A lawyer explains her patience with the demands of work on her spouse, as part of Joris Luyendijk’s Voices of finance series
People in finance work incredibly long hours. What’s it like being married to such a person? In an earlier post here, a banker’s ex-girlfriend spoke of her failed attempts to make her relationship work. Her story made you wonder how other partners of bankers feel. There must be many who are happy with the lifestyle? Then a wife of an investment banker at a major American bank got in touch via email, responding to this post about the Occupy movement.
She agreed to sit for an interview, after warning: “I have no extravagant stories to share”. We meet for lunch at a restaurant on Threadneedle in the heart of the City. She is a highly educated woman in her early 30s. She seems very much at ease in the slightly posh restaurant. Around us financial types seem engaged in deep discussion, jointly staring at screens filled with spreadsheets, like boys studying the map of treasure island. As this is a Friday, she orders a cocktail.
“I think it helps that I know what it’s like for him. I used to work at a “magic circle” [top UK] law firm myself. I have pulled all-nighters, worked till one at night for weeks on end. I remember exactly how it works, how you become one with the team, this feeling of: we’re going to do this, and we are going to win because we are the best.
“The world of finance is a way of life. I also know men in corporate law who were in a conference call when their wives went into labour. And trust me, they did not come out of that call until they had finished. That sort of thing happens in finance too, you either play the game or you sit on the sidelines. Nobody at my husband’s bank with a certain level of responsibility knows how many days’ leave they have for the rest of the year; nobody uses them anyway. There’s no such thing as ‘today, closed for business’, and using an ‘out of office’ is not done.
“When the last crisis hit, at some point almost all our foreign friends had left London. There were these rounds and rounds of lay-offs and by the end most had returned to their home countries. Although head counts are now less frequent, things have not calmed down. In the old days people didn’t care so much at which investment bank they were. Now most want to be with a bank seen as safe. Currently considered unsafe are UBS, Bank of America and BNP.
“I knew what I was getting into. Our first date was cancelled twice because of his work. I was living in another city back then, so initially it was long-distance love. I would travel to London to discover that he had to work all through the weekend. I would hardly see him. We were very much in love and I would plan an evening to introduce him to my friends. Then he would have to cancel. Initially my friends probably assumed he wasn’t serious. The travel plus our demanding jobs was driving both of us mad. Then he was sent to the US and I decided to join him. After about a year-and-a-half there, we moved to London.
“You’re asking, I sacrificed my career to come live with him, now what is he sacrificing for me? Well, you must know he really, really tried to find a job in the city where I was living. He genuinely tried. But it’s hard, if you work in London in a complex and specific area of finance, to find something suitable in a much, much smaller city. It didn’t work and I didn’t mind that much really, I was keen after all that time to start our life together.
“On weekdays I do not include my husband in any of my after-office plans. He leaves home by 8.30am and is usually home by 10 or 11 in the evening, sometimes later, sometimes a bit earlier. Some days I actually quite like this, to be honest. I know that we get to see each other at least once every day, to touch base.
“It strikes me sometimes what a different life other people lead. When I go to gallery openings or expositions, some people are genuinely surprised my husband couldn’t make it at 7pm. He is at work, and if he were somehow off early that night, he is tired and doesn’t want to be at some social event. It can be a bit of a bother, going to these things by myself. There are the weddings from friends or family that he can’t make. I went to two weddings in his family, alone. That can be a bit tedious, even more so since most of these ‘mandatory’ events require travel abroad. You are now asking me to think of the disadvantages of him being in this job, but this is not something that bothers me too much on a daily basis.
“When we book a holiday it does bother me a little because we can never be sure whether we are actually going until the very last moment. Once there, we are never sure if he can stay. I will find myself driving the rental car through the French countryside, reading the map all wrong, getting terribly lost and at some point finding my way again, all the while he is sitting next to me with a computer in his lap on a conference call. It’s farcical but the two of us can laugh at these things. If I really needed him, I would have his undivided attention. That’s what matters. The rest is noise. We are in it together and we accept these restrictions as consequences of our choices. I imagine most busy professional couples think this way.
