This story originally appeared on the Lean In web site, created by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg to empower and connect women. It has been edited slightly for context here.
My hand shook so hard as I dialed the number that I nearly dropped the phone. When the voice on the other end answered and asked for my name, I panicked and blanked out. For a moment, I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, could scarcely breathe.
What if they don’t believe me? I agonized inwardly. What if they tell me it was my fault?
It was the early 1980s, and thanks to the work of the powerful women’s movement of the previous two decades, the Office for Women’s Affairs on the campus of my university had recently formed a support group for women who had survived violence and assault.
My childhood was filled with trauma and nightmares that to this day I still struggle to describe. It had caused terrible scars that left me, at barely 21 years old, so badly shattered I wanted nothing more than to find some way — any way — to end my misery. I was so depressed and hopeless that death seemed to be the only reasonable option.
Every night, on going to bed, I prayed the same prayer. “God, I think you know me well enough to know I’m not going to do it,” I prayed. “But I wish you would do it for me, and just get me out of here.”
Although I did not yet know it, God was answering my prayer. Not the one I said out loud, but the one that lay so deep within that I could not bring myself even to put words on it.
I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to want to live.
Finding my voice, and the will to live
Within that group, among women who had stories to share that were much like mine, I found my will to live. And more than that, I found the courage to dare to dream big dreams. I was in that group for more than four years, and in that time, I discovered I had a voice worth hearing. I applied to a graduate program at one of the nation’s top-ranked journalism schools, despite my fears that I would not be good enough. And I excelled in that program, emerging with a master’s degree and a string of successes in the form of published articles and clear recognition of my talent from faculty and peers.
And, I emerged with high hopes for my future.
I thank God every day of my life for the miracle of that group, and for the work of the countless women who made it possible.
But then I married, and so much of that work came to a grinding halt.
In large part, it came to a halt because, although I had exerted tremendous effort in doing the hard work of changing within, the man I married had not. He saw no reason to change within. There was nothing to motivate him — not even the possibility of a stronger, happier marriage — to examine deeply held and highly destructive beliefs he had learned in childhood. And I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay married to him, I must once again silence my voice.
I have always said that our toughest battles as women will be fought on the home front, with our own husbands, fathers and sons. In many ways, I think I was simply too far ahead of the times to be able to win on a front where many still hold to the pervasive idea that the husband has to be “right” at any cost, where so much lingering, latent suspicion remains that the wife must somehow always be found to be at fault.
A difficult choice
So when a major national magazine, which I had long dreamed of working for, showed real eagerness to interview me for a position for which I would have been ideally suited, I was faced with a choice that is all too familiar to women of my generation. My husband made it clear that he would not even attempt to find a job in New York. Wouldn’t send a resume anywhere. Wouldn’t check the job boards. Just flat-out wouldn’t try.
“We can’t afford to live there,” he said stonily. And that was that. End of discussion. End of that dream.
So there it was. The choice that I and so many others have had to make: Pursue my career ambitions, or stay married.
I chose to stay married.
I cannot entirely regret that decision, even though the marriage continued to spiral downward into an increasingly toxic quagmire. Because of that decision, I have raised two beautiful daughters who are full of life and strength and potential. I have instilled in them all the messages I wish had been instilled in me: to believe in their own dreams, their own worth and their own accomplishments.
But I know there has also been an underlying message for them in the trade-off I made, and in the nagging sense that a husband who truly loved and respected his wife could surely have put forth some effort to make her dream possible, especially a dream that was well within reach. And so my hope for them has always been that they will not be faced with the terrible choice I had to make … that the world will have changed just enough to allow them better options.
Just like old friends
Until recently, I was not certain that such a hope was realistic. Like Sheryl Sandberg, I have had the uneasy sense that so much of the important work that was accomplished by those earlier feminists has been stalled, perhaps even lost.
I feel as though I have been waiting most of my adult life for some evidence that all of that work was not in vain. The high-profile launch of Lean In gives me reason to hope that there are other voices that are once again speaking for change. It’s like reconnecting with friends who have been out of touch for many years.
With that comes the hope that my daughters will indeed be able to fulfill their potential, however they choose to define it for themselves.
And reason to hope, as well, that perhaps it is not too late even for me. Maybe not even for me. As of this writing, I have been free of my oppressive, parasitic marriage for a little more than a year. It’s been a wonderful, powerful year, full of astonishment at how much I have accomplished, how well I seem to be doing on my own — far better, in fact, than I ever did when I was the demoralized “lesser half” of a couple.
So I guess we’ll see what hope lies ahead for me. We shall see.