Saturday, March 3, 2012

MOWM 2: Why I Can Never Ever Not Work

I feel very strongly about working: as long as I am able-bodied I plan to work. Being financially independent is absolutely critical for me, and this has nothing to do with my education or my ambition. Being educated and ambitious enables me to do what I love, but even if that weren't the case, I never ever planned on not working in any scenario. In fact, the thought of not being able to financially support myself and my children is absolutely terrifying to me.

My sentiments have to do with how I was brought up. I grew up with my sister, parents, and maternal grandparents. My maternal grandmother was one of the smartest, fiercest, and most energetic people I have ever known. Her family did  not allow her to go to school past the 4th grade (this was before World War II) because she was a girl and this was her biggest regret -- not having been able to further her education and having to be financially dependent her entire life on my grandfather, who was a nice man with very little appetite for advancement. My grandmother had two daughters, my mom and my aunt, and always insisted that they have "their own piece of  bread" (a literal translation  of an expression that means they should earn their own money, be able to sustain themselves). Unfortunately, neither my aunt nor my mother finished college even though they both started it, but they both earned associate's degrees and held good white-collar jobs their entire lives.

In the country where I grew up nearly everybody works. It's really not possible to sustain a family on one income. As a result, many married women stay married to men that they should divorce because they cannot afford to support the children on their own. If a married woman doesn't work, people feel sorry for her husband, because there are only two reasons for her not working -- either she can't find work or she's lazy and doesn't want to, and both are reasons to pity the husband.

Even though a majority of women work, they are trapped by the inability to earn enough. My parents' marriage was not happy. They stopped loving each other long before I can first remember, and I really cannot recall ever seeing anything resembling affection between them. My mom always worked but my father made more money (she worked while he finished his BS, then later his MS). The fact that he made more money was always yet another reason to put her down, which he often did. He was also a serial philanderer. They finally divorced when I was in my early 20's, which was way past due if you ask me. One thing about parents divorcing when you are an adult is that you may actually hear more details about their life than you ever cared to know -- for instance, I know that my father gave my mother crabs when she was pregnant with my baby sister. Can you imagine the humiliation? And she stayed married to him for another 15 or so years, because she did not have the support -- moral or financial -- from her parents, with whom my family lived, to leave my father (their attitude was "You are the wife, you gotta shut up and take it") and she could not afford to raise the kids on her own.

As I was growing up, I remember my mother  buying clothes and then hiding them, because my father  would always give her shit about anything that she did or bought for herself. After hiding the clothes, she could pull them out later and pretend that she'd had them for a long time and that they weren't new. My father spared no expense for his beloved daughters, but his wife was not so fortunate. So even though she earned a salary, she could not go and buy what she wanted. Witnessing this was very disturbing.

Now imagine the same situation, but without her working. I bet that he simply would not give her money to buy anything until he decided she could.

The thought of someone telling me what I can and cannot buy (we are talking small stuff here) makes me positively crimson with rage. Early in my marriage, my husband used to tell me I spend too much money on coffee. We were broke, raising a kid on two student stipends, but I still believe I should have been allowed my daily coffee. These comments where pissing me off to high heaven. Now imagine the same situation, but without me having my own stipend...

Even now, my husband and I have separate checking accounts and separate credit cards; the mortgage is in my name alone; we have a joint savings through which we also transfer money to each other. Maybe there are relationships out there where women are comfortable enough to stay home with the kids and let the husband support them, and the husbands do not look down on their wives, but my experiences are such that I would never allow myself to be financially supported if I could help it. I feel that not bringing in a paycheck  would mean that I am relinquishing the rights to make decisions about the money and would prevent me from being a true partner to my husband. Perhaps this also means that I don't trust my husband entirely, but it is what it is. It is not my husband's fault; there is nobody on this earth whom I would trust in this way.

And none of this even touches upon the situation in which the husband, however wonderful he may be, simply loses his job. Or dies. What happens then to the wife and the kids if the wife doesn't work, if she hasn't worked in years?

I think it's great that some women feel secure enough in their relationships that they can stay at home and take care of the children while the husbands work. I just must say that I don't fully understand such a choice, and I am well aware that I never might. It probably takes having absolute belief in harmonious, committed relationships for life. It probably also takes growing up in a country with a much more robust economy than my homeland's to give one such faith in the husband's job security.


