The Thinking 

Will this Engineer Make a Good Wife?

July 10, 2012


RICH P. writes:

I am considering proposing marriage to my girlfriend of two years. She is sweet and kind, especially to children and the elderly. She remained faithful to me through a deployment to Iraq. She sought confirmation as a Catholic, expressing that if we were to begin a family, unity of faith would be absolutely essential. Her faith before the Sacrament is an inspiration to me. Previously our relationship had been intimate but for the last six months she’s quit birth control and we have (thankfully) recovered a commitment to chastity.

So what’s the problem? My girlfriend is an engineer in the petroleum industry. She gets paid very well, as you can imagine. She’s expressed a desire before to be a housewife, or shift into consulting, but lately she tells me that this is a source of anxiety for her. Some days she wants nothing more than to raise children, and some days the idea of giving up her career, with its excitements and rewards, is frightening to her.

I know that it’s impossible to predict in advance, especially for one who would be a mother, how deeply children manage to re-arrange your priorities when you’ve never had any before. She’s so gentle with children that I know she’d be a great mother. Part of me wants to look to her good qualities and propose despite her (and my) anxieties, trusting in her natural capabilities and my capacity for leadership to raise a large and loving family. Part of me is anxious that anxiety or ambivalence on her part prior to marriage might only be exacerbated by marriage and family. She wasn’t raised with a father, or even brothers for that matter. She would be unused to accepting the role of a husband and a father in her life. Towards me thus far she’s been the picture of femininity, but dating is so untaxing compared to marriage. If there was a crisis between us, her mother (to whom all women turn to) wouldn’t be able to reinforce norms of wedded behavior.

Yes, I have spoken to my parents. They approve of her, but my mother has expressed reservations about her family situation. I’d like to put the question to you: should I propose? Should I wait for her to resolve her anxieties? Are her fluctuating careerist desires grave cause for concern which might only get worse, and reason enough to end the relationship? I appreciate any insight and advice you could offer.

Laura writes:

I couldn’t possibly tell you, in response to this thoughtful and impressive question, whether to propose to your friend. But here’s a few points for you to consider.

It is very unlikely, though not impossible, that you would find a young intelligent woman who is not suffering from ambivalence. Feminism manufactures inner conflict. It constantly holds out the possibility to women and men that they can have everything; even women such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who publicly acknowledge how hard it is to have everything, hold out the tantalizing expectation, indeed the demand, that women attain everything short of a national position of eminence while maintaining a happy and well-functioning family life. How patently ridiculous. What a blatant lie —  a lie that virtually everyone knows is a lie.

So I don’t think you should wait for your friend to resolve her ambivalence if you otherwise wish to propose. It’s too much to expect this uncertainty to go away, now or anytime in the near future.

She has spent years becoming an engineer. She’s facing a radically different way of life, and it may not dawn on her for some time just how incompatible being a good mother and wife is with being a good engineer. It’s not just a question of what she owes you and your children, it’s a question of what she owes the field of petroleum engineering. If she were to continue to work, would she give her best? Would she take paying opportunities from others not suffering from any ambivalence or “work/life conflict?”

While she may lack support in her immediate family, there are many women who are not falling in with the surrounding culture, especially on the Internet. It just takes some hard looking to find them. They are everywhere. Committed mothers and wives are always found in homeschooling groups. She will need to detach herself, inwardly at least, from those who are negative and who glorify paid work and casual child neglect.

The most important thing you can do, if you marry, is to express appreciation for her. She will have to adjust her sense of the pace of life and spend time far from the busy crowd, without the status and recognition of a career. She will go from many short-term projects with concrete goals to long-term projects with nebulous goals — and many seemingly trivial tasks. It will take years for her to gain a sense of mastery in those tasks, to run her home as well she might run a small hotel, to build a strong marriage and raise good children, to become not just efficient, but wise.

To grow in the ability to love, after spending so much time preparing to be an engineer; to learn to prefer the diffuse tasks of homemaking to the concentrated energies of applied science and the busyness of an office; to come to understand that women have immense power in their rightful sphere to create or destroy both individuals and a culture; to give up the material rewards and status of being a professional, all this will be difficult for her, but not impossible. Many others have done it.

You have good reason to be optimistic if you do marry your friend, in part because of the devotion she has already shown and also because of who you are and what you have to give her. You can never be completely assured of a good spouse. You can be assured, if you honor your vows, that your marriage will mold you, in the same way a sculptor chisels at stone or a welder manipulates iron with a hot flame, into a work of fine craftsmanship. The purpose of other people in our lives, as you well know, is not to bring us all ease and happiness but to serve as this sometimes painful, molding and perfecting force, this refining flame without which we would be raw, unfinished, crude and barely human. In the end, once married, the cardinal rule is to worry much less about what a spouse is doing than we worry about our own honor and integrity.

I wish you the best and great happiness.

                                         — Comments —-

Laura writes:

I just want to add that it is very good sign that your girlfriend is kind to children and to the elderly. The last is especially devalued in modern society. It is very difficult, extremely difficult, to be attentive and sensitive to elderly friends, relatives and neighbors while holding down a job and taking care of one’s children. But to fail at this, to be insensitive to them, robs a woman of her dignity.

I have an elderly friend who is almost 90. A couple of years ago, her husband of 64 years died. She is a kind and sweet woman. Neither of her next-door neighbors expressed any condolences to her. One morning, a few weeks after her husband had died, she met one of her neighbors in her driveway. She said to him, “Oh, by the way, I thought you should know, my husband died.”

