I have been thinking a lot about Maria Shriver lately. Not simply or solely because of the huge betrayal by her husband. I actually began thinking about her when I viewed her you tube video asking questions about how to handle transitions. She looked like every other woman I know who, at the end of her marriage, is both relieved and scared, and wondering how she will remake her life.
A year and a half ago, I wrote scathingly about Shriver’s report on women. Essentially I thought it much ado about very little. That women’s lives, while marginally better in many ways, are still not better enough, and that all of us seem to fight the same battles over and over and over.
No matter what policy our company has (or doesn’t) each woman has to negotiate her way through her own pregnancy leave. Each woman has to figure out how to do her work and raise children at the same time, or how to give up that work and hope to get it back at the end of childrearing years. And when women’s marriages end, no matter who was the instigator, we are often left vulnerable by age, financial worries, and the fact that perhaps we have not negotiated properly the transition we will need to make.
This is all in spite of feminism. While we have “won” the right to work, those of us who also want children, know that the challenge to do both will be difficult, exhausting, and complex. And men, even the most liberated of them, simply do not have the same considerations. Very few of them stop working to take care of children and then find themselves, whether still married or alone, searching for meaningful work in their forties or fifties. And even women with the most enlightened of husbands still do the lion’s share of the housework, meal preparation, scheduling, and ferrying of children. As clichéd as it may sound, women, for the most part, are the ones who keep the family and the household running smoothly.
Shriver left her news job to be a politician’s wife and raise four children. Although she still wrote and remained in the public eye here and there, essentially she gave up her own career because it was in conflict with her husband’s. And then, the bomb dropped. At first, before the revelations about her husband’s child with another woman, we were told the couple split amicably. Now we know that his confession a couple of months ago must have not only destroyed Shriver’s faith in her marriage, but made her feel foolish for giving up so much for a man who could not seem to give up anything.
Women stay in marriages for all sorts of reasons, some of which have to do with love, some with inertia. They stay for the sake of the children, because they are frightened of being alone, because they are economically handicapped, because they believe in the sanctity of marriage, because they believe they have the power to fix even the most broken relationship. They stay because they are growing older and less beautiful, because they can’t think of anywhere else to go. Even women who consider themselves feminists often find themselves trapped in marriages that are nothing like they wished. Betrayal, whether it comes in the form of emotional distance, secrecy, infidelity, brutality, or just plain boredom, is excruciating to navigate. And each separation, like each marriage, has its own painful narrative. Although we believe strongly in love, that strong belief is too often not enough to carry us along for fifty years. Whether we go of our own accord or left, we are still forced to make a decision that we never even wished to think about when we stood next to our beloved and said “I do.”
I don’t know Maria Shriver, but I can’t help but think that for all her fame and fortune, she is not unlike the millions of other women who must confront life on their own in middle age. She may have more resources but it is clear from listening to her speak about the demise of her marriage that her pain is profound. She looks, in the video, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. But to Shriver’s credit, unlike the wives of many other politicians, she has not and will not stand by her man. Whatever fear she may feel in making her own “transition” she obviously prefers it to the sham of trying to make things work with a partner who has clearly checked out.
We all remember the moment when Hillary Clinton stood by Bill, when Jenny Sanford initially stood next to Mark as he revealed his indiscretion, even if she later left, when Silda Wall, Eliot Spitzer’s wife, blamed herself for his time with a prostitute. Some of us can even remember as far back as Tammy Baker supporting her philandering husband Jim. It would be nice to think that those days are over. They aren’t, of course, but Shriver’s honest bravery is a good beginning.