Thursday, August 31, 2006

Michael Noer was only half-right about careers and marriage

Michael Noer of in a recent article advised men who wanted a stable marriage not to marry a career woman. Naturally, his position sparked a firestorm of outrage and protests from working women everywhere. But in all the controversy, don't miss a bigger point. Mr. Noer was actually only half-right. Man or woman, husband or wife: A person focused solely on his or her career spells trouble for a marriage.

The "Me" over the "Us"
Marriage, as M and my marriage counselor recently reminded us, is a partnership. To work, it requires following basic rules of teamwork and cooperation. It has to be grounded in values such as mutual trust and self-sacrifice. It necessitates that two people become one mind, one heart, in just about everything that they do.

Our careers, on the other hand, tend to focus on ourselves. We leave home each day for an environment where our own status and worth--financially, socially, psychologically--is typically elevated by those outside our family or marital relationship. When achieving higher and higher levels of status and worth become our focus, the career can easily become the priority. The "me" takes precedence over the "us," and the marriage suffers.

What we give up
Keeping the "us" at the top of the priority list isn't easy. Not long after we were married, M came to me with the new salary scale for her teaching job. "Look at how much I'll be making in a few years when I'm at the top of the guide [for those non-teachers, that means reaching the highest salary level]!" she exclaimed.

Before getting married, M and I had talked about how we would maintain careers and family and mutually decided--I thought--that M would stay home and I would continue working. So not surprisingly, my first thought was, "Who will be taking care of our kids?" But for M, seeing how much a person with her skills and experience would be worth to her school district--a value that M perhaps never imagined achieving--suddenly brought into stark relief how much she would be giving up by our decision.

My turn to give something up came shortly after we had our son. When M had to go back to full-time teaching for a year, we decided that I would approach my employer about working part-time so I could take primary responsibility for managing the household. While the move was arguably risky from a career standpoint, I am fortunate to work for an employer who was gracious enough to grant me the time and then take me back in my old position when M's work obligation ended.

A relatively sane life
Today, M is home full-time, redoing our kitchen, taking our two-year old son to the pool and my preteen stepdaughter clothes shopping. She attacks the household chores with the same intensity and focus that I saw her have creating lesson plans for her students. And a couple weeks ago, we found ourselves with a Saturday afternoon that didn't have to be crammed with running out for birthday gifts or doing the weekly food shopping.

It has, admittedly, been a rocky road getting here. There were no "easy" decisions that didn't produce arguments. But the relatively sane life we're experiencing today probably wouldn't be possible if either M or I had dug in our heels and fought relentlessly for what was best for our own careers and incomes, instead of jointly determining what's best for each other, and for our family.

Self-centeredness isn't a trait exclusive to either sex. Recognizing that quality in yourself, as well as in your choice of a spouse, gives you the best chance of achieving a marriage with long-term harmony and stability.

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