"Our feet hurt."
It's a joke my husband Ken likes to tell: an elderly couple whose lives are so happily intertwined that when the wife develops an ache in her arch, they visit the doctor together, and the husband complains: "Doctor, our feet hurt."
When I met Ken in 2003, I'd recently quit my career as a corporate lawyer, found freelance work to pay the bills, and taken up writing as a hobby. He was about to publish his book, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell on Earth. It's a memoir of his life as a UN peacekeeper - and a critique of UN policy -- in some of the 1990s' worst war zones: Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti, Liberia. The book is raw and hilarious and brilliant. Ken and his co-authors were all over the media when it came out and Very Important People were telling him what a great writer he is and how much his work matters. Hollywood titans vied to option the film rights. (Russell Crowe ultimately won the fight - stay tuned for the release.)
I, in contrast, had written a poem. OK, a few poems. They were mostly about my love life, and they were clearly insignificant compared to Ken's work in the world. Still, one evening I gathered my courage and handed him a sheaf of them, biting my nails as I anticipated his response.
It came the next day, in an e-mail with big, 48 point letters:
He wasn't kidding about the "drop everything" part. This was not the bland encouragement of the experienced guy with a big book being kind to the young girlfriend and her poems. He wanted me to sacrifice for the craft of writing - and he, as my supportive partner, was prepared to do the same. He meant every word of that e-mail. I would find out just how deeply he meant it in the years to come.
This support continued all through our courtship and later, our marriage. I kept writing - a memoir, a play, stories, essays. He kept encouraging, visiting me every day at the Greenwich Village café I'd adopted as my writing studio. We rented a winter cabin on the beach and went for writing retreats on long weekends.
I never tried to publish my work, until I got to the QUIET book proposal in 2005. Somehow I knew that this was the one. But even with QUIET, there were a hundred turning points where success wouldn't have come but for Ken's interventions: when he suggested that I rewrite the first draft of the proposal because, he observed (correctly), it had no thesis. When he proposed that I apply to TED as a speaker, and cajoled me as I invented excuse after excuse for not doing it. When TED accepted my application, and he helped find the perfect acting coach to prepare for the big stage. (I think that Ken was more nervous about that TED talk than I was - which is saying a lot. He could have watched it from home via live stream, but holed up in our bedroom instead and waited to hear from me when it was over.)
He also cheered me on and choked up with pride: when the Quiet proposal sold at auction, when the book hit the bestseller list, then again when my TED talk went viral.
Such success was a blessing, but it turned our world upside down. The sacrifices of the writing life suddenly ratcheted up many notches. We have young children, and I travel a lot for the Quiet Revolution. That could be a lot of wear and tear on a family - especially with a husband who didn't see his wife's success as the family's bounty, or who didn't have the disposition to greet every overseas trip and its inevitable interruptions of his own projects with a cheerful "Let's go!"
But Ken has chosen to see these years of chaos as a grand family adventure that benefits us all. We've crisscrossed the planet with our children so I could tell the world about the Quiet Revolution while keeping our family together and happy.
I'm acutely aware of how few husbands would be willing to play this role - and what a loss that is for their wives, their families, themselves, and the world. So, for all the husbands out there, here is what I've observed:
I don't think that Ken could have done this when he was 21 -- before he'd been out in the world: young, bold, and independent. Before he had tasted the guts and romance, the adventure and heartache of the Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad novels he grew up reading in his father's library.
Because he has been through that particular passage, he is ready now to navigate this one. Or, more precisely: he doesn't distinguish between this passage and the one that came before. To him they are equally challenging, equally masculine, equally fulfilling. He pours himself into our family work and life with the same intensity he once expended overseas.
I've nicknamed my husband "Gonzo," in honor of Hunter S. Thompson's style of "gonzo journalism." Thompson didn't believe in reporters holding themselves apart from events; he plunged himself right into the story, his entire heart engaged. That's how Ken lives our life together.
I think it never occurred to him to do things any differently. I think he enjoys having a wife who is passionate about work as well as love. And I think that one day his feet will start to hurt, and therefore mine will too.
#LeanInTogether for equality. Visit leanintogether.org to learn more.