Pika said...

I fully agree with you, but I guess I am also different from people in my nearest environment being originally from somewhere else.

Where I grew up, there were no stay at home mothers. There may be some rare exceptions, but in my parents' generation and my generation I just can not think of anyone who ever even considered staying at home. Before moving to Sweden/Ireland, I only ever saw this phenomenon in the movies and thought it was very American. It just doesn't occur to people there to do so. There's no discussion in society if a woman should stay at home or not, beacuse it's just not something that happens. Granted, looking from outside, I now see there is social support for this (e.g. 1 year maternity leave, cheap local kindergartens that have to be provided for every child by law, etc.), but if you live there, you don't see this as something special. It is the norm and so it doesn't occur to everyone that things may be different somewhere else.

Looking back, I suppose there are two reasons for everyone (men and women) working, one is the same that you mention, i.e. financial. But the second one may have something to do with the principle we were brought up and that was hammered to us in school (perhaps you as well?), that work is your duty and so you have to work if you can. Like I said above, it just doesn't occur to people to not work, because that's what everyone does.

So, call me weird, but I don't get this whole not working thing at all. And now I'll stop to not completely hijack your comments. :-)

nicoleandmaggie said...

I will always work (unless I have enough saved to get the same income from stocks at a Mitt Romney rate of taxes), but for different reasons.

I was brought up to believe that I need to be a productive member of society. That I need to make the world a better place. That I have gifts and I need to share those gifts with the world. If I did have a steady income stream from dividend-bearing stocks, I would no doubt be spending my time on charitable work. There are a lot of young women out there who need to learn that math isn't scary and that they can do it.

Alyssa said...

After reading about what your mother had to deal with while married makes it completely understandable that you need to make your own money and keep it separate from your husband's for the most part.

I also feel I must work, but also for a different reason - mostly my sanity!

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine being an adult and not working. Working and being responsible for ourselves is what makes us adults.

Rebecca said...

I completely understand what you are saying. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and in my parents' dysfunctional relationship (different from your parents, my mom did the self-berating without any assistance from my dad) it was pretty clear which side of the equation I wanted to be on when I grew up.

So today, I work, and my husband is a stay-at-home dad. I don't know if it's any better than my parents' relationship, but I like to think it is. He feels some issues relating to it, which recently came up when I had to make a big career decision. I told him that he had veto power, and I feel like we made the decision together, although if it turns out that it was the wrong decision, I hope I don't get all the blame ;)

feMOMhist said...

having been divorced, and being the leaver, I can only say YES YES YES> My income dropped about 2/3rds when I left. What if I didn't even have that 1/3rd of my own. I shudder to think of staying in that shit marriage for financial reasons

Anonymous said...

Loved your post. I can totatlly relate with you and also undestand you for keeping a separate account (though I don' do it). My mother was a stay-in-home mom in a bad relationship. This affected me badly during my teenage years and I never accepted to be financially dependent on anyone. Working woman was considered bad in my country, but my mother completely supported my wish since she understood the value of being independent. I feel proud to be able to contribute to my home equally and actually enjoy my work, but can never explain this to my brothers who still think that I am working because my husband can not support our family.

Anonymous said...

Where I grew up, it was normal for women to be stay at home moms and contribute to society in other ways: volunteering, church activities, organizing school events as a parent volunteer, etc. This is normal in the culture of my area - southern US state, suburb, very religious hence the church activities thing.

I myself could never do this. Being a stay at home mom and volunteering is not my strong point. Some people may look at stay at home moms doing charitable work and think that it's "easy," but I would argue that like anything else, you have to be "good" at it. I happen to be better at science/engineering than volunteering and running a school or charity event.

I don't think that science/engineering is a "better" contribution to society than running a school event or charity in any way. If you want to argue that it's more demanding and rigorous, you might have a case (i.e. you do need to go to school and take some demanding classes, go through sleepless nights in the lab sometimes, etc.). But I'd fail epically if I ever tried to run a charity event and organize 100s of volunteers.

Cloud said...

