Hyperactive, overstretched and often absent, they defend their right to put their career first. Sometimes to the detriment of their spouse, who juggles between diapers and homework… and wonders how long it will last.
There are the hearings, which are often long. One week in Brussels, ten days in Paris, five in Geneva. Within this schedule, each week brings its share of deadlines to be met, briefing client to send, arguments to prepare and notes to produce. “Every evening, I go back to work until midnight, sometimes one o’clock in the morning, sums up Clémentine (1), 36, a lawyer in the London office of a major international firm. Sometimes I take a hotel in the city center, for lack of time to interact with my family. And it’s rare that I don’t work at least one weekend a month.” All this with a husband, a self-employed engineer, two children aged two and four, and very little time to love each other, together. What arouse some sparks, when Clémentine’s work absorbs her completely.
On the phone, she recounts, with an almost disconcerting frankness, these times when her spouse went on vacation alone, a child under each arm, because of an emergency in the office. These weekends with friends impossible to confirm more than a week in advance. These discussions after school, reported by the nanny, where everyone thinks that Clémentine’s children do not have, or no longer have, a mother – “Would we have asked ourselves the same question about a man?” she asks. And those times when, overwhelmed by domestic chores, mental workload and loneliness, her husband blamed her for her absences. “When he told me that he couldn’t cope anymore, I replied that we were going to extend the hours of the nanny, but that I was not ready to slow down, confides Clémentine. He accepts it better today, despite ups and downs. During the hardest times, I asked him, for fear that he would do it one day, never to force me to choose between my family and my job.
How many are these women who sometimes come close to an ultimatum? Those whose careers are too demanding to be as present at home as at the office? No doubt more and more, as they conquer positions of power. For these lawyers, engineers, investment bankers, political advisers, senior executives of large groups or growing start-ups, extended hours, non-negotiable responsibilities and emergencies become the norm. As they have long been, and still are, for thousands of men, without many people taking offense. In fact, women today who prioritize their careers over their love life or the time spent with their children are reversing the norm. And at the same time come up against the expectations and limits of their spouse. Especially when he finds himself alone to drop off and bring back the children from school, follow the homework, do the shopping and the cleaning, all without real moments to be a couple and to love each other. The recipe seems all found to raise the tension.
We too often gauge a woman’s love by her disinterest in money or her career, which is unfair and wrong.
Lucile Quillet, journalist and author of “Price to pay: what the straight couple costs women”
“My companion keeps telling me a lot that I have to review my priorities”, sums up Pauline, a 28-year-old teacher, working in a high school in Loire-Atlantique, in a relationship for five years with a man with classic office hours, and whose baby ten days old sleeps while she tells us about her daily life. “I can finish late at night, for class advice for example, or bring work home,” she continues. I flood the dining room with copies, burst into tears when the stress boils over, or, to regain a calming sense of control, order my companion around all day. Who complains, of course.
For Pauline, as for all those we interviewed, the spouse plays a role of mirror. It forces you to look yourself in the face, to dissect your relationship to work, stress or even money. With a consequence: the almost omnipresent guilt, in the background, of being too absent, too ambitious, too perfectionist… “As painful as it is, this emotion fulfills a function, underlines the work psychologist Adrien Chignard, founder of the cabinet Sens et Cohérence: to arouse in us a tension that we soothe by repairing what needs to be repaired, so as to no longer cause undue harm to the other.”
Thinking about yourself… and in the long term
In this case, slowing down to make yourself more available. If it emerges, the temptation to slow down, in the more or less long term, sometimes comes up against a simple observation: these women love their job, the intellectual emulation, the adrenaline peaks or the feeling of accomplishment provides them. Only, to say it out loud is to assume that we flourish as much, or even more, in the office than at home, with those we love. “The ego, ambition and, in general, the signs that one favors one’s individuality over sacrificing oneself for others are not valued in women, quite the contrary, underlines journalist and coach Lucile Quillet, author of Price to pay (2). We too often gauge a woman’s love by her lack of interest in money or her career, which is unfair and wrong. Of course, couples evolve, but defending your personal interest within your own family remains difficult.
