Expat Wives, Lean In, and the One Question Feminism is Afraid Of

The recent “Lean in” debate that has roiled its way through the media seems to rest not just on arguments about, as the description of Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg  puts it in her book, the challenges and “bias[es] surrounding the lives and choices of working women,” but a predetermined belief about the two biggest choices women today face: between career and children, motherhood and professional motivation.

When, in the New York Times, Princeton prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter jumped into the debate, Slaughter summed up Sandberg’s argument as,

[B]elieve in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” — which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby…. Still, after the start [of every woman’s career aspirations] comes a very long road, with lots of bumps and what the law professor Joan Williams calls “the maternal wall” smack in the middle of it. Sandberg’s approach, as important as it is, is at best half a loaf.

So there you have it, the one point on which both Sandberg and Slaughter (and most of the media covering the fracas) seem to agree: the debate about women’s choices and fulfillment rests on the glass ceiling being, in its essence, the ‘maternal wall.’

Are We Afraid to Admit What We Give up for Men, and If So, Why?

But what about those of us working women, or even just women who want to be passionately engaged in our lives and work and communities, for whom the choice, or the first choice anyway, has been between our husbands or partners and our careers? Those of us who have followed our counterparts to new countries or cultures and had our careers challenged because of it? Or who have never had children, either because—like me—they failed when they tried, or because they never pursued parenthood, but have still had to face major choices for their marriages that have impacted their work?

Is this whole debate about Leaning In covering up another debate that seems almost too antifeminist to bring up? And if so, why? Why are we somehow more embarrassed to say we made life choices based on our husbands (or partners) than on our kids?

The org InterNations reports of the 2010 Brookfield Global Relocations Trends Survey, “only 9% of previously employed women held a job during their time as a trailing spouse,” a statistic echoed by UN Special about the vast number of women who relocate for their partners.

Much energy has been expended by the feminist movement, by individual men and women trying to carve out answers in their lives about meaning, family, and sacrifice, and even by some corners of corporate America to de-stigmatize women who choose children over career, or face maternal responsibilities that challenge their professional ones. But it seems no one really wants to talk about women who make family-related choices when they don’t involve offspring—and especially when they involve just husbands.

So I’m asking now:

  • Is it legitimate, for smart, passionate, ambitious women, to give up or compromise our careers for their husbands?
  • Does it make us anti-feminist or failures when we do?

My answer:

I struggled for many years—and still do, sometimes—with all I’ve given up for my marriage, especially since it’s an international one. But I know that facing, surviving, and then capitalizing on the challenges my marriage has presented, has in many ways made me stronger, smarter, and even more fulfilled, in some surprising ways.

I’ve developed skills—and grit—that I bet are harder than even some of the ones Facebook’s boardroom requires. Among them:

  • The flexibility to toggle between to diametrically opposed cultures and lives—the world of Boston’s leftist academics and writers; and the world of a foreign housewife in Japan. And to do this, if not always gracefully, at least with spirit.
  • The courage to look at my life denuded of any of the professional or academic accomplishments I’d gathered in my almost 40 years in Boston, bereft of even of the identity of one who belongs (for, as a foreigner in Japan, I’m told in dozens of tiny ways throughout every day that I don’t belong), and ask, what do I really want for myself, for my life, for my family, and how to I build that in a world where I don’t even speak the language, where I can’t even read the street signs?
  • The determination to say, I am a woman who, in some ways, gave up her world for her husband. And I am still a feminist: a passionately engaged and motivated woman with enough persistence to keep trying, day by day, to build a new world and life for myself on top of, and even because of, the one I sacrificed for a marriage.

So how would you answer these questions?