I am obsessed with the topic of women's economic self-sufficiency. When I was in my early twenties, I thought it was important, as an abstract principle, for women to be able to support themselves. But I didn't know the half of it. Being a divorce lawyer for more than two decades has made me see up close and personal the devastating effect that total dependence on a husband can have.
I am not surprised by women older than me who embraced a traditional homemaker role at a time when other options weren't really on the table. But I continue to be surprised by the large number of women my age and younger -- women who were raised with the expectation that they would have careers, women with college or graduate school degrees -- who never seriously entered the workforce and find themselves at age forty or fifty with no ability to earn a living.
I completely understand how it happens. A couple meet in college or grad school, get married, work for a year or two, wife gets pregnant, stops working for a brief period, husband's career builds, wife doesn't return to work because husband is capable of supporting them both, wife becomes absorbed with the very considerable pleasures of full time motherhood, wife has a second and maybe a third child. Fast forward fifteen years, children are all in school, wife's job is managing the family and household, husband's job is to earn all the money, and the marriage falls apart.
Unless they are really wealthy, it's a disaster. You just can't divide up one income stream and have it support two households without a significant drop in everyone's living standard. And how do you navigate the difficulties of an unhappy marriage when any thinking you try to do about what would really be best for you and your children is completely intertwined with a sickening fear of not being able to pay the bills, of going to work at Starbucks (if they'll even have you), because your twenty-year-old B.A. in English is not going to qualify you to do anything that pays more than $12 an hour? Women living this nightmare are desperate and terrified.
By contrast, women who can support themselves are able to think about divorce entirely differently. Are they still in love? Would it be better for the children, on balance, if they stay or go? They may be unhappy, but they feel they have choices. There is just no question that money is power and the power dynamic in marriages where one person is financially dependent on the other is dramatically different from marriages where either spouse could pay their own rent if they had to.
Fairy tales die hard. Our culture may still whisper into the ears of young women that Prince Charming will come, sweep you off your feet, and take care of you -- which is fine if it happens, enjoy the ride -- but make sure you have a Plan B, because you absolutely cannot count on happily ever after.