"Our biggest problem was geography," she says today.

That's simplifying the story a bit.

She married for the first time at 23, after the pair bonded working on the campaign for George H.W. Bush and overlooked their differing sexual résumés — he thought her inexperience was "cute," and she figured his past was, well, past.

Jennifer Silverberg
Conservative author Suzanne Venker at home with her raison d'etre: Emma, eleven, and Henry, eight.
Jennifer Silverberg
Conservative author Suzanne Venker at home with her raison d'etre: Emma, eleven, and Henry, eight.

Her husband also wasn't prepared to leave behind the life they shared in New York City.

"I wanted a slower-paced life. I wanted to be near my parents," she says. Her husband didn't.

And that, too, was part of her dream of motherhood: Venker knew she'd need to lean on her parents to help her raise the kids she wanted to have. Ultimately, when she and her husband couldn't come to a compromise, they divorced without having any children. Venker returned to St. Louis at 27, taught school and licked her wounds.

Meanwhile, Bill Venker had given up on ever finding the smart, conservative woman he knew he needed to start a family with.

A tall, bearish man of 47, he sits on the family couch in a Mizzou sweatshirt and shorts, trying to keep young Henry from wriggling entirely off the couch during boring grown-up talk. He and Suzanne routinely talk over each other, but it's polite and respectful, with Bill often ceding to Suzanne — but not always.

Luckily for Henry, a friend arrives before too long to break up the conversation. His pal gets a high-five from "Mrs. Venker," and the pair head into the den for their allotted half-hour of screen time in front of the family Wii.

The youngest of six kids, Bill Venker is a child of divorce. His father moved out when he was nine years old, and his parents finalized their divorce when he was eleven. Though they had extremely traditional roles, Bill says it was always clear to him that his parents' division of labor, though distinct, was fair.

"There's a lot of mythology about men who don't respect what women do," he says. "Even though they were divorced, you could see that my father had tremendous respect for my mother and the work she did."

He, too, was disturbed by the climate he found on campus in the '80s.

"You had a whole cultural shift," he says. "There was a lot of talk about women's roles and men's roles. My thinking was whomever was making more money should work. Ultimately, it should be the woman at home, but if she's making more money, and he's amenable, more power to him."

Around the same time Suzanne ended her marriage and returned to St. Louis, Bill had recently ended a relationship with a woman who had a seven-year-old kid. He had broken down crying, considering giving up on ever having a family of his own. (As the conversation among the adults continues, Emma gets up and moves to the kitchen, returning wordlessly with a plate of Girl Scout cookies to share.)

Family was always high on his list of priorities, Bill says. He studied poetry in college and wanted to be a professor. He shelved that dream, he says, when the very real and rhymeless reality of supporting a family occurred to him: "I realized I wasn't a genius who was going to make all kinds of money." His poetic endeavors now extend mostly to helping Emma with her verse.

Not too long after the devastating breakup when he almost gave up his dream of a family, he and some friends went to the Cheshire Inn on Clayton Road for a few beers after a wedding. In talking with the bartender about their high school days, Bill caught the ear of a cute blonde sitting nearby.

After last call, Bill didn't quite realize how pervy it sounded to ask her if she wanted to "go to Uncle Bill's" with him. She declined. After all, she'd been away from St. Louis for ten years and didn't realize he just wanted some pancakes to sop up a bit of the beer.

Yet six months later he slipped a diamond ring into a glass of white wine, and Suzanne soon became Mrs. Venker.

Emma was born when Suzanne Venker was 32, and Henry came three years later. Suzanne hasn't worked outside the home since.

"When your real life happens," she says, and make no mistake, by this she means marriage and motherhood, not career success or another kind of fulfillment — "your life is going to completely change. Your perspective on your life and your future all change when you have a baby."

That was true for Bill as well, who often compares having children to putting on a new pair of glasses and finally seeing clearly. He's well aware that he sacrificed his poetic aspirations to be a dad — and to him, it's worth every unpublished stanza.

He's also aware of how much time with Emma and Henry he gives up to be the breadwinner, even though he's based mostly at home.

He knows he could advance further in his company and make more money if he were willing to relocate, but he believes the cost of moving away from their extended family and home would outweigh any extra income.

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