He said, “Yeah, I know.”

And that’s all. I mention this because I see this attitude as largely a result of the depersonalizing nature of feminism and the loss of attention women now give to neighbors.

Paul writes:

It sounds like Rich has already had heart-to-hearts with his sweet girlfriend, but there is a serious conflict of interest. One cannot serve two masters. Rich is a soldier, and he must move every couple of years if he wants to advance and perhaps even if he just wants to keep his job. Rich’s profession requires dedication. Engineering requires dedication just to get the degree and just as much to keep a job. Engineering, like geology, is cyclical. If the economy or the oil market goes down, engineering and geological jobs suffer greatly. Moreover, she will be fired from or leave her job because she will run into a lousy boss. Job changes will happen to her unless she is very lucky. So make sure she understands that. Is she willing to go where Rich goes? If she does not know now, then Rich should not marry her until she makes up her mind or Rich makes up his mind to follow her. I can’t recommend the latter; it is untraditional.

I have a close friend who told his wife before they were married that his career, not children, came first. He now makes millions. But there came a time when his sweet wife was in her late 30s, and she wanted a child. He did not. He is dedicated to work and to his wife. (He stayed up four days cramming for finals one semester when we were in college together. I am the witness. I used to go two at most. He was a cum laude undergraduate.) He does not want anything to interfere. He did not threaten divorce, but he made it clear he wanted nothing to do with a child. She almost divorced him over it. They are kind people I have known since I was teenager. Curiously, I dropped him with one punch while we played football in grammar school, or so he tells me. I have fought so many times I forget. (He was always Catholic while she was Methodist when they married. But after that crisis, she became a Catholic.)

Because people change, neither Rich nor his girlfriend can be sure about how they will feel in five or ten years. But at least they can know how they feel now. Laura is the expert here, so I would follow her advice.

Laura writes:

“He is dedicated to work and to his wife.”

Doesn’t sound like it, if he refused to let her have a child. That is the only truly legitimate reason to dissolve a marriage. It is the greatest single violation of the marital bond.

Karen I. writes:

It is unfortunate that Rich’s mother has expressed reservations about his girlfriend’s family situation. There is absolutely nothing the young lady can do about that and it certainly should not be held against her. If anything, Rich’s mother should try to support her in her admirable attempts to conform to Rich’s ideals. Rich’s mother can also try to a good role model for her. This may be a case where support from a mother in law could make a world of difference. On the other hand, if Rich decides to marry the engineer and his mother expresses her reservations by being a critical or otherwise difficult mother in law, it could result a severe rift in the family or even divorce down the line. It could also turn an inexperienced homemaker away from home and straight back to work, as a common way critical mother in laws express discontent with a daughter in law is to criticize her homemaking and parenting skills, which can result in profound discouragement.

It seems to me Rich’s girlfriend has done a lot to show her commitment and willingness to change. It is up to Rich to decide if he wants to marry her, but it would be unkind to hold marriage over her head, like a prize she can earn if she just says and does everything perfectly. I think up to this point, she has done a lot right, and even her expressions of anxiety were honest. Communication in a marriage is very important and if the girlfriend senses she is anxious and shares that information, it certainly should be discussed but not held against her, given her efforts to this point. Intelligent women know when something they said has caused a man to see them differently, and they also know that by being a bit less honest or open in communication, they can change his perception. That is not to say Rich’s girlfriend would tell outright lies, but if she loves him as much as she appears to, she may decide to minimize her anxieties when speaking to him in order to obtain the marriage she wants. That could set up a very negative pattern of passive aggressive behavior of the sort that destroys marriages.

I did not see any mention in Rich’s post of pre-marital counseling with a Catholic priest or deacon. In my parish, those who want a Catholic ceremony in the church must register at least six months in advance. They are required to go through extensive pre-marital counseling. I was already married and had my marriage blessed in the church after I was confirmed in my mid-30s, so I did not go through this process, but I did learn about it in my RCIA class. It is my understanding that the pre-marital religious counseling is very helpful to couples. From what I have heard, they leave the process with a much better understanding of marriage, themselves, and their partner. Some engagements do not survive the process, but that is not a bad thing. It would be wise for Rich to look into this counseling. He should also pray about the matter and perhaps talk to a priest or other trusted member of the church about his reservations. In our church, we have a deacon people often turn to for advice. Deacons are allowed to marry and ours has been married for several decades, so many couples turn to him, knowing he understands what they are going through. Rich would also be wise to look at his own behavior and make sure he is not doing anything to fuel his girlfriend’s anxieties. It can be easy to focus on the faults of another while overlooking our own.

I know this is a long post, but my last suggestion would be for Rich to examine his assumptions. He states that “all women” turn to their mothers. That is just totally wrong. My mother is the last person I turn to as I know full well the feminist advice I would get. I know women who lean on their mothers more than I do, but even they are not mindless robots who do their mother’s bidding. At a certain age, most women know when to take their mothers advice and when to say “thanks Mom” while bad advice goes in one ear and out the other. If that is not what Rich’s girlfriend does, there may be serious codependence issues, but that would be quite apparent to him by now.

Laura writes:

Excellent points.

Regarding advice from mothers, I agree with Karen that many women successfully detach or distance themselves from their mothers. Many lack a mother’s moral support when raising their own children. But still it is a hardship and there is something deeply unnatural about it.

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