Nearly four years ago, I asked my husband to move our family to New York City. It will mean selling our house, I said. It will mean packing up everything and going to a new country. It will mean leaving your job.
I won’t push you if you don’t want to, I said. I would really love to do this, but I won’t make you go along with it. If you don’t want to, we won’t. This has to be our decision.
He didn’t say yes immediately. I had hoped that he would. At some point I pushed him. It means becoming a stay-at-home dad. What do you think about becoming a stay-at-a-home dad? (The tone of my voice: Wouldn’t it be cool to be a stay-at-home dad?!? What guy wouldn’t want to become a stay-at-home dad?!?)
He did not want to become a stay-at-home dad. But he did.
How could I not? he said later, many times over, when we’d talk about it, in moments (and there were many) of tension and difficulty, moments when we’d question what we’d done, moments when I’d say, but you agreed.
I had to agree, he said. How could I not?
That was the key to it, and remains the key to it, and remains the key to all such questions: why do we ever lean in for someone else? Why do we lean in together? We do it, because how can we not? How could he not? Because he loved me, because he believed in me, because he wanted me to be happy – he had no choice. He had to do it. And he did.
To say that he ‘had to,’ is not to say that he did not make a meaningful choice. It is not to say that he was coerced. The history of motherhood and the family is, of course, a history that involves much coercion of women: for most of human history, and across most cultures, women did not have real choice about what path to take. Few women set the direction for their spouses and families; women who set their own paths usually did so outside of the family. The history of women is not a history of leaning in deliberately together with men, or of men leaning in with women. Men leaned in; when women leaned in with them, it was because they had to. This is not the kind of imperative that I am talking about when I say that my husband ‘had to’ lean in with me: that’s important. He had to precisely because we have a partnership, and not a dictatorship. He had to because those are the terms of agreement of our marriage: we love each other, we support each other, we empower each other, we drive each other forward. I have done this for him. He does it for me.
This, I think, is as it should be. We are a powerful partnership. We’ve been married for a very long time, and we’ll be married for a very long time to come. The thing is, it’s not easy. There’s compromise, there’s struggle, there’s sacrifice. Meaningfully leaning in together means running a three-legged race: we’re tied together, and our movements effect each other directly. Neither one of us can just run off in a different direction. We need to run in the same direction, and sometimes that’s more than a little tricky. But you don’t finish the race by running apart. I could not have pursued my (pretty extraordinary) opportunities without his support, and he could only support me by running at my side. He had to move along with me, match my pace, watch my stride, stay on the same path. It was not easy. It’s still not easy. But it’s worth it. He’s my partner.
It’s important to acknowledge that meaningful partnership isn’t easy – not for women, not for men, not for anybody. It’s work. And acknowledging that doesn’t undermine the cause of getting more men – more everybody – to do that. It’s essential to getting more men to do that. In the same way that we don’t serve women by insisting that motherhood is easy (it’s not) and that we don’t serve children by saying that life is easy (it’s not), we don’t serve anyone by claiming that supporting the person that you love, the person with whom you have partnered for life, the person with whom you share your life, is easy. It’s not. It can be, sometimes, and it’s wonderful when it is, but more often than not it’s pretty challenging. And we need to be honest about that. We need to be able to say, when it matters: I am asking you to do a hard thing. We need to be able to acknowledge: you are giving things up for me. We need to be able to say: thank you, thank you, so very much.
That in itself can be hard. I will admit that I have struggled, at times, to say thank you, because FEMINISM. You’ve put your dreams second? My grandmother put her dreams second, my mother put her dreams second, women throughout history have been denied the opportunity to even have dreams, so SUCK. IT. UP. I never did say this out loud. I am nonetheless not proud of it. I thought it, hard. Women have always been expected to compromise and to make sacrifices, so why should we be extra-grateful when men make compromise and make sacrifices? Isn’t that akin to congratulating men for changing diapers? Welcome to our world, assholes. You’re SUPPOSED to do this. But that’s wrong. It’s not fair – it’s not fair to the men in our lives who make it possible for us to do both extraordinary and ordinary things, and it’s not fair to us. It damages us.
It damages us, because it diminishes all the compromises and sacrifices that we’ve already made, and that our foremothers made. It diminishes all the compromises and sacrifices that we’ll continue to make. It diminishes the very idea of compromise, of leaning in together, of supporting each other, of choosing to run that three-legged race together and win it, whatever it takes. It says of compromise and sacrifice and support and hard choices: meh. Whatever. We’re just supposed to do that. No, we’re not. To the extent that we have to do anything in this regard, it’s this: we have to choose whether or not to be in partnership, we have to choose whether or not we’re willing to take on all the challenges and opportunities and all the frustrations and all the joys of partnership. Once you’re in partnership, then, yes, you know what you have to do. But the choice to partner is all yours. And the meaningfulness of that choice consists in understanding that it involves some really hard work – hard, worthy work that yields tremendous rewards, but still. Hard work. On all sides.
We need to be grateful for that. We need to celebrate that. Because it is what makes everything and anything possible. It is what allows us to race toward the most expansive horizon of possibility – in work, in family, in love, in life.
I couldn’t have done the things that I’ve done, especially over the last four years, without my husband living up to the terms of our partnership, without him compromising and sacrificing and supporting and leaning in with me. We wouldn’t have moved to the US; I wouldn’t have joined Disney; I wouldn’t have left Disney. I wouldn’t have been able to chase my dreams, if he hadn’t been there – leg tied to leg – joining me in that chase. They wouldn’t have become our dreams. We wouldn’t be crushing (as we are) this race toward our own, shared horizons of possibility.
And for that I cannot thank him enough.