The Wet Noodle Syndrome

We offered to pay our way, but found we tacitly agreed to pick up the entire tab.

The myth about my generation of women is we put off having children to establish careers. The reality: we were forced to become breadwinners.

"Don't worry about writing till you're home with children," said a freshly-published novelist at her Manhattan book party twenty years back. I was newly married, she ten years older. After a cubicle-defined decade, Sara got pregnant, went on maternity leave, and gave birth to her first novel concurrently with her second son. Thanks to her husband's salary, she never worked again. Already I had a sinking feeling hers was not to be my fate.

The fantasy: My husband Peter and I would start a family when I was 28. Both journalists, we assumed one or both could freelance from home. The reality: By our mid-twenties, we couldn't afford a couch, let alone a baby. I went to Wall Street, Peter into advertising. Recession hit, he lost his job, then was under-employed for years. I was the pack mule.

What's a pack mule? Let my Wall Street colleague Louisa, who has theater aspirations in addition to her copy-writing job explain: "I love my boyfriend, we've been together years. But I make more money and always will. If we have kids I'll have two jobs, and no time for singing. I'll be a pack mule."

This is the wall against which the better-earning wife finds herself: It's great to make more, until it's an inescapable demand. An entry from my diary: "I give all day. All my strength, patience, courtesy, and humbleness are used up in that job. Peter has no idea what it's like to go in and be at the mercy of people like ______ and _____ day after day, with no way out."

I came down with a chronic illness. Given the choice between going on long term disability and taking severance, I took the package, a springboard to a downscaled career: grad school, a book contract, a prestigious grant, freelancing, college teaching someday. With permanently reduced health, this was the only way I could envision family life.

"Take it easy! Stay home! Have a baby!" My nice, old Jewish doctor said. "Let your husband worry about the money!"

At first he did, paying two thirds of our bills at a big job with medical insurance. My health improved, I finished grad school, finished my book, freelanced. I was happy, Peter wretched. His job was as punitive as my Wall Street work. "If you have a baby now, you'll never work again."

But I was working. Just making less. My husband wanted his bread-winning wife back, not a stay-at-home freelancing Mom. I grew up in a stressed-out home, I dreaded bringing a helpless creature into the same. Only worse, as we'd never afford to leave our cramped, lightless apartment unless I became a corporate clone again.

Then Peter got laid off, we were benefit-less, the baby battle moot. He followed his dream of stand-up comedy, doing regular gigs, appearing on TV, occasionally for money. He found a day job with flexible hours, a nice boss, low pay, no benefits.

We were locked in a Mexican stand-off: each waiting for the other to re-enter the corporate inferno that would grant us a child. Peter stood his ground. When my steadiest freelance client made an offer, I couldn't refuse.

"Companies are the new husbands," I advised a floundering single-Mom friend. I was happy to become a pack mule, braced for days bracketed by the 7:27 and the 5:48, resigned to see more of my co-workers than my future children. I had trouble explaining to older relatives why at 35, I was going back into full time work when I ought to be settling down to babies and books.

We bought a condo to nest our future fledglings. The full-time job, the commute, the fertility treatments: this pack-mule was buckling under her load. My chronic illness came back with a vengeance: IV drips at lunch, passing out behind the wheel, stints home on short term disability. I made Peter upgrade, leave his benevolent, benefit-less employer for one with real money and insurance.

Only his new boss was a criminal sleaze ball; the job ended in two months. Peter wound up on heavy meds, only made his way back into full time work by degrees. I couldn't leave my job.
"We are becoming the men we were raised to marry," Gloria Steinem has said. I wonder if this is a great thing.

I hear similar tales from other women, one who coined the term: Wet Noodle Syndrome. The more competent we wives became at everything from whacking weeds to winning promotions, the more likely husbands are to lose momentum in their careers. The flip-side of the Cinderella Complex, Colette Dowling's theory, proposed in the 1980 book of the same name, that women harbor a secret wish to be taken care of.

We offered to pay our way, but found we tacitly agreed to pick up the entire tab. Not so long ago there was talk about feminism providing choice; I see it disappearing.

So why didn't I just marry a rich guy? Because I'm not Cinderella, but The Independent Woman Who Needs No Help. And I was brainwashed by movies. I chose the offbeat, Alternative Guy with the heart of gold, who wins the girl from the snotty bully with the money. The Graduate ends when Dustin Hoffman hijacks Kathryn Ross from her wedding, when John Cusack's record store slacker wins back his lawyer girlfriend in Hi Fidelity. They don't show what comes after.

When you marry an Alternative Guy, you can't be the Alternative Woman. Because the bills come around every month, and someone has got to pay them.

Some couples live happily together as Alternative Couples: both doing low-key jobs and sharing child care. But only, I've found, when old family money takes care of the down payment or childcare, handles budget crises as they hit, funds kids' college down the road.

According to my Indian guru, it's all in the stars. "It says in your charts that it's more natural for you to be the provider, Peter gives back in other ways."

Years ago, when my Wall Street co-workers learned my husband was out of work, the universal question, from secretaries to salesmen was, "When are you going to divorce him?" Years after I left that place, the market crashed, these men's careers crumbled, and so did their marriages. No wonder the Alternative Guy rose from the male breadwinner's ashes.

Lately it's occurred to me that women of my generation were so afraid of being dominated by our husbands that we deliberately chose someone younger or underemployed, laid-back and nonthreatening. Then felt cheated at the results.

Equality was the Pandora's Box of my generation, the great experiment of the feminist revolution. But you can't have a revolution without casualties.

A male friend, an Alternative Guy, once-divorced and newly split from his fiancee because he couldn't meet her breadwinning demands, put it best, "You wanted to be equal, so be equal."

We asked for it, we got it. We just didn't know it would be this hard.


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