Women of the world: Keep a career

Some people in life catch a wave. Others are caught by an undertow. Terry Martin Hekker woke up one day to find that powerful forces both personal and societal had conspired to upend her life and drag her down.

Hekker was married to a successful lawyer and judge in New York, raised five children to adulthood, and thought she would be growing old comfortably. Instead, on her 40th wedding anniversary Hekker was presented with divorce papers. Cast off like a worn suit, she went from being financially secure to realizing she could qualify for food stamps.

Hekker is like millions of other women who married before Betty Freidan went from household drudge to household name. These women were expected to devote themselves to husbands and children. But unlike most of them, Hekker wrote a book about it.

In 1977, as women were moving from the consignment of home to being players in the world of work, Hekker wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times and later a book extolling full-time housewifery and motherhood.

Hekker says she was inspired to write after attending a glittery party of entertainment people where "everyone was doing remarkable things and I was doing laundry."

In Ever Since Adam & Eve, The Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood in the Age of Do-Your-Own-Thing, Hekker jauntily defended her choice to stay home against the societal pull to start carving out a larger role for herself and generate an income of her own. It was a hit, and for a time she became the voice of the housebound mom. But then, at 63 years old, her husband left her for a series of younger and better-looking women.

Hekker titled her just-published second book Disregard First Book. It is a wry, witty and ultimately hopeful account of the upheaval that divorce caused and how she coped and finally rallied, being elected the first woman mayor of Nyack, N.Y., and reaching other impressive goals.

This short volume is a combination cautionary tale and feminist manifesto. It is a wide-angle view of the challenges facing women who built their lives on old rules that changed radically in midstream thanks to the women's movement, the sexual revolution and a new social order that tolerates husbands who dump wives who become dumpy.

Hekker says this second book resulted from a 2006 New York Times column she wrote about her devastating divorce and anachronistic first book. She received hundreds of responses from women who experienced the same thing. They had depended on a man to define their lives and provide their livelihood, only to have the guy "trade up" for a younger, more accomplished model when she reached her 50s or 60s.

In the book, Hekker writes that " 'divorce' doesn't begin to describe the pain of this process. 'Canceled' is more like it. It began with my credit cards, then my health insurance and checkbook, until, finally, like a used postage stamp, I felt canceled too." She had trusted her husband implicitly and never saw it coming.

But talking to Hekker now, she is remarkably sanguine, having conquered self-pity long ago. "You just have to make up your mind that you're not going to carry this garbage around," Hekker says with a smile in her voice.

She points to Madeleine Albright's autobiography, which notes that had her husband not left her for a younger woman, Albright would never have become secretary of state.

"Behind many a successful woman is a man who dumped her," Hekker writes with characteristic humor.

As to today's women, Hekker doesn't want to judge, but she proudly points to her daughter, a vice president of a Fortune 500 company in addition to being married with three children ages 5, 7 and 9, and she notes that all of her daughters-in-law work. "I don't think they would ever be happy just staying home with children."

Putting fulfillment aside, Hekker's experience demonstrates that the motto for the modern marriage should be the Boy Scouts' "be prepared." In my book, the only way to do that is for women to stick with a career and make their own money. Otherwise destitution will always be just one man away.

Women of the world: Keep a career 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 5:31am]

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