The financial independence aspect is important to me, too. It is one of the reasons why I can't imagine quitting working. Like you, I don't mean to judge other people when I say that I just can't imagine staying home working out for me.

I find the cultural differences in what is considered the "right" thing to do fascinating. If we could be rational about it, I think that alone would prove to us that there is no single right way to be a mother. But of course, many people can't be rational about this!

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Anonymous said...

"And none of this even touches upon the situation in which the husband, however wonderful he may be, simply loses his job. Or dies. What happens then to the wife and the kids if the wife doesn't work, if she hasn't worked in years?"

Isn't this what life insurance and disability insurance are for? (It obviously wouldn't cover unemployment due to incompetence, undesired skills, or lack of will.)

I have to say I don't understand the "I have to work and be financially independent" mentality, and I grew up with two working, professional parents and a mother who earned over twice as much as my dad. I'm incredibly financially responsible, and this was drilled into me by my mother. Marriage strikes me as too much of a partnership, however, to rule that both parties ought to have formal jobs. I might be taking it for granted that if necessary, either party would be skilled enough to reenter the workforce if necessary.

Like nicoleandmaggie, for me the issue is "What can I contribute to society?" It's not about a job per se. I would also seriously consider more risky philanthropic projects if I were more financially stable. I kind of wish I had sold out after college instead of doing this kind of volunteer work for a year--I would then be in a better place now to take off from academia, if I decide I can make a better contribution some other way.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the comments are making the mistake of confusing "work" with "contributing to society." My mom was a SAHM (very common in the US in the 70s). In addition to being a great mother, she was very active in the community: girl scouts, school, volunteering, etc. Many of the community ties that seem absent today (for good or ill) were provided by SAHM networks. How could she do it? My dad has many faults but his reliability is rock solid.

hush said...

I totally get where you're coming from. It sucks that you had to know that about your father, but it certainly sounds like knowing the truth has made you stronger.

Dr. Sneetch said...

What a beautiful honest post! I totally get what you are saying and i'm blown away by your keen self-analysis.

chall said...

I'm totally scared that the person not working, be it the man or the woman, will be depending on the other one financially. I wouldn't want someone to stay with me "bc they couldn't divorce"...

My parents have always had one seperate account for themselves but one joint savings for "family things". And bills were divided btw them. I think what they taught me that I really like it "you have to be able to discuss money with your spouse and be honest about it. Even if you aren't putting it in the same account."

Maybe bc one of them had a messy divorce behind them when the other partner took out money from the account in common and spent them/hid them etc??

og said...

I agree with you 100% yet I'm thinking of quitting the work force when we move to Italy, at least for a year. Of course I know many women in the U.S. who quit to be with their kids and could never get back into the workforce. I'm very worried about financial independence but I'm also burnt out and really can't envision jumping into the work pool in a foreign country. I'm not "above" doing labor like childcare or retail but I also would like to see if I get more options once my language skills improve and my kids are older.

One thing I would like to add is that as much as I value stay at home non-paid work, whether it's volunteering or helping with schools, I do think I have more decision making power as the main provider and yet I would hate my husband to think the same once the tables are turned! It's not really about the clothing purchases etc.. It's that I like to send money to my parents and right now i can do so without question since I'm earning. I don't know if that would be the case if I stopped working.

Ronda said...

This post makes me sad and just a wee bit amused at the same time. I was raised by a stay-at-home-mom, as was my husband, and I have always stayed home since I had children. Most of my friends live similar to me, so in my world, it is the norm. I pretty much buy what I need (and plenty of unnecessary wants as well :)) without any problem, and my husband respects my decisions. I am thankful that I fully trust my husband and that he fully trusts me so that we can do this, and sorry that you can't, because it makes life so much easier and happier, not to mention being far better for children.

The amusing part is that you seem to think that a SAHM does not 'work.' By staying home I am probably able to *save* more money than I could possibly *make* in the workplace. I have time to cook from scratch, shop frugally, grow and preserve our own food, make many of our clothes and other items. I save tons of money on child care, clothing, and transportation that are unnecessary when I don't leave home every day.

I know that this concept is really foreign to many people, but it has worked very well for us, and even though our income seems low according to national standards, we live very well and have no debt. And I honestly believe that my work at home has been as much responsible for that as my husband's.