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Musings: Marrying Work and Life

By Ranjani Rao Email By Ranjani Rao
October 2023
Musings: Marrying Work and Life

It’s wedding season and love is in the air. With multiple invitations in the same week, I attended one wedding in Chennai and the reception for the second in Singapore. As I changed out of my heavy silk sari, I could not help but compare the two events.

The first was an arranged wedding where family members weighed in on the suitability of the match. With the groom employed in the U.S. and bride in Bangalore, there was much to be sorted before the date and venue could be fixed. The bride had to make a job transfer request, figure out the visa process, and contemplate her decision to leave her homeland and begin life with a virtual stranger in a distant country. I had done that more than three decades ago. Back then I was 21, had recently graduated from college and come of age in a world without the internet. Little did I know what the future held.

The second reception was for a couple who were both entering into matrimony after divorce. They were bringing one kid each to the union and—understandably—were a tad anxious but hopeful that this time love would triumph over their bitter first experiences. What they had was optimism, confidence in their financial stability, and a shared location, with both being based in Singapore. They were realistic (I hope) in their expectations of marriage and, being in their forties, they were unaffected by parental opinions and focused on the new family they were creating. I have been in this situation as well.

Marriages, as they say, are made in heaven. As I see more examples of good and not-so-good marriages, I am convinced that they are set up by a roll of divine dice. Paraphrasing Forrest Gump’s opinion about life being like a box of chocolates, “you never know what (or who) you’re going to get.”

Millennials today are smart about their decision to get married. They choose who they will marry and how. Some decide to live together before tying the knot. Yet, when it comes to careers, changing your status from ‘single’ to ‘married’ has the single greatest impact on the rest of your working lives. Gloria Steinem’s wise observation—“I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career”—remains true even in the 21st century. Why do I say this? Because whether or not we acknowledge it, getting married has a disproportionate impact on women.

Starting with the move from her parental home to another city (or country), it is assumed that the woman will gladly take on most (or all) of the personal and professional changes of superhuman magnitude that are required to make a marriage work. In my 25+ years of work life split across India, the U.S., and Singapore, I can honestly attest—not just from my experience of being a trailing spouse multiple times, but also from stories of the many women I have mentored—that the greatest challenge they encounter is in having their work taken seriously and their career being prioritized equally after marriage.

A former student called me a few months ago to discuss her dilemma regarding moving abroad to join her husband. Although he was supportive of her work, and devoted to their toddler, the time had come for them to choose whether family unity trumped their individual careers. She loved her work and had an excellent career record. Should I stay behind or should I go, she asked. I heard the pang in her voice and sensed the toll the decision was taking on her otherwise happy marriage. There are no easy answers.

At work I have a colleague who has chosen to move to Singapore, leaving behind his wife and child in India. For him, the choice didn’t involve much debate because his wife’s job is not portable and she is firm in her resolve to continue. They have decided to do what’s best for their individual careers. In both these cases, the women are able to consider staying away from their spouse for one reason—they have unconditional support from their parents who live locally. What about those families that don’t have such a system to fall back on? And those couples who want to stay together as a family knowing that it will be less than ideal for one of them?

In today’s world, it is imperative for women to be financially independent. It bodes well for their economic status and financial stability. When two career-focused individuals commit to a lifetime of togetherness, how can they move forward when they come to a fork in the road, as they inevitably will? First, we must drop the assumption that women must give up all their former ties (familial, social, and financial) in order to make a marriage work. Compatibility is not just about synchronizing food and music preferences; it is about genuinely understanding what makes the other person bloom. Commitment means sometimes having to take the more difficult path.


A married couple will face challenges relating to health, children, jobs, moves, parents, etc. But at all times, they need to face it as a team. Marriage is more of a dance and less like a march towards a destination. Sometimes one has to lead—and at others, one needs to follow.

In the best relationships, each partner admires the other for being independent, capable, and supportive. So when they arrive at a point when uprooting of the family is unavoidable, there should be agreement that if after a period of trial, one spouse is unfulfilled with their work life (or lack thereof) and therefore unhappy, a different decision must be considered. It might mean that their careers take a temporary hit, but it will certainly be a big win for them as a team.

Sometimes my GenZ child asks me why people get married. I do not have a straightforward answer but I know that in adulthood, when we seek out a partner, we are looking for an enabling space where we can flourish. For couples tying the knot, whether for the first (or second) time, it requires them to first do the work of figuring out what that looks like. The next step requires communication. When we take the ambitions of each person into account, make a commitment to support each other’s goals and maintain a flexible approach, we can make our family succeed. And when families flourish, so does society.

Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting my Happily Ever After: A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery. She lives in Singapore.

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