Sat, 16 Feb, 2019
“You have to show up”: Serena Williams' husband shares the secret to their happy marriage
Known to be the brains behind discussion website Reddit and the husband of Serena Williams, Alexis Ohanian penned a letter, revealing the secrets behind his marriage and how he supports his tennis legend wife.
Speaking to Glamour, journalist Samantha Leach asked the 35-year-old entrepreneur on how he learnt to be the perfect husband.
This is what he had to say:
Glamour asked me to talk about “going big” when it comes to romance. I’ve done a few things that you may have seen on social media – things that have gotten me plenty of teasing from my friends, as well as other husbands on the Internet who’ve said I’m making them look bad. It started when I put up some billboards for my wife, a.k.a. the GMOAT (greatest mom of all time), to celebrate her first tournament after having our daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. I made a video showcasing her journey returning to tennis around the U.S. Open. And then there was that trip to Italy – she had a craving, so I delivered her to Venice.
I get it; these are pretty extravagant gestures. But I think if you were to ask my wife, or many other people in relationships, it’s often the simpler things that are the most important. You have to show up. You have to be supportive. These are the things that matter.
I credit my parents with a lot of what I’ve learned about partnership and relationships. My father, who’s Armenian, and my mother, who came from what was then West Germany, met in Ireland and spent a whirlwind two weeks together. Even though my dad didn’t speak any German and my mom spoke only basic English, they fell in love. She followed my father to America and worked as an au pair, ultimately overstaying her visa and actually living in the U.S. undocumented for a while until they got married. My mom had to hit reset on her whole life. In Germany she was almost credentialed to be a pharmacist. Here in the U.S. she had to start over and get her GED while working a ton of service and restaurant jobs. Then she opted to work nights as a pharmacy technician – not a pharmacist – just so she’d be able to be around when I came home from school. Meanwhile, my father logged long hours to put food on the table and give us the best life he possibly could.
It wasn’t always easy, but my parents were partners in the truest sense. By watching them up close, I learned what it means to be supportive, how to make compromises without sacrificing yourself, and how to show up in the ways that matter. Whether it was being proud parents at my football games or organising family road trips for weekend getaways to Civil War battlefields or antiquing (the former was my dad’s favourite, the latter my mom’s; at the time I found them boring, but I appreciate those memories now). In short, I got the cheat code for partnership early on.
When you’re married to the GOAT, the logistics alone can make the act of physically “showing up” a challenge. Serena’s tennis schedule takes her all over the world, and my career also requires being on the road, whether it’s travelling to meet with founders, speaking at industry events, or spending time at my venture capital firm Initialised home office in San Francisco. Comparing calendars isn’t romantic, but at the start of every year, Serena and I map out our schedules so that, ideally, there isn’t more than a week that we go without seeing each other. I brought Google Calendar into her world so we could see each other’s schedules at any time, which would also make it easier to plan an impromptu call if we’re away from each other – a day without FaceTime is rough when you’ve been away from each other for two weeks.
My understanding of showing up and being present for my wife was taken to a whole new level when Olympia was born. I was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave from Reddit, and it was one of the most important decisions I’ve made. It helped that I was a founder and didn’t have to worry about what people might say about my “commitment” to the company, but it was incredible to be able to spend quality time with Olympia. And it was perhaps even more meaningful to be there for my wife and to adjust to this new life we created together – especially after all the complications she had during and after the birth. There is a lot of research about the benefits of taking leave, not only for the cognitive and emotional development of the child but for the couple. However, many fathers in this country are not afforded the privilege of parental leave. And even when they are, there is often a stigma that prevents them from doing so. I see taking leave as one of the most fundamental ways to “show up” for your partner and your family, and I cherished all 16 weeks I was able to take.
Since I came back from leave, I’m less “full-time dad” and more what I like to call “business dad". When Serena has an intense day of training or a photo shoot, I’ll spend the day with Olympia. I’m fortunate to be my own boss, which comes with the freedoms of doing things like bringing my daughter into the office or working remotely from virtually anywhere Serena competes. My partners at Initialised are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera – along with her doll Qai Qai – or hearing her babbling on a call. I tell them with pride, “Olympia’s at work today!” And I’ll post some photos on Instagram or Twitter so my followers can see it too.
The more we normalise this, on social media and in real life, the better, because I know this kind of dynamic makes a lot of men uncomfortable (and selfishly I want Olympia to hear me talking about start-ups!). Research shows that men are happy to have successful wives – until it interferes with their own work. A full 50 per cent of men expect their career to take precedence over their wife’s. I know this is real, because I’ve seen the tweets and comments about how being less successful (or doing what is traditionally considered “women’s work” and caring for your kids) can be “emasculating". To me, that says more about the guy than anything else. If you need to make more money than your partner to have confidence, then I think there’s something more going on under the hood. If that’s where your swagger’s has to come from, then it’s probably not real.
I know I’ve been successful in my career, but I’m not the one racking up the trophies. It helps that my wife and I both know what it takes to be successful and bring that mutual understanding, drive and relentlessness to the table. But at the end of the day, sometimes her career really does have to come first. I try to be the most supportive partner I can be and to have conversations with her about her career goals and what she can do to reach them. Most of my talks with Serena about her career have come from a place of “What do you want to be doing?” or “Where do you want to be?” and that’s not only in sport but in life. She does the same with me. I’m far from perfect, but I try to get behind her and let her know I’m there for her and our daughter, no matter what.
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While I don’t have anything extravagant planned at the moment (or if I did, I wouldn’t tell you!), I will always try to show my wife how much I appreciate and support her. As an entrepreneur, one of my big mantras is to surprise and delight. I guess I’ve applied that in some way to romance, and if I can think of a way to top myself, I’ll keep pulling out the stops.
But the real scoop on “going big” for my wife would never go viral – it’s our simple Sunday tradition. When I was growing up, my dad would make pancakes every Sunday. They were delicious, but it wasn’t just about the food. It was about being together. So, on Sunday mornings I make breakfast for the family and it doesn’t cost me a thing, except for gluten-free flour (I had to modify Dad’s recipe a bit), some eggs, almond milk, a secret ingredient, and berries (Olympia loves raspberries). There are no phones, just conversation. And we’ll spend the day together lounging around the house, or playing hide-and-seek, or going for a swim in the pool. Just being a family on those days means so much to both of us – more than a billboard, a video montage or a whirlwind trip to Italy. And before you ask: No, I won’t tell you my pancake recipe.
What is your secret to a successful marriage? Let us know in the comments below.