“Besides, it used to be much worse. There was a time when he would also work the entire weekend, come home after midnight on all weekdays. These days he is sufficiently senior that when extra work pops up after he has left, he can pass it on to junior people or deal with it from a distance. However, it’s going to get worse again because the only other team member is taking maternity leave. My husband is going to have to miraculously cover for her equally stressful job. This has happened before and will take its toll on him again physically. It will seriously affect both our lives.
“I probably won’t make myself popular saying this but when I see women in jobs like that with four of five kids, I do wonder: what are you thinking? You have chosen to work in a very competitive environment and now you are going to saddle your employer and your colleagues with this series of disruptions. I can totally see why an employer would say: we can’t deal with this another time. Oh listen to me, I’d hate to think what readers make of this. I just think some positions are not simply ‘jobs’ you can step back from without seriously affecting others.
“We do hope to have kids at some point. How this will work out? I will probably keep working full-time. We will see how all that pans out. There is ‘full-time’ in the sense that my job is full-time, and then there is the next level of dedication required for certain jobs like my husband’s. You cannot explain that difference to people who have never been in a front office role at the cutting-edge of the consultancy, accountancy, legal or financial industry – the toughest of all.
“Perhaps he will start to feel less of a need for a high-flying career, that having kids lessens that? We’ll pass that bridge when we come to it. At dinner parties the topic of combining work with children comes up a lot and it can get slightly tiresome. Stories about how somebody’s nanny was poached… How do you stop your nanny from talking to people who might make them better offers while she is taking the kids out to the park? How do you get your kid in the ‘right’ school? We sometimes joke that even parenthood is a competitive industry.
“I don’t think I should have to justify myself to anyone, but just for the record, I spend one evening a week cooking meals for homeless people. My husband and I donate significant sums to charity, anonymously. I fully expect that your readers will hate me. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have done this interview. I suppose I am pretty rightwing, in that I care about people and believe in helping others while also strongly believing that people must take responsibility. This is a capitalist system, right? This is what we have chosen to live under, not communism. There is so much anger towards banks and the finance industry whereas hardly anyone seems to demand any sort of mea culpa from all those who took on financial commitments they should not have – such as those on minimum wage who got several loans and mortgages in order to buy a house they could not afford.
“I see inappropriate self-righteousness when I pass those ‘protesters’ in their tents… Meanwhile people like my husband and I speed past them to work on our future, to make a contribution to society… We studied hard, now we work hard and we pay hard. Fifty percent tax and we don’t mind. I do wonder how much those people would pay without grumbling if roles were reversed?
“You want me to estimate a starting teacher’s salary? I don’t know. Let me think, £45,000? Wow, it’s really only £22,000? I had no idea. That really is too low, I could not live on that. Well, obviously this is something that has to change. I mean, these teachers have had to invest in their own education and are now educating the next generation, right? I am rather shocked by this, are you sure?
“If this is what Occupy is about, then I am with them on this. Still, people need to take responsibility. My husband and I are careful and risk-adverse with our finances. We still haven’t bought a house here in London even though it’s probably a good investment and with a massive mortgage we could do so. But we feel our lives do not yet have the required stability. We are renting and saving.
“We feel privileged but not guilty or ‘bad’ when dealing with people that I suspect have less income. I do try to be sensitive. When asked where I got that coat or dress, I may say ‘It’s H&M, but last year’s collection so I am afraid it’s not in stores anymore’. I make sure not to talk about, say, sales at a department store or dinners at restaurants they can’t afford. You can slip up easily or put someone in an uncomfortable position, to suggest to go for cocktails in this really cool new place – except this place is far too expensive for the other person.
“These days I have a job that is challenging and rewarding and I make a nice salary. It’s not the kind I used to be in. It couldn’t be. We moved around quite a bit and may actually have to move again within a year or two. How could I ask an employer to invest in me with that hanging over my head?
“I know that I have taken an enormous risk. Friends of mine, former colleagues, some of them will be partners at my old firm by the time they’re 40. I gave that up for the man who is the love of my life. Yes, quite a few bankers’ wives are dumped in their mid-40s – thanks for reminding me. Maybe I’ll come to regret my choices. But I will know that I followed my heart.”