We all re-read, you know that. And this time, I spent a long time going back through Leslie Bennetts’s The Feminine Mistake.
If you’ve heard of it in about 2006-2007, you probably remember it caused an uproar among women, because this book very solidly called out stay-at-home wives and pointed out that when a woman decides to stay home and give up working, she’s compromising herself financially for the long term as a tradeoff. Yes, some language in the book is pretty harsh, but I find the message is 100% true, though. Even today. Hell, especially today, if you consider the current legislative onslaught.
Ladies: rely on yourself first. That was the message I got out of The Feminine Mistake, and it’s a message that cannot be overstated, especially right now.
Bottom line is this: no matter how in love you think you are with your husband, and no matter how great the marriage looks now, if you decide to “opt out” of the workforce and stay home with the kids, you’re doing so at your own risk. Why? Simple reason: the days where a man can work, support his whole family on one salary, and get a gold watch and a nice pension for his retirement are long, long past. Survival on one salary is impossible. Even two salaries probably won’t be enough. If any such a situation survives now, it is extremely uncommon. Jobs change. Money changes. And you usually don’t think about it, but your husband can die, or leave you, or get injured to the point where he can no longer work.
And what, pray tell, will you do then, when you had X years out of the workforce, which translates into an X years experience gap, with skills that are very likely to be outdated? Any job you will get, if you will get one, will be paying you at least 30% less than what you would’ve made, had you stayed in the workforce.
What Leslie Bennetts did, in 2007, was compile exhaustive data with statistics, interviews, and analyses, of what happens to women who opt out of the workforce and what their lives turn out to be. While, granted, a lot of the snippets in the book focus on the wives of high-powered professionals, there is a distinct pattern across all economic divides among the women who lose their husbands as a source of income, whether through death, divorce, or health issues: their lives are in a state of upheaval and some of them never, ever get back up to the same or similar standard of living. Why? Because, in opting out of the workforce, they also completely destroyed their future earning potential, and decimated their self-sufficiency as a chaser.
This is not an easy admission for me to make, but if we look at the bigger picture, it’s plain that we have not yet come so far as a society here in the US where women can exit and reenter the workforce without difficulty. I hate to admit it, but such is the truth. Like it as not, when an employer is looking to hire, they’re looking to fill the empty seat with someone experienced, who knows what they’re doing, and whose learning curve on the job is minimal. This is rarely going to be someone who’s not young and/or already employed. An older woman coming off a divorce, a mother trying to reenter the workforce to sustain the family after a hiatus – far more difficult to reenter for them than a man who’s taken two months off for family reasons. This is part of the ‘mommy tax’ that people talk about, but in reality, this is a woman tax: you don’t see this happen with men who exit and reenter the workforce. From the minute that a woman is hired, if she’s below a certain age, her employer is already wondering how long she’s going to stay before going on maternity leave. Whether or not they will admit to doing so is something else. As such, women are paid less, and it’s not uncommon for a pregnant woman or a new mom – or a woman taking extended leave for any reason at all – to be pressured into quitting by any number of means.
Just FYI – asking questions about family status during an interview? Not legal. And the fact that it’s not legal now is a recent development. Doesn’t mean some employers still won’t ask.
There’s a million ways to pressure someone into quitting. Harassment, low pay, penalizing for any number of ridiculous reasons, constant nitpicking, creating a stressful and hostile work environment – you name it, it’s been probably done. It’s all done with the same end results.
I take a very active interest in mothers’ rights int he workplace because it determines women’s rights in the workplace as a whole. While I know I will never be a mother, and ensured that in every degree possible, mothers’ treatment also comes down to non-mothers’ treament as well.
But Bennetts highlights the big picture effect of opting out on every level, not just financial. Power dynamics. Effect on the kids (which, I might add, is absolutely the opposite of what people like Dr. Laura Schlessinger assert). So on, so forth. And it is absolutely required reading for every woman who is about to get married and/or is thinking about staying home with the kids.
