This morning I woke up to read a post by the always insightful Lisa Belkin, whom I’ve been following for at least 15 years. Today she asked her followers on social media for thoughts about this Letter published in The Guardian newspaper entitled: A Letter to My Wife, Who Won’t Get a Job, While I Work Myself To Death.
As I read the letter, and the many comments and harsh judgements in response, I started wondering what else was going on in this couple’s relationship. There is undoubtedly more to the story than meets the eye.And isn’t that always the case when only one side is presented? Didn’t he mention that she did work part-time at one point but it didn’t pay well? But for arguments sake, lets just imagine that this man’s letter is truthful and reveals the whole story.
Wow, as a former parenting & pregnancy editor, and a careers writer for years—and a single mom, this letter struck a chord. And, apparently, it did with many other women as well. Remember all the trends in parenting over the past decade? There’s been the Lean In argument verses the Opt Out one. Lisa Belkin actually coined the Opt Out term, referring to educated women who stop working. Here’s a Pew Research Study that confirms 10 % of all educated women in America permanently opt out of the workforce.
Women are their worst enemies it seems. We can publicly shame others and find fault in just about anything a mom does or doesn’t do. Opt out and homeschool? You are ignorant, fearful and financially irresponsible. Work long hours as a partner in a law firm? You must be selfish, materialistic and risking your kids’ health and well-being. Remember the backlash on Tiger Parenting? (Time Magazine wrote a piece about the real effects of Tiger Moms on their children. Go Here to read it.)
Women criticize each other on just about everything—where as men seem to shrug things off more with a Live and Let Live attitude. Maybe a man disapproves of another man’s choice to stay home with his kids for a few years while his wife works, but rarely does that man get angry and write a scathing letter or op-ed to The Wall Street Journal or New York Times bludgeoning that man’s choice. Women, however, are different. We seem to want to make others’ choices wrong so we can feel better about our own—a sign that we are too caught up in worrying about what others think? At least, that’s how it seems to me. Or, we want to justify what we choose, like Opting Out of the workforce for a few years, so that others can see our point of view and still approve of us. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what you and your partner feel good about. If a person decides to spend more time with his/her kiddos, that’s his/her choice. And if a woman opts out, the husband had to have been on board with it at some point.
So when does that point end? My question for the author of that letter is at what point did your wife ‘not working’ become a massive bourdon filling you with anger, resentment and seething indignation? And did you relay this information to her clearly and honestly? This letter feels like a justification for leaving her.
I strongly feel that couples often don’t communicate strongly enough and clearly enough about their agreements. If they did, they could each adjust and change and move forward. But sometimes, they don’t want to adjust, change and move forward. They want an exit strategy. I would guess that even if this woman got a job tomorrow, her husband’s resentment wouldn’t vanish and they may split anyway. There are other matters at work if the two couldn’t talk about this issue before and start working toward a solution.
I can relate to what this husband is relaying, however, because I slightly lived through it. I never opted out entirely from the workforce, but I didn’t live up to my husband’s changing standards. I’ll explain. After our baby was born, my husband and I decided that I’d stay a freelancer, rather than enter the full-time workforce, until our child entered kindergarten. My husband was on board with this agreement, until he wasn’t. And that was discovered via stressed out comments and me over-hearing what he said to male friends whose wives worked full-time. It was a harsh wake up call to me that our agreement didn’t matter and somehow I was the last to know.
Here’s how our agreement (to let me freelance verses full-time work) began. I was offered a full-time journalism teaching position at Loyola Marymount University when my oldest was 9 months old. I panicked. Yes, it was a cool gig and I’d edit the student newspaper and all other publications while teaching students and mentoring the student writers at the paper. And then suddenly it seemed like an awful lot of work for very little pay. Day care cost more than what I’d earn. So, we decided as a couple, that I’d turn the position down and just continue to freelance as an editor and writer until our baby was in kindergarten. It would also allow us to be mobile—a good thing since we moved to Atlanta and to London within a two year time frame and my clients went with me.
