Are marriage and career incompatible?

Team Fed: Roger and Mirka at Wimbledon for the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph by Kate Carine.

Team Fed: Roger and Mirka at Wimbledon for the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph by Kate Carine.

I’ve never cottoned much to golf, ascribing to the Mark Twain belief that the game is “a good walk spoiled.” But I couldn’t help but notice the praise heaped recently on Rory McElroy, winner of the British Open. One paragraph in Karen Crouse’s July 22 column for The New York Times stopped me cold:

“After winning the 2011 United States Open and the 2012 P.G.A. Championship, McIlroy could have settled into a comfortable life with the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki as a globe-trotting celebrity couple. It was an enviable lifestyle for those yearning to be rich and famous, but McIlroy’s main motivation was to be remembered for his golf. So in May, with the wedding invitations on the way, he broke off the couple’s engagement.”

Let’s set aside the implication that marriage to Wozniacki would’ve necessarily produced a sort of Duke and Duchess of Windsor lifestyle, with the pair jet-setting from one party to another. And let’s leave off the devastation McIlroy’s last-minute exit caused Wozniacki – a subject I’ve blogged about before. (Don’t cry for her, Argentina, though. When last seen, Caro, as she is known, was a winner, too, of the Istanbul Cup. And she celebrated by shopping in a pair of heels – a little bit of not-so-subtle gesture politics as McIlroy is shorter than she.)

What strikes me most about Crouse’s column, though, is the suggestion that if you want a truly great career, you’d better not get married, particularly if you’re a man. Crouse is not the first person to intimate this. During one of my many birthday lunches and dinners this past week, I asked a publicist-friend – a most together woman who’s successful and happily married with two children and a third on the way – Do marriage and family challenge a career? “How could they not?” she said.

One of my doctors, a huge tennis buff, was more blunt, linking Roger Federer’s general decline to the moment in 2009 he married the former Mirka Vavrinec, who subsequently gave birth to their twin girls. (The Federers had twin boys in May of this year.) 

But isn’t it possible that both Federer’s desire for a wife and family of his own as well as the erosion of some of his tennis skills – he’s still planning on an extremely high plane, losing to Novak Djokovic in a taut five-setter at Wimbledon recently – are both the result of maturing rather than a cause-and-effect relationship? (Fed turns 33 Aug. 8.)

Now the question of career vs. marriage arises again in the blogosphere, because Nole has married his longtime love, the former Jelena Ristic, who’s due to give birth to their son in October.

First, why is it always assumed that the wife and baby are going to be a drain on the guy? Mirka Federer is said to run her family with Swiss-clock precision, thereby ensuring her husband’s downtime and playtime with the kids as well as all his professional obligations. And Nole thanked “Mrs. Djokovic,” as he playfully calls her now, for arranging their stunning seaside wedding in Montenegro so he could concentrate on tennis. Of course. It’s always on the woman, be it a wedding or a funeral. You have to wonder, though, if the situations were reversed – and the newlywed Djokovics are said to be as much of a team as the veteran Federers are – would the man be arranging the wedding and the play dates for his tennis superstar of a wife? If anything, marriage and family are harder on a woman, because she must bear the children and women are particularly guilt-ridden about being less than perfect mothers.

But whether you’re male or female, rich or poor, I would agree with my doctor and my publicist-friend that marriage and family have to change you. You have other people’s needs to consider. There’s only so much you can farm out to an entourage. It’s one of the reasons I never married. I didn’t want anything – or anyone – interfering with my writing, much like Deidre “Dee Dee” Norquist, the artist in my new novel “Water Music.”  (For that matter, the gay heroes of my book are unmarried, but their single-minded ambition is complicated by their closeted lifestyles. For those who think that’s a copout, I say hold out for “In This Place You Hold Me,” the second book in my series, “The Games Men Play.”)

Still, does change need to be adverse?  Don’t partners and kids give you the sense of belonging to someone and something larger than yourself as well?

After losing Wimbledon, Fed said the best thing was looking up in the stands and seeing his wife and daughters. Nole has said he wants his son to be proud of him.

“From the moment I heard we were expecting a baby, my motivation has been different,” Nole told Hello! magazine, which had exclusive rights to wedding coverage in exchange for a donation to the Novak Djokovic Foundation. “I feel a new wave of positive energy and fulfillment, because of everything that’s happened to me. I’ll certainly do my best to win the next Grand Slam, too.”

Maybe the question of career vs. marriage all comes down to what – and whom – you love.