A couple of days ago, I told my eldest son that I wanted to thank him for being so supportive of his wife’s success. She recently had some good career news, and we were enjoying a celebratory dinner. My son said it was a “no brainer” to compliment her accomplishment, and I pointed out that not all men are so magnanimous.
I know that my younger son also enjoys a similar pleasure in their partner’s work-related progress, and I am very glad to see it. Perhaps this is a generational difference. It has a very different and much more positive “feel” from my own experience.
Don’t get me wrong. My late husband was kind, supportive, encouraging, and mostly enthusiastic about my own professional development. The hitch is in the “mostly.”
For most of our marriage, we were both totally committed to each other, our family, and our careers. We worked hard together and helped each other to progress. At some point, though, something changed. For the first ten years that we lived in Canada, we changed location multiple times to follow my husband’s career moves. Then, when both of our children were in school I, too, went back to school and my husband agreed that it was my turn. I wanted to upgrade my UK qualifications to enable me to work in my field in Canada.
Instead of getting another degree in Education, I chose to get a BA in Communication Studies. I loved the program I joined and was very grateful for the support I got at home. I had a neighbour who helped with childcare and, together with my husband, I managed to thread the needle with out-of-school activities for our children.
After graduation, though, things did not go as we had anticipated. It was the late 1980’s and work was hard to find. I could not get a job in Communications, and I didn’t have the qualifications to teach in Alberta. I even went so far as to go cold-calling in downtown Calgary. I knocked on many, many office doors handing out my resume. One person looked at me with sympathy and said, “At any other time, we you definitely consider you, but … “
My husband and I had to weigh our options. We decided that I should follow two tracks and take which ever produced the first positive response. Accordingly, I applied for every possible job and also for a Master’s degree program. The job applications produced a lot of rejections. The Master’s degree program accepted me.
This turned out to be a mixed blessing. It meant that I would join a field of study that I was fascinated by, but it also meant that our family would be increasingly financially deprived. I was able to mitigate the financial problems by becoming a teaching assistant to a department professor, but even so, things were very tight to the extent that I had to take tea bags to campus and ask for free hot water instead of buying a cup of tea.
We thought about having my husband upgrade his own qualifications but, after registering at the university, he decided that his income made it impossible to quit his job to take the time necessary to get a degree while simultaneously funding my education and supporting the family.
Over the following two-and-a-half years, I studied, and taught, and lead a girl guide group. My husband worked, and drove to hockey practise, and became a very good cook. He also developed his own artistic skills, wrote and illustrated a children’s book, and helped me structure my thesis.
In those years, though, his enthusiasm for my success waned. I don’t know why, but something like resentment began to emerge and I didn’t know what was the cause or what to do about it. I still don’t know what I could have done. We both knew he had the intellect and the skills for a higher qualification, but I was the one who was getting one.
When the time came for me to go to the university’s convocation, my parents came over from England for the event. My husband, however, felt he could not take a day off work for the ceremony. Instead, he took only half a day. Because of that, he and my parents arrived late at the venue and could not find seats together. Then, because I was one of the first to ascend the stage, they almost missed the moment.
A few months later, I tried to celebrate his role in my success by giving him home-made certificates of appreciation at a family event. His response was dismissive to the point of disdain, and I was devastated. I really did not know what I had done wrong.
With the wisdom of hindsight, I suspect that his sense of identity and masculinity was dependent on having authority or superiority and, by upgrading my qualifications, I had threatened that. Perhaps the problem was that I had a new social circle. Maybe it was that my attention was focussed elsewhere for too long. Whatever it was, we were never able to discuss it and work it out.
This is hard to say, but my career success had a negative impact on my marriage. Shortly after I was awarded an MA, I got the perfect job for me in a different city. The family moved with me and supported me, but my marriage was never quite the same after that.
I blame my own lack of sensitivity and I also blame the Canadian system that makes it nearly impossible to apply foreign qualifications to Canadian jobs. I also blame the British socialization of men in my generation that reinforced some sadly rigid expectations. Our upbringing also made it difficult for both of us to discuss our feelings. All those things made it really, really, hard for my husband to be glad that I had become successful.
We were at the crossroads of a social change that wanted women to succeed, but not to succeed so much that men’s roles were diminished. Our children, though, have inherited something better; the ability to celebrate success in their loved ones, no matter their gender. That warms my heart.