A stay-at-home dad, Ken Miller hated it when someone at his wife’s corporate functions would ask “What do you do?” until he got some good advice from another party frequenter.
The first time I heard it was around 2000, about two or three years after I’d stopped working to stay home for our two kids. It was at a party put on by my wife’s company, and the woman who said it was the wife of one of my wife’s bosses. “I guess in a way you’re the man behind the woman…” She said it gently and in good humor, and I managed a chuckle, as we chatted for the obligatory five minutes before each of us broke the discussion and mingled with someone else for another obligatory five minutes.
The most recent time I heard it was a few weeks ago, still at home, now with our four kids. This time speaking with a work colleague of my wife’s, again at a corporate function. “To the man behind the woman,” she said, as we clinked cocktail glasses. And then we talked for a good 15 minutes about what “the woman” and she were doing at the office these days.
In between I’ve heard it dozens of times, from people of every race, creed, and color. I’ve heard it said as a compliment, an insult, a question, and an observation, and each time, from what I can tell, the person who said it thought I’d never heard it before. Except, that is, for the five or six people who said something like, “You’re sort of like the man behind the woman, but I guess you’ve heard that before.”
Yeah I have, lots. But you know what? I’m OK with it. I realize the term comes from flipping around the phrase “the woman behind the man,” and that that phrase is not exactly in accepted use these days. But, in the 15 years I’ve been at home full time, I’ve managed to become a pretty good corporate husband.
Corporate husband. Of all the adjustments I’ve made since leaving the working world and staying home, the process of morphing into this role has been the most subtle and unexpected. I knew when I started staying home that my life would change sharply. Going from a corporate job to domestic engineer involved all of the new things that I had anticipated and planned for—childcare, cleaning, cooking, all that. But what I hadn’t given any thought to was how my standing had changed in the outside world. I first realized how it had when I went to a holiday party thrown by a business connection of my wife. It was a disaster, at least for me. I was invisible. My wife was the center of attention, in her element, and I was the accessory. It became painfully obvious that I was, uh, radioactive, as soon as I answered the question, “So what do YOU do?” It was humiliating, and it went on for years. It got to the point where I refused to go to a number of affairs with my wife that I probably should have attended. She was mad. I was mad.
I don’t remember exactly when things started to improve but I remember how. My wife dragged me to a function where, typically, I stood next to her in a group of five or six and feigned interest as several of them tried to top each other with their knowledge of the latest federal banking law. Wearing the perpetually frozen half smile and gripping my drink, I noticed one of the corporate wives, Constance, beckoning me to join her. Thinking that things couldn’t get much worse, I slipped out of the group, no doubt unnoticed, and joined her. We’d gotten along well in the past. She was quite a bit older than me, as was her husband, who was somewhere else in the room. She began by saying,”I like you, I like your wife, and I’m gonna give you some unsolicited advice.” Thirty minutes later she was still talking. And I was still listening. The upshot (or the “gravamen,” as several of the pompous asses in the room would put it) of what she was telling me was that I was a corporate spouse and I should try to make the best of it. Engage my wife in discussions about her career, listen, give advice, plan with her. And treat these corporate parties as opportunities to exploit, to make a good impression on the people who matter, and seek out people to talk to, rather than stand around passively looking like I was constipated. There was more, but that’s the gist of it.
I took her advice. Slowly, haltingly, I became more involved in my wife’s career, to the point where I actively helped her plan it. Plus plan for the parties. Who’d be there, who to talk to, who to avoid. I can’t say that they’ve become joyous affairs but they’re manageable. I’m still pretty much invisible but not totally. I actually take pleasure from the role now, and my wife is appreciative. I still run into Constance every now and again, and she asks me how things are going. I tell her well and thank her. She gave me the best advice I’ve ever received.