says he owes everything to his wife (who after all, took his clothes to the cleaners, made dinner for him every night, and raised his children), I think I’m going to throw up.
The fact is that there are very few men who want to partner with a star–it just isn’t good for their ego. And that can make even a very nice, very loving woman, “often aloof,” as Sotomayor’s biographers have portrayed her. It is true, as Brooks says, that judges cannot freely socialize with lawyers and others who might share her interests–that is even more true of ministers and their congregations. I, too, occasionally have been called “aloof”–but I know the boundaries that I must keep in order to serve, and so does Sotomayor. It is a lonely place to be.
The good news for me is that I am now engaged to be married to a man who is not threatened in the least by my work or achievement, who supports me totally, and who has himself been a high achiever. (Interestingly enough, he also lost a parent early in life.) Both of us are rethinking the time we have given to work. We both continue to work hard, because work is a creative outlet, and we love it. But we also love each other, and life doesn’t go on forever. So we’re learning to slow down, take walks, and have candlelight dinners. We learning to be very present with each other.
Perhaps that void–that old, old loss–is being filled at last.