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Married to the Market

Their investment-banker husbands take home millions of dollars a year. They have beautiful children in private schools as well as nannies, trainers, and chauffeurs to help them live the good life. So what do they have to complain about? Plenty.

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To the alarm of Central Park’s bird-watchers and pigeons alike, nine moms in sweats and sneakers, accompanied by their personal trainer, raced down the path toward the Alice in Wonderland statue on a recent morning, pushing baby strollers -- not three-wheeled jogging strollers but careening Maclarens and polka-dotted Peregos.

“Think of a dirty toilet seat,” the trainer barked as they hit the statue and started hopping up and down its steps, their incredulous babies arrayed in a semicircle around them. “You can’t sit on it, so you’re going to squat.”

The moms dutifully visualized a dirty toilet seat -- they had to look no farther than the ladies’ room at the boathouse just across the model-boat pond -- and squatted.

“Listen to me,” their commander instructed after a dozen or so squats -- barely enough to break a sweat. “You’re going to leave the babies here. You’re being released from bondage.”

The ladies took off for a brief run; their children, thrown into spontaneous and collective separation anxiety, started howling.

“This is kind of weird to me,” said Stuart Taylor, a British tourist who happened to be soaking up the sun and leafing through a guidebook on a bench a few feet away. “England is a lot more sedate.”

About 30 seconds later, the mothers were back, vainly trying to calm their hysterical babies before returning to the steps.

“Up and down,” their trainer ordered. “All right, kids, we’re almost out of here.”

In another minute, they were off. Mr. Taylor watched as the stroller brigade bounced down the steps toward its next challenge. “Most of those women weren’t overweight,” he said in disbelief. “They all had perfect bodies anyway.”

The Englishman wasn’t going to find it in his guidebook, but he’d been lucky enough to witness a phenomenon as majestic in its own way as the city’s plummeting crime rate or the play of light against the massed skyscrapers of midtown at sunset -- the housewives of the Upper East Side.

With Wall Street in overdrive, never before have so many women -- lots of them married to investment bankers at top-tier firms such as Goldman, Sachs; Salomon Brothers; and Lazard Frres, or to stockbrokers or hedge-fund managers -- enjoyed so many views of Central Park, “long liquid lunches” (as one of them characterized the occasions), spa vacations, and Herms Kelly handbags. And they also have the time and money to raise ideal children, do heroic amounts of volunteer work, and develop the kinds of bodies once restricted to ballerinas and Olympic gymnasts.

Having a car and driver to shuttle them around the city shopping, doing good deeds, and whisking their children to and from play dates would seem to constitute the good life on the cusp of the millennium. But what appears to be paradise from the outside may be closer to purgatory -- albeit one greased with personal trainers and unlimited lines of credit -- when you’re on the inside looking out of your Fifth Avenue duplex. Sure, servants are great -- if you have someone to share them with. The price many of these women pay -- though they rarely suffer publicly and some appear not to be suffering at all -- is that they hardly ever see their spouses, who, in exchange for their monstrous salaries, are expected to put in the sort of hours last seen when the pyramids were under construction.

These women are just as formidable as their husbands, with whom they may have fallen in love at the right college, or in law school, or across a trading desk. The competitiveness and efficiency they now bring to such tasks as throwing their child’s birthday party or organizing their school’s Halloween parade leave little doubt that had motherhood not beckoned, they could be running the economy with a good deal less Sturm und Drang and expensive-cigar smoke than their spouses.

They know where their husbands are coming from, because they’ve been there themselves, and they also know their mates are trapped, at least if their family’s goals include residing on Park Avenue. “The people whose husbands are home at 5:30 can’t afford to live in the city,” one wife explains matter-of-factly.

“It’s like an oil well,” says a 40-year-old investment banker who made more than $5 million last year and admits that he doesn’t give his wife and kids a second thought after he slips into the backseat of his Town Car at the crack of dawn and heads for Wall Street. “You’ve got to keep pumping it while it’s available. Nobody believes in the market at these levels.”

However, he concedes that his hours haven’t been very good for family values. “They’ve gotten used to not having you around,” he says. “You infringe on the life they’ve had to create for themselves. You’re almost an intruder.”

Susan is the wife of one such financial samurai. The scene at her apartment resembles an updated Dutch genre painting, overrun with children and pets and, in place of red-nosed peasants swilling grog, impeccably dressed moms sipping Chardonnay. Susan has found a way to maintain her equilibrium while raising several lovely children -- she has turned her Park Avenue apartment into a clubhouse.

