Huma, Anthony, and Midlife Ambition

To insiders — friends of Anthony Weiner’s and Huma Abedin’s families — the most painful revelation of the Weiner saga came out yesterday, with the news that Huma was pregnant. But to outsiders, women especially, the most painful aspect of this story was its confirmation of how different the rules and constraints are for ambitious men and women in midlife. Huma spent her twenties and early thirties working in a steady, vectored line, slowly building up credibility and trust and experience in national politics. She worked tirelessly and dated glamorously (or so it has been implied) and deferred having a family, as so many women of her cohort do (including myself, except the dating-glamorously part); then, at 34, she settled down, and at 35, when American women are told to start panicking about their fertility, she was fortunate enough to get pregnant.

Unfortunately, the man whose child she is carrying didn’t treat this stage of life with quite the same seriousness, or so it seems from the outside. Weiner’s life in his twenties and thirties may have started out looking like Huma’s — he, too, worked long hours and dated glamorously — but his ambition eventually morphed into showboatism, as he went from congressional aide to member of Congress to one-man media show. Weiner was effective at shaming Republicans but not at working with his fellow congressmen (none of whom are standing up to defend him), and his dating life extended another decade past Huma’s — because it could — and he apparently developed an Internet-sex habit along the way, which he continued even after his marriage, even as he was trying to start a family with his wife. At the point that Huma wanted to start a family, she was mature and sober and at the top of her game. He was still mired in frattish adolescence — or perhaps problems even more intractable. Now she’s being punished for it, and it feels so terribly, awfully unfair. The only reason he might finally change his ways is that he got caught. And that’s an open question, given that the news of Huma’s pregnancy looks suspiciously well-timed for PR purposes.

It’s impossible to imagine what Huma’s going through right now. The most any self-respecting feminist can hope for in a situation like this is that she, at least, won’t take the same world of shit that her boss, Hillary Rodham Clinton, did for sticking by a man who similarly humiliated her. When Hillary made this choice, she was called ambitious and cynical and calculating; now, perhaps those who shrilly condemned Hillary will see that there are other, more compelling reasons to stay married to a politician than ambition. (Indeed, it’s Huma’s career possibilities that seem endless right now, while Weiner could get drummed out of Congress any day.) Pregnancy has a way of crystallizing life’s stakes. When a woman is carrying a child, it’s much easier to see why she might be interested in keeping the integrity of a family intact, and why she might still prefer to remain with a charismatic, reckless narcissist than face a world of dating unknowns, especially if she loves him — which, by the way, is hardly beyond fathoming. Presumably, Anthony Weiner has another side. Perhaps even a tender and decent side, as many cads do.

If the public can accept this, it’ll mean we’ve at least developed a more nuanced understanding of relationships and the painful Hobson’s choices life sometimes tosses our way. And that’ll be progress, of a kind, and will help shield Huma from any further pain. The sad thing is that it’s not the public who needs to grow up here, really. (Polls so far show that Weiner’s constituents treat his embarrassment with more equanimity than the media does.) It’s Weiner. We can hope that this awful, complicated, lifelike mess of mortifications can help him do that — if only for Huma and the baby’s sake.

Huma, Anthony, and Midlife Ambition