I thought, as a wife who continued to freelance and keep her career track stable, while also doing the lion share of parenting, allowing my hubs to work long hours and move up in his field, that I was a very good egg. But clearly I wasn’t in his eyes, even though he rarely told me. Again, I overheard things or would get snide comments.
Thank God kindergarten started one year earlier in England than in the US, as my husband was clearly “over” our agreement and on a campaign to change me. I’m such a smart person, shouldn’t I be doing something other than writing so I can actually earn more money? He was over my profession in general. I was editing books on contract and writing for magazines that didn’t pay terribly well, but was also able to spend more time with our three-year-old, allowing my husband to travel, work long hours and rise within his company and attract eyes of recruiters. I thought I was pitching in. But he was stressed out. Yes we moved for his job. Yes, he wanted to live in London. Yes, I was the only expatriate wife that I knew in our circle of friends who was able to work part-time. Still, London is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Once I took a full-time editor job, it was like a huge audible sigh was released within our marriage. The pressure was off of him completely. The job paid well and I could work from home, so I oversaw the part-time nanny, was still able to go to parent-teacher conferences or school plays and could still manage our household—allowing husband to continue work travel and his long hours. We could save more, vacation more and just breathe.
Why am I sharing this personal tidbit? Because I think couples often get stuck in a rut of holding tightly to past agreements. I wanted to sternly hold on to the understanding that I’d go back to full time work once my son was in kindergarten. It was rational. It made sense. But living in London and all it’s massive expense, was triggering fear in my husband. The agreement needed to be re-thought out. And it was. But there was another side to this story too. I WAS working and doing most of the parenting, allowing the husband to be able to do whatever it took to rise in his field. I wonder what the real story is in this letter? Did this woman work part-time but didn’t want to be a partner because of the hours and because her husband wasn’t around? Perhaps he needed to work extremely long hours to make partner and she wanted that for him? And besides, when kids were small, she’d still have to do the majority of the parenting, cooking, help with homework, carpooling, etc.? Maybe now she is planning on working now that the kiddos are off to college?
This couple has let so many years go by that likely the husband has bottled up his anger and it’s now overflowing. She likely may feel entitled and mis-understood and not appreciated. Raising kids isn’t easy work. Maybe she manages all their finances and cooks, cleans and manages all the family vacations and family communications. (Why is it that women tend to send out all the holiday cards, plan all the birthday parties, for instance? Is it demanded within our XX chromosome? I hate that.)
What are your thoughts? Some followers of Lisa Belkin wrote in scathingly to the wife of this letter—even calling her stupid. In their eyes, she was stupid for putting her marriage at risk, for not being a good role model for her children, for not contributing financially, and more importantly, for not keeping her career on track in case her husband died or left her “for a younger model.”
Ouch. How much fear is in all of those statements??
I instinctively feel that it’s always important for a woman to work, even if just part-time or freelance in order to stay in the game. It’s good for the pocketbook, it’s good for the self esteem and it provides intellectual stimulation away from the family dynamic. But, my view, by no means, is a harsh judgement against my fellow stay-at-home moms. Some women feel that their husbands would have NO way to move up in their fields if their wives didn’t do all the childrearing. We live in a country that allows freedom of choice and we are all on own journey of self discovery. She was married to an attorney. Maybe his hours were brutal? Maybe she thought it was the best for their family and he agreed and couldn’t bring himself to say differently until he was DONE. Maybe he has his eye on a young female attorney and just wants an exit clause? Who knows.
Thoughts? Is it okay in this day and age for a well-educated woman to stay home until her kids enter college? Does a husband need his wife to earn money in order to “feel loved?” And, if so, to flip that coin, a wife must need a partner to help with raising the kids and household tasks to “feel loved.” Hmmm….I’m suddenly feeling better about not being married anymore. Sigh. Doing all the work without expectations of help, or without resentment or feelings of unworthiness due to this drama, is actually a relief.
Feel the same? Feel different?
Always grateful to those of you who read my musings!