Here’s my personal opinion, and yes, I’m aware that it’s going to be unpopular: if you’re going through the trouble and the financial outlay to get a college degree, do not waste that enormous investment by not working at all. Yes, I’m saying it in those terms, and I’m not mincing the words. What you’re doing by choosing the stay-at-home route is basically cutting yourself off at the knees and wasting the money paid for your tuition. Like it or not, education isn’t free, and unless your parents have a tuition fund (not likely, if below a certain income line), you’re stuck with loans – which, from my own saga, you know are next to impossible to be rid of by means other than repayment. Whatever fulfillment you may have by staying home with the kids has a very serious long-term impact on your financial future. You will never earn as much money as someone who keeps working through having kids, and because you have no absolute guarantee of your spouse staying with you or earning enough money to be the sole breadwinner, or of the economy permitting your spouse to work for as much money as they’re getting right now, then you really have no plan for the future at all, even if that future is as little as a year down the line. Unfortunately, few marriages are lifelong in this day and age – what’s the divorce rate now? 60%? – and like it as not, but faith in your spouse alone is not enough.
And not to mention, when you’re opting out of the workforce, the rest of us have to pick up the slack. We know this: that’s how it works in a team. When one teammate pulls out, we all buck up and do it for the team. But the greatest pet peeve we have is when we do not get promoted on merit, but because “she has a family to support” will get more consideration than hard work. Know this: we will never mind putting a little more in for the team, but severely mind when you, the mom, think that we’re not entitled to the accolades and raises that we earn while we’re covering for you, whether we’re covering it for the months you’re on leave or for the X years you’ve opted out for. You cannot have it both ways. If you’re not putting in the work to get ahead in the workplace, then you don’t get to bitch about those of us who do.
Motherhood is a choice. Should you make that choice, you also make the choice to accept the consequences.
I won’t even begin on the fact that employers need to give the childfree the same perks as they give the childed. That’s a different debate for a different time.
The fact remains is that a woman cannot rely on an outside source for financial support unless that source is her own hard work. At least, not consistently. And unfortunately, exiting the workforce without consideration for future skills is a career death-knell. Unless one freelances and/or develops skills that can be marketable towards future endeavors, survival in today’s world isn’t promised if one off-ramps from their job. The on-ramps are few and far between.
The fact that I don’t have and never will have kids plays in my favor. No, I don’t think it’s fair that mothers are penalized for wanting to become mothers, I definitely do not accept that there should be a wage gap for motherhood and womanhood, and I definitely want to see a better global leave option across the board – parents, non-parents, singles, couples, everyone But mothers also need to stop and think that, while the world stays as it is, their choices have consequences too, and no amount of, “But I’m a mom!” is going to be enough to override that.
When employers hire, they want skills and marketability. Like it as not, shuttling the kids to school is not a job skill, and you don’t get a gold star for doing the very things you signed up voluntarily to do. Being a mom is not enough to re-enter the workforce and expect the same salary and flex as when you exited. You have to actually demonstrate that you can work the same as your competition.
Not ragging on mothers here – just telling you how it is. And, unfortunately, with the current “administration”, the odds of this situation improving are scant.
Change isn’t wrought overnight. While I align myself as a feminist, in no small part because the world hasn’t changed to the extent that would allow a woman to work and thrive as a feme sole, I don’t ignore reality. Whether or not I like it, I have to keep working so I can sustain myself, seeing as life had proven to me egregiously that I cannot count on outside support. My mother is retired – I’m the one in the supporting role, so the employers’ line of thought that only mothers with children have a life/family is absurd, and that’s something I have to battle against. The illusion that a husband is a magical panacea both financially and in other avenues of life is precisely that: an illusion. After all, 60% of marriages – confirm the stat, please – now end in divorce, which fully shatters the idea that a man is even close to a plan. It may’ve been the case before I was born. But right now? No. It’s not. And it probably never will be again.
But we can hope, and we can work for a more equal world.