Frances Bremer has seen the worry, the disappointment, the pain and (to be fair) the joy of wives whose husbands have reached the top, but often at a high cost to their home lives.
A friend whose husband's top-level job keeps him busy at all hours, day and night, told her: "At night when I need cuddling, he's lying in bed with the Dictaphone."
Sighed another woman: "I get up at 6 in the morning to chase him down for a few words. But he doesn't give me that time."
The sorority is an exclusive one whose members enjoy the luxury homes and other material rewards of our culture but who frequently find the happiness they expected has eluded them. They sink into depression, drink heavily or have affairs. Some drop out of their marriages, "but more hang in their unfulfilled," says Bremer.
Her experiences, and those of friends and acquaintances, prompted her to begin work on a book aimed at helping wives like herself lead "happy and fulfilled married lives," despite their husbands' demanding jobs. She currently is sending out confidential questionnaires to wives of ambassadors, government leaders, top executives, professionals and celebrities to gather more material.
Bremer's original title was Power Widows: Wives at the Top, but she has switched to one she believes makes a more positive statement about her purpose: Wives at the Top: Coping With His Success. A part-time high-school tutor and teacher of English to diplomatic wives, she also is at work on a book on American literature for foreign university students.
Bremer considers herself one of the lucky ones who came to grips early with the demands her husband's State Department position have made on him and on their family. "Simply gritting your teeth" and being "miserable," she says, is not a life "worth living."
Among the pressures she has seen destroy some executive wives:
* Frequent moves. "You tell the children, 'We're going overseas to be an ambassador' and they say, 'We're not going.' "
* Active social life. "You walk in and your living room is full of people you don't know." One woman wept in the kitchen each time she gave a party.
* Criticism from strangers and the media. As a wife whose husband is in government service, "You're a part of it and judged accordingly."
* Other women's attraction to a husband because of his position.
* For some, "It's the physical fear of life at the top. At the Cabinet level, kids worry about their dads getting shot."
But mostly, "I guess everybody would say it's the hours," the long stretches a spouse is away. A husband may justify his absence: "I'm doing it for the country," but this, says Bremer, "is thin sustenance if you're raising a child."
One wife told her: "When someone asked me, as a joke, who I would want at my deathbed, I said, 'My husband, if he had time.' "
Bremer, who is 39, said her low point came several years ago when her husband, Jerry, 40, served as chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the hectic Middle East shuttle diplomacy. "He was traveling all the time." In 1973, the year their daughter Leila was born, he was away 200 days.
"I would build him up so that when he came home he'd be like a Santa Claus. He hated to discipline the children because he saw so little of them. I became the heavy.
"One day he came home and said he had had lunch with Kissinger and David Rockefeller." Suddenly, she felt a surge of resentment. "I had lunch with Paul [their son, now 11] and Leila," she retorted, "and we had peanut-butter sandwiches."
Meanwhile, she was thinking: "I'm as smart as he. Why am I sitting here with peanut butter? I knew I had a brain." (She has done graduate work in psychology and philosophy at Harvard.) To prove it to herself, she first passed the qualifying test for Mensa, an organization with a super-IQ membership. "After that, I decided to join the Foreign Service, and I passed the test."
At this point--"I just needed to know I could do it"--she realized that she still preferred a home life with her children rather than a job. "It diffused the whole question of competition" with her husband, and it has helped strengthen their marriage, despite continuing demands on his time.
After a less-strenuous tour of duty in the embassy in Norway, her husband is back in a grueling job as State Department executive secretary for Alexander Haig. He's usually at work by 6:15 a.m. and doesn't return until 9 p.m., sometimes six days a week with a few extra hours on Sunday.
In this liberated age, the idea of a woman conforming unilaterally to the demands of her husband's job may seem anachronistic, but it is, Bremer concedes, the kind of life many women choose. If they have careers of their own, they tend to be ones such as hers that can be adapted to frequent moves.
"Most of these women," says Bremer, "wouldn't want to be married to somebody sitting around on a beach." Their husbands' powerful jobs "are an attraction."
That is true, she admits, for herself. The other night when her husband came home at midnight, "and I had barely stayed awake to give him dinner, we talked about the Falkland Islands. I considered that a benefit. The Foreign Service suits us both."
But for a marriage to work, she stresses that the successful husband must make his wife feel she is needed and is making a contribution--"that he values her. Alone, you can't cope."
For Bremer, it is as simple as knowing that no matter how busy her husband is at the office, he can be interrupted to take her calls. "That makes me feel good."
Women who want to participate in Bremer's survey of "Wives at the Top" may write for a questionnaire to: Frances Bremer, P.O. Box 9925, Chevy Chase, Md. 20815.