Marriage and divorce and women (scientists & otherwise)

Mar 14 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I started a post this morning about generations and anger and the world at large. As I thought back on what it felt like to me, when I was a sprout, a particularly strong memory came to me.

About this time four men I knew, professionally, at work, were getting divorces. One was my dept chair, one was a person with whom I wanted to collaborate, and the other two were co-teachers in then large and topically integrated first year med school class that was my teaching assignment. White privileged men, but all took some interest in mentoring me, and helping me. The dept chair had been very much responsible for me getting the job I did (when most of the other candidates were significantly senior, and already had tenure track jobs, I was just a postdoc at the time). But, in today's climate, let me be clear, there was no inappropriate behavior or pressure. It could be that they were honorable. It could be that I have always given off bristly signals, and have not, am not, and do not give off traditional female signals. No body has ever accused me of being sexy, let alone attractive.

I did not really know any of the wives, having met each once or twice at social things. I was kinda used to this by now. I had been the only women in several programs I had been part of it, and was used to the awkwardness of work related social situations. But mostly these were wives and mothers and women who had given up careers for being wives and mothers (most were Silent Generation, and some early boomer generation women). When I was younger I was more dismissive of women who were not professionals. I'm older than that now. I knew two of them and they struck me as being not very nice to me, but this is through my memory and thirty years of growing up.  The other two were just frosty the figures, no one I would want to marry (not that same sex marriage was remotely on the horizon even then).

But the memory that is strongest is something along the lines of: while I wouldn't want to be married to any of the women, I certainly wouldn't want to be involved with any of their husbands. It made me glad to be where I was (at the time) in terms of my life. Of course, in retrospect, there was not a lot of "work/life balance" in my world at that time. You did science/research/medicine or you did not.  But looking at these men & their lives, set up some major cognitive dissonance, as these were men I (sorta kinda) admired in the professional arena. Yet, they were pretty much schmucks in their private lives.

It was one of my early lessons that people can seem different in different contexts. People *are* different in different contexts. These men tried, a little, to protect me from the only other woman in the department, a toxic senior woman (to whom, in memory, I try to be more generous, her road was likely harder than mine, but really, she was evil).  They helped me to get funded, to start my career, to help me a success. I'm still glad I wasn't married to any of them.



But the


3 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    "Yet, they were pretty much schmucks in their private lives."

    How do you know this? And what makes them schmucks? The fact that their wives weren't professionals? Don't be too quick to judge. I've known women who have inexplicably left their seemingly awesome husbands (honest, caring, child-doting, responsible men). In any case, we can never know what goes on behind closed doors. Hearing about divorce among my colleagues has always made me sad and sad for them.

    • Zuska says:

      Oy! I can sympathize with the "don't make snap judgments" sentiment but that hardly seems to be what's going on in this rather thoughtful post. I want to allow the possibility that a thoughtful person can reflect on their life & people they've known well and make a statement like "great scientist who mentored me, but schmuck I'm glad I wasn't married to."

      The feeling I got from this post was of sadness for both parties in the failing marriages and sadness for the lost or sacrificed potential of the wives; gratitude to the mentors; gratitude not to have been playing either role in the failed marriages. Just as she could not see herself as blunted wife with sacrificed dreams, nor could she see herself as someone willing to enter a marriage with a blunted, sacrificing partner. And she could separate that assessment from "good scientist, good mentor."

      Modern marriages where household work & needs are shared more equitably can still collapse for a whole host of reasons, sure. And, so?

  • potnia theron says:

    Firstly, as Zuska suggests, these weren't snap judgments. Secondly, I knew they were schmucks in their marriages, because I knew them and saw them and made a judgment about their behaviors. I didn't feel that I needed, for this post, to put in all the supporting detail as to what I saw back then. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, but I was reflecting on something that I thought over 30 years ago. The major point was that people are, can be, different in different situations. And, no one is a superhero. One needs to see the human beings who help one as the complex interactions of good and bad, of mentor and spouse, in the context of the 16 roles we each play throughout a week.

Leave a Reply