Our post family dinner on May 3rd was unlike any others. We were extremely surprised and deeply saddened by the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce announcement. For long, I had been seeing the couple, among a few others like Michelle and Barack Obama, as an icon for marriage and equal partnership where both sides can unleash their fullest potential and bring meaningful impact to the world while raising a great family. “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” read Melinda Gate’s heart-breaking statement on Instagram which prompted me to right away order her book “The Moment of Lift” and listen to an episode by What’s Her Story Podcast where she was interviewed very shortly before the shocking news.
Diving into the book and the podcast, I am convinced that their marriage being ended is indeed among the biggest moments of lift itself for women, and men, worldwide. Though the event is unexpected and unwished for by admirers, we do owe the couple — their 27 years being together as well as their divorce — such a moment that equals any large-scale philanthropic effort in empowering women and advancing the human race, if we realize it well enough. Here’s why.
A crisis of self: “Because that house was not me”
As the wife of the 4th richest man in the world, Melinda Gates had two choices. The first was to be a stay-at-home mom, raising three kids, managing the big mansion, just to be the shadow of Bill Gates who could enjoy a flourishing career and making lasting impact. The second was to still be a caring mom while having her own voice and making her own mark outside of the house herself. She went with the 2nd.
However, this choice was only realized after a crisis of self, triggered by their move into a gigantic house that Bill Gates had built during his bachelor time. “Who do I want to be in this marriage? And it pushed me to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I was no longer the computer science business executive. I was a mom with a small child and a husband who was busy and travelling a lot, and we were moving into a gigantic house, and I was wondering what people would think of me, because that house was not me,” Melinda shared in her book.
Balancing unpaid work: “Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen.”
Such revelation inspired her to step up to be not just a partner but an equal one, one that made her voice heard and her work known, from speaking in public to writing the foundation’s annual letter: She became the co-founder and co-chair of the foundation, which ultimately benefited the organization and its worldly causes. And in order for her to fulfill this role, she also invested time, energy and efforts in the inner work of her own marriage by asking, pushing, collaborating, supporting, and sometimes, like many mothers including myself, showing her personality, “Nobody leaves the kitchen until Mom leaves the kitchen.”
Even when Bill Gates was born and raised up in a family of strong, smart and successful women who did things at a time when few women did, and even when the couple enjoyed a certain vantage point compared with an ordinary family, they shared the same long-standing problem of the invisible unpaid work at home often shouldered by women as well.
Melinda, with her renewed professional passion, then made the shift by having Bill and the kids involve in managing the house, and they would discuss and reach agreements on the foundation’s work, of course with disagreeing and simmering in between, to ensure equal partnership in both work and life. She was courageous enough to face with the discomfort of an honest conversation which was based on what each of them wanted, not just what Bill wanted. She was loving enough to ensure it was not equal in a calculative sense, but equal partnership built on the premise of love and connection, where one supplemented the other with individual experience and talent to advance their mutual goals.
The supreme goal for humanity: “We need each other.”
It’s been a week since the announcement and sometimes, I still wonder, what if Melinda had chosen to dedicate her life only to raising kids and running the home? What if she hadn’t come to Bill and said, “Help!” when she was exhausted from all the hidden unpaid work in their own home? What if she hadn’t shared what she wanted in the marriage and discuss equal partnership with Bill? What if Bill had been born and raised up by women whose dreams were killed and whose future were darkened and therefore had a hard time realizing his wife had a life too?
Maybe then, the changes in the world from education to agriculture by the foundation would have never been realized. Maybe then, many more women would still have fallen into the trap of cooking and cleaning and never having the opportunity to grow. Maybe then, their children would have lost the opportunity to get the exposure to life in Africa with Melinda that ultimately shaped who they were. Maybe then, we would have seen a much earlier divorce, as a result of value imbalance, or we would also have seen a longer yet unhealthy marriage rotten with resentment. And if the divorce still happened at this time anyway, Melinda’s crisis of self would happen too late when she would have found herself no one other than an ex-wife of a mega rich man.
As I revisited the statement, I reckoned that the divorce turned out to give their marriage a measure, and it’s a good one, “Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.” 27 years for a relationship that has produced such amazing results in both of their inner and outer work is indeed really long. 27 years for a marriage where both partners live the underlying ethos to their philanthropy that all lives have equal values is not at all short. 27 years that carried the depth and meaning to it is truly lasting.
Could their marriage last longer? While I can’t speak for them, I believe it’s very much likely, but only in about 100 years, when equal partnership is a norm so couples don’t have to have and get exhausted from too many hard talks over balancing unpaid work. In their absence, true connection will fill. In the podcast interview where Melinda was asked about the last thing they fought about, she mentioned time, “We can never have enough time.” If the divorce has taught a woman and her partner anything about life and marriage then it’s we deserve equal values and we can together have flourishing and meaningful lives by digging into and sharing about who we are, what we want, by showing we truly care about and being there for each other, and mobilizing our village, including our children. And it’s not equality that we inch ourselves towards but love, meaning and happiness, the supreme goal for humanity.
This is the moment of lift for us all.