The Curse Of The Career Woman

There are countless reasons women stay single through the conventional marrying-off years. Working 80 hours a week for a high-paying hedge fund is only one of them, and I reckon it applies to a small minority of us.

Still, there seems to be an unspoken expectation that if you’re a woman over 30 and never married and a contributing member of society, you must be sitting on a pile of cash or at least own some real estate and have your student loans paid off.

The media images of the Independent Career Woman we’ve been fed usually involve some combination of a sleek designer suit, light-reflecting hair, and a high-limit credit card with which to pay for “Eat, Pray, Love” sojourns when the going gets rough.

But depending on your line of work, working hard doesn’t always translate into a padded savings account and Keratin-smoothed locks. Sometimes it means laboring all weekend with unwashed hair to meet a deadline, praying that you’ll get paid in time to avoid defaulting on your student loan.

When I was in grad school several years ago (and working multiple jobs), a man I was dating bailed because he didn’t think my shabby rent-stabilized studio, the only thing I could afford, was nice enough. He said he needed to have a place where he could entertain his friends in style. He was unemployed and living with his parents at the time. Another boyfriend was super interested – enchanted, even – with my work until he realized it didn’t pay me a salary big enough for both of us.

Then he started saying things like, “The only thing holding me back from committing to a future with you is that you’re not established enough in your career.” I was a senior editor at a mid-sized publication (and, at the time, the highest-ranking female in editorial, while, of course, the lowest paid among my peers). He was my age and less than a year into an entry-level job, the first professional job he’d ever had in his life. None of my last three boyfriends have bought me Christmas or birthday presents. One said I was too hard to buy for because I never showed interest in material things. I think he meant it as a compliment.

As these patterns surfaced in my own relationships, I started taking inventory of the relationship and dating dynamics among my heterosexual friends, men and women alike. And I noticed a trend: The women who married in their twenties were far less likely to be the breadwinners in their relationships, regardless of their career success and the ages of their husbands, than women who waited until later in life. And the men who stayed single into their 30s and 40s always seemed to put a high priority on a potential girlfriend’s ability to provide – not always only for herself.

One financially successful male friend broke up with a girl with whom he was deeply in love, a talented and hardworking but semi-struggling artist when they were both in their thirties. He told me it was largely because he was afraid he would always have to take care of her financially. It didn’t seem to matter that he could.

A close female friend invited her boyfriend to move in with her when he lost the lease on his apartment. After they upgraded to a bigger apartment in the same building, he stopped working and paying rent, expecting her to somehow cover the difference. They eventually broke up right before she got evicted. The lease was in her name, which means the eviction is on her record alone.

Time and time again, I hear stories from single women in their thirties and beyond getting stuck inexplicably with the tab or expected to sponsor her boyfriend if she wants a date for an out-of-town wedding. Since I’ve been in my thirties, I’ve noticed that my checking account dwindles exponentially faster when I’m coupled up than when I’m single. And that’s only partially due to the behind-the-scenes cosmetic upkeep of being in a relationship (though the waxing and manicures and the always-having-sexy underwear definitely adds up).

It’s the doubled (or tripled) grocery bill; the VOD movies we watch at my place because he doesn’t own a TV; the going dutch on date night even though you cook him dinner every other night of the week. This was never an issue when I was in my twenties. Sometimes it feels like a woman past the ideal age of a man’s desire is expected to pay a tariff for the privilege of his paying attention to her. But I think there is more to it than that.

In any event, it feels impossible – damn near hypocritical – to complain, or ask for more. How can I call myself a feminist if I’m heartbroken when my boyfriend wants to split the dinner tab on Valentine’s Day? How can I give him a hard time about the underrepresentation of female directors in his DVD collection and then resent him for “running late” so that I have to buy the movie tickets? Still, resent I do – and how. But I resent behind the scenes, right next to the surreptitious visits to the aesthetician. And that’s what has usually led to the relationship’s breakdown. (The resentment, not the Brazilians.)

Even if these particular men were losers, they were winners at making me feel like I was the bigger loser. What’s wrong with me that I’m deep into my thirties and living paycheck to paycheck? I’ve often thought, even though I’d never look down on a man for being in the same position. 

Rashida Jones recently published an essay in Wired offering guidance for staying happy and productive at work. The successful Hollywood actress and writer might have a bit of a skewed perspective on work/life balance, but she observed that the fear of failing is harder for women because “men’s failures are not tied to their gender in the same way.”

While I’m not sure I can fully get behind that statement taken at face value — there is certainly a lot of pressure on men to live up to certain ideals. I think there is something to be said for men having the freedom and support to take risks in a way that women typically do not.

Women are not automatically considered useful and valuable in the same way men are. (To steal a line from Jones, “that’s just a truth.”) A man can be defined by his ambitions alone.

But a woman can’t call herself a certain thing until it is verified by an outside party. There’s an old joke you sometimes hear in my Brooklyn neighborhood: “What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?” The punchline: Homeless.

It’s funny because you can’t imagine it the other way around. Women continue to be expected to support ambitious men in any endeavor, the likelihood of failure notwithstanding. But ambitious women are often expected to have it all and do it all, all by ourselves. A man is entitled to pursue whatever path he chooses simply because he is a man, while women have to work so much harder just to earn the right to want something more.

Sometimes it feels as if there is an unconscious, collective belief that a woman has to prove her worth by taking care of a man. Or, at the very least, by not expecting too much from him.

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