Starting at around six on many evenings, girlfriends who live on the surrounding floors and have also lost their husbands to Wall Street begin arriving with children and bottles of wine. The apartment isn’t flashy in the least. It’s Waspiness before Ralph Lauren co-opted and gilded the concept. The living room is filled with family heirlooms and throw pillows.

“Susan is a magnet for this kind of thing,” Heather, a blonde who came barefoot via the back stairs -- suggesting the ease with which these ladies come and go between one another’s apartments -- tells me as she slides into the breakfast nook. “There has to be an organizer.”

When Heather says “this kind of thing,” she isn’t referring just to the evening’s wine tasting (she shows up with a small toddler and an industrial-size bottle of Chardonnay), or to the cozy domestic scene as she drops her daughter into the middle of the craft project Susan’s kids are already heavily involved with. Rather, she’s talking about the informal group-therapy sessions Susan leads for women who seem to have it all by the outside world’s standards but are basically raising their children as single parents.

“I had to sit down with my baby-sitter and explain to her she was going to have to function as another parent in the household,” explains one woman without a bit of irony. “I said, ‘Basically, you’re my other half.’”

Heather is a happy exception. “My husband comes home at bedtime,” she boasts, wrestling with the cork. “I’m pretty lucky that way.”

And there are others, of course. Most of the husbands seem to make a good-faith effort to show up for their children’s theatrical performances and field days -- even though they’re sometimes obliged to take a call on the cell phone or leave in the middle of an event. And there are Wall Street families where Mom, Dad, and the kids appear to be as happy and at peace with one another as if they lived in Santa Fe -- though there seems to be universal consensus that there’s no way to maintain this opulent lifestyle working a 40-hour week.

One mother says that when they drive through Vermont on their way to skiing and her son makes snide comments about how small and ramshackle some of the homes are, she knows how to shut him up. “Yes,” she tells him, “but their daddy is at home at five o’clock to have dinner with the kids.”

Another woman talks of how her youngest cried when her husband picked her up one day because she hardly knew him. “When he comes home,” she says, “the first thing our oldest child says is ‘We’re a family again.’ Obviously, all the faxes and phone calls aren’t the same thing as hugging your kid.”

Susan’s husband’s hours are typical. He leaves the house around 6:30 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t return much before midnight. “If he gets home at nine, he gets on a conference call to Hong Kong or Japan,” explains Susan, a former corporate lawyer whose true calling may be social satire and who claims, not entirely believably, not to know what her husband does for a living.

“He could be speaking Hindi for all I understand,” she sniffs as she supplies the children with snacks, paper, scissors, and juice boxes even though her housekeeper stands idle a few feet away. “He just seems to be moving large quantities of money around the globe. I guess I could be asking more questions, but it doesn’t seem that interesting to me.”

“My second husband,” she jokes “won’t have a job where I can’t explain what he does for a living to my kids.”

Some nights, the ladies kick off their shoes, crank up the stereo, and dance together -- Club MTV in cashmere. Other nights, they just cry -- for the good, clean, cathartic fun of it. “Remember the night we were all here sobbing until 1:30?” Susan cheerfully asks Heather, who is still struggling to extricate the cork from the wine bottle. “We were just talking about sad stories.”

“Anything seems sad at 1:30 in the morning,” Heather observes cogently.

However, most of their sŽances are anything but morbid. “I know more details about more people’s you-know-what lives than you would believe,” Susan says as she takes the bottle away from Heather after she rips the cork. “Women very rarely talk about world events.”

The discussion seems less about the women’s actual sexual escapades than about their personal-trainer fantasies and about how their good looks might be enlisted as a tool to soften a spouse’s resistance to an expensive redecorating project, for example.

Oftentimes, the discussion is a lot less salacious, however. If it doesn’t involve their children’s schools and the endlessly fascinating subtopics that subject spawns -- who’s getting tutored; who’s getting divorced; whether the children are getting a warped view of the world because 75 percent of the other dads in their class also work on Wall Street -- then it’s about the husbands’ attitude problems.

Either they get off the red-eye with a chip on their shoulder because they don’t think their wives appreciate the sacrifice they’re making for the family’s financial security, or they’re so high on money, power, and market-driven adrenaline that they have difficulty coming down on weekends.

“He should be slightly nicer on the weekends and less nice during the week,” one woman says, echoing a common refrain. “They think their wives work for them and their children are mini-analysts they can kick around.”

One investment banker, who experienced something of an epiphany during a brief sabbatical from the business, attributes his ayatollah-like behavior to an explosive cocktail whose ingredients included the global economy and light deprivation.

“Even if you’re home, it doesn’t mean you have downtime,” he explains. “It’s the pending deal -- what news is going to come out while you’re sleeping? You never get a vacation. The next time I get a vacation is when I’m going to retire.


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