Difficult, but necessary. All the figures say it: for lack of open discussions on the subject, being in a couple makes women lose money. Less paid than men on average, they finance more current expenses, to the detriment of profitable long-term investments. Result: after a separation, their standard of living decreases by 20% on average, against 2% for men. At retirement, the gender pension gap is around 40%. “It may not be glamorous, but it would be naive to forget that half of couples separate and that women reap very little mirroring all the free work provided at home, continues Lucile Quillet. Conversely, counting, talking about money and thinking about the consequences of career adjustments is an act of love, precisely because we wish the best for the other.
Injunction to rest
Still need to define it. Many of the women we interviewed recounted how their husbands, worried, begged them to take care of them. “When I work until exhaustion, he explains to me that I have to gain in maturity, know my limits and clear my mind,” says Anneleen (1), a 33-year-old Dutch woman, executive manager of a start-up with rapid growth. His daily life is made up of long and regular trips to the four corners of Europe, teams to set up, budgets to meet and objectives to achieve. In short, fatigue and stress, to which is added the pressure put by her spouse, six years older, yet full of good intentions. “I know that he is sometimes right and that I should spare myself, continues Anneleen, but he also projects his own needs on me. Like working out six times a week, getting up at 5:30 a.m. on weekends to meditate, or reading loads of books on time management and productivity. He sometimes makes me feel, very annoyingly, that I have to do even more, when I’m already trying to be good at work, nice at home and present for my family and friends.
“This injunction to rest, which still involves performance, is toxic, underlines the psychologist Adrien Chignard, especially when it is formatted and ordered by others – “rest as I tell you to do”. This means that our moments of recovery no longer belong to us, and that we must perform even when we are alone. There is no way out.” This is also true in the area of self-confidence or the ability to assert oneself at work. “We can argue when I complain about my hours, my manager or my salary, continues Anneleen. He shakes me up by telling me “make sure things change”, “ask for a raise” or “talk to your boss”, but all that requires a courage that I don’t yet have, or not always have. From there to the dialogue of the deaf, there is only one step. He would like her to change her posture or her habits, she would like us to give her some breathing space. And everyone, little by little, risks becoming immured in their frustration, until their aggressiveness escalates. “Ultimately, we run the risk of a polarized hyperconflict, continues Adrien Chignard, in which we embark children, friends or family, suddenly caught up in clan logic.”
Exist outside the office
Hence the importance of regulating the machine before it gets carried away. To look at the schedule, for example, to anticipate the intense work periods to come. To sanctify moments for two or with the family, promising not to touch them. And, above all, to give your spouse the space to express their own needs in order to make the necessary adjustments. Like Clémentine, the London lawyer, who notably moved to England because her husband wanted to set up a business there. Or Pauline, the teacher from Loire-Atlantique, determined to review her priorities. “I want to show him that I am capable of being a relaxed mother to have a peaceful family,” she confides.
Would a man have imposed the same requirement on himself? Probably more among the younger generations than before, but still. The stereotypes and the predefined roles of each other continue to irrigate the imagination, the discussions of the couple and the trajectories that each one authorizes. “From a man who has a career, has money and power but no family, we will say that he is passionate. From a woman in the same case, that she missed out on her life, deplores Lucile Quillet, author of the Price to pay. It is up to those who want to “have it all” to manage, without the world of work reinventing itself to become more inclusive.”
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But then, how to draw a model of your own, specific to each couple and each family? First, perhaps, by broadening the horizon, and remembering what we share. “We can, when we discuss the rhythms of each, formulate a long-term benevolent intention, advises the psychologist Adrien Chignard. For example, remember that if we talk about it, it’s because we want to be a happy and loving couple, and stay that way. This gives us a common horizon, towards which we still have to navigate, according to the needs and expectations of each one. Without seeking the perfect consensus, but at least the consent of one and the other.
A necessary step to preserve your couple, but also yourself. All those we interviewed know, deep down, that they are walking on a ridge line and that burnout is never far away. The requests of their spouse have this merit: they push them to question, even to redefine, the place of work in their lives. “You can flourish in your profession, but there is no happiness in the absence of limits, recalls Adrien Chignard. By investing only in your career, to the detriment of other spheres of your life, you take the risk of losing your identity the day you throw away your business card. Without even having had time to see it coming.
(1) This first name has been changed.
(2) The Price to Pay: What the Straight Couple Costs Women, by Lucile Quillet, Les Liens qui Libérant editions, coll. Paperback +, 252 pages, €8.90. Available on placedeslibraires.fr.