Swapping The Big Smoke for The Big Apple was something Sid, my long-term boyfriend, and I talked about frequently, but only in the vague way you discuss things that sound pleasant but belong in the distant future, like having a child or owning a house in the country. It was all fantasy, and zero logistics, so when he flew to New York for speculative meetings and was promptly offered a job at an advertising agency, it came as a shock. During the next eight months, as official-looking documents were being submitted and embassy interviews scheduled, every exchange we had was saturated with tears.
By fall, we learned that Sid’s visa application had been approved. This move was actually happening. His flight was booked for the first week of January, and he wanted me to come with him just as soon as I’d given my notice at work and tied up the loose ends of my London life.
“I don’t want to go, but I don’t not want to go, if you know what I mean?” I told friends over drinks. New York is always an enticing prospect, but it was Sid’s opportunity, not mine. Establishing myself in London, with a job at an online magazine and a supportive circle of creative friends, had taken a substantial amount of time and effort, and I was reluctant to start over again on the cusp of my 28th birthday.
New York is always an enticing prospect, but it was Sid’s opportunity, not mine.
I pulled together a small wedding for under $1,000 — just a handful of friends and plenty of prosecco. But what we didn’t know, as we stood in a loft in deepest Brooklyn making promises of forever to each other, was that Sid’s visa prohibited his spouse from employment. I would be able to remain in the U.S. as long as he did, provided I didn’t do anything that remotely resembled work.
It quickly became obvious that, as a writer, convincing a magazine to pay thousands of dollars for my sponsorship would be almost impossible, so I busied myself with the task of decorating my clean slate instead. I spent the next seven months writing, taking yoga classes, going on friend dates, and familiarizing myself with the skyscraper-ed streets. But things went downhill fast when winter arrived. Snow fell shin-deep, and the wind bit so viciously it felt like welts would form on my cheeks. The honeymoon period with both my husband and my city began to cool, and the reality that I didn’t have a job — or a Fuck Off Fund — sunk in. Being beholden to a man was unnerving. Our marriage was heavy with expectation on both sides, feeling to me like an anchor — secure and confining at the same time.
I wasn’t alone. Of the thousands of H4 visa holders across the U.S., the overwhelming majority are women. Smart, talented, reluctant housewives, reduced to cleaning and pacing and clinging to the last fragments of their sanity. An ambitious person who is unable to work is a psychological car crash waiting to happen. If we can’t create something, we start to channel our energies into dismantling something else. In my case, it was my body.
An ambitious person who is unable to work is a psychological car crash waiting to happen.
At the same time, the privilege of my situation was clear. I was in New York City — the filthy-fantastic nucleus of the world — and I had a supportive husband who made enough money to bankroll that luxury. But the comfort of financial stability will never be adequate compensation for the loss of personal agency. At best, it is awkward and degrading — my self-worth whittled every time I went to Sid for pocket money to buy groceries or tea with a friend — and at worst, life-threatening. Rashi Bhatnagar, founder of activist group H4 Visa, A Curse, receives emails from dependents across the country who are attacked and violated by their spouses. Oceans from home, isolated from friends and family, they are lonely, scared, and unable to escape.
The comfort of financial stability will never be adequate compensation for the loss of personal agency.
It’s easy to compare myself to former colleagues and friends back in London, with their increasingly impressive job titles and plump salaries. I suspect this hiatus has derailed my career and stalled my earning potential, but that isn’t to say the experience has been without value. I’ve learned a lot about what it is to live in tandem.
When we merge our world with another person’s, we agree to consider their dreams and ambitions, even when they don’t necessarily mesh with our own. But the proportion of give and take in male-female partnerships is always worth examining and negotiating, especially considering women are mostly expected to be agreeable and men are mostly expected to be assertive. With the omnipresent expectation of childrearing and the likelihood of never being the breadwinner, it feels all the more vital to leave space for my individual aspirations. After all, how we spend our days is who we are, and the process of bridging the gap between the reality of my current life and the life I someday hope to possess must be a conscious act of diligence.
Eventually, Sid and I found our way to a place of mutual understanding. Last time, it was me who compromised. Next time, it will most certainly be his turn.