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What I trade for love

By Carla Power, O, The Oprah Magazine
Journalist Carla Power with her husband Antony.
Journalist Carla Power with her husband Antony.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writer says brokering deals with your spouse is part of a lasting marriage
  • She gives up her "dream" man for a man who loved and understood her
  • He likes quiet life in London but wants her to continue to be woman he fell in love with
  • She travels and sometimes lives elsewhere in the world while writing

(OPRAH.com) -- I gaze up at the flourescent strip lighting in the surgeon's office, willing the Beatles on my iPod to keen even louder for Dear Prudence to "come out to play."

I need them to drown out the sound of hypodermic needles being stripped from their wrappers, to out-sing the crisp clack of some giant stapler-like thingy being readied to pierce flesh.

I begin to make deals with God: If it's benign, I'll sponsor an Indian schoolgirl's education. If it's benign, I'll help Julia really nail her multiplication tables. I'll call my mother more, do more dishes, compost for our nonexistent garden.

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Biopsies are recent inventions, but negotiating with God must be among man's most ancient ones. Of course, my prebiopsy bargaining was just pleading in disguise: faux brokering between the entirely powerless -- a supine woman, clinging to the paper strip down the middle of a doctor's examining table -- and the all-powerful, whether one calls it God, the Fates, or "the luck of the draw."

To cut a real deal, both parties need some power. Gangsters and parents both know this well. When Marlon Brando, as Don Corleone, promises to make someone "an offer he can't refuse," it's a bargain struck at gunpoint, another deal-that's-not-one.

As a mother, I've used this thuggish tactic more than I'd like to admit. "That's the deal" is a common slogan in our home. When my husband or I use it, our daughters know they've reached a red line, not to be crossed. It is bedtime. That gerbil cage needs cleaning.

Time was, women cut far fewer deals than they do today. In the past, when they remained dependent on their fathers or husbands, their lives were less about striking deals than hoping for the best. Fairy princesses -- those perfect models of traditional passivity -- don't cut deals. Whether they're sweeping floors while their sisters swan off to the ball or marrying the prince, both drudgery and love fall on them from great heights. Deals don't happen in dictatorships, where, let's face it, most of those princesses live.

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Real live women negotiate. Over the past century, we got the vote, the Pill, washer-dryers, and antidiscrimination laws, giving us choices, freedoms -- and the ability to strike any number of deals. Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of relationships:

In November 2009, the Obamas revealed in The New York Times that their own partnership is a series of negotiations, a deft balance between his political ambitions and her own professional and familial ones.

When Michelle said that the equality of a union "is measured over the scope of the marriage; it's not just four years or eight years or two," it seemed clear that the post--White House era could very much be hers. Their bald acknowledgment of the brokering involved in their marriage wasn't a sign of two lawyers at work but two equals in love.

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To be sure, the traditional blueprint for "marrying well" -- her beauty, his paycheck -- still proves popular. In my leafy London neighborhood, I know women who have made such deals. They often seem calmer than I am, and they're inevitably sleeker, with taut skin and trainer-honed bodies. Many of their husbands leave the house before dawn to catch the Hong Kong markets when they open, returning home late, ruffling their kids' hair while they sleep.

These women vacation on small and exquisite islands, but they're never sure when they'll reach them, as they are tethered to their husbands' timetables. That's the deal.

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When I met the man I was to marry, he certainly didn't seem like a deal. Lacking height, a hearty handshake, and career ambitions, he didn't conform to the traditional notions of a catch. Antony was a slight, suburban-born Englishman, a dead ringer for Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh.

When we met, he was languidly pursuing a history doctorate, but his keenest aspiration was really to reread Proust -- for the umpteenth time -- and see as many movies as possible. His vast stores of warmth took time to find, guarded as they were by those twin emotional weapons favored by the British male, irony and reserve. I spent a weekend parsing a document that turned out to be a love letter but which I'd thought was some sort of philosophy essay laced with liner notes from a Prince album.

He was low-key, this Antony. While I suggested we move -- to New York, New Delhi, anywhere, really, for an adventure -- he was happy to stay in his hometown, London, and to abandon his doctorate for a quiet job in the British civil service. Once I fell for him, I knew I'd have to plan on a life outside the United States.

It wasn't just his job that was strictly British. His character was, too. I knew that it wouldn't be easy to make the switch from his calm, structured life to the cut-and-thrust of the American job marketplace. In the land of Let's Make a Deal, nobody would have the patience to wait for Ant's brilliance to shine through his self-effacing manner.

Sometimes I'm stupid enough to think we should make a more conventional deal. During the boom, with millions making millions, my husband remained content with his modest take-home pay. "You're smart," I'd occasionally nag. "Why not be a banker and make us rich?"

His reply was succinct: "Nine weeks of vacation, and job security." In my heart, I knew they were both key to my own treasured freedoms: to travel, and to freelance. And when the financial market crashed, and FOR SALE signs blossomed in London's bankers' neighborhoods, I was reminded once again of his wisdom and my foolishness.

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His ambitions were tame -- except those he had for me.

When I got a chance to leave London to study in New York, he said, "Go." Once there, when I was offered a Manhattan-based magazine job, he was hardheaded: "Stay." When the chance for a summer in Cairo came up, he said, "Go."

Even now, 15 years on, married, with two children, he still wants me to keep going. The other week, as I planned a few days in Pakistan for a story, he was busy arguing that I should tack on a short hop to Kabul. "Go," he urged. "Go." "Are you trying to get me killed?" I teased him. No, he just knew a few days there would help me with a book I'm writing.

I didn't go, fretting I'd miss home too much. That panicked him, for he worries I'll get so enmeshed in our family that I won't do the two other things I love to do: write and report. "I want you to stay the woman I married," he'll murmur. "You need to hit the road again. Go."

These urgings, of course, only make me want to stay. That said, I know that even if love lasts, deals don't. To stay married we'll doubtless have to broker new deals, and newer ones after that...till death do us part. Making deals with God may be a nonstarter. Done right, making deals with your spouse never ends.

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