There are a lot of posts in my quiver, in my mind that I don’t write. Because… hard. You know the kind? A story you long to tell, a panegyric you need to scream out… but you don’t, because half, more, the people in your life will be grievously offended?
This is one such post.
I write it for Flora. And for your daughter, too.
We’re sitting in a coffee shop—on a park bench—on my beloved Common—in my kitchen. And you’re in agony.
Your marriage is ending—really, it’s over, it’s just a question of how, when—and you’re terrified.
You’re terrified of—well, everything, really, because all change, especially that kind of change, is terrifying—but you’re, particularly, specifically, terrified of…
What? I ask. Again. You always wait for me to ask, before you say, you say…
… you say money, you say economic consequences, you say financial vulnerability…
… you say if you took that out of the equation, you’d be able to think clearer, plan better, but you can’t. Of course you can’t. How can you take that out of the equation? It’s everything.
You say if you could be sure, if you knew, you’d be financially ok, your kids would be ok—you’d walk. You’d have left a long time ago. Or: you wouldn’t be so terrified at the thought of being left. You would be more rational about him leaving…
And I say… nothing. I make supportive friend noises, and tell you you’ll be all right. Say words like lawyers, child support payment guidelines, protection, blah-blah-blah. Meaningless, meaningless words, because I know, you know, how it will all play out.
We know that as you disentangle-separate-end, you will fight, bitterly, over his money.
It doesn’t matter that it was our money before.
Now it’s his. And it affects everything, 21st century pro-woman, pro-child laws be damned. The person who signs the cheques holds the power. Defines the rules of engagement. Has the most power.
That’s just the way it is.
I know this. You know this. We’ve seen this play out, in our lives, how many times? The circles we move in, dominated by attachment parenting-homeschooling-radical-homemaker-yes-I’m-a-stay-at-home-parent-and-proud-of-it people, however self-proclaimed in their lifestyle radicality, end up being so predictably hetero-conventional. He earns money. She “stays” home. It’s their—our!—money. We’re a team! A family! Everything is ours.
Until there’s no love, friendship, affection, respect, and only anger, resentment, betrayal, emptiness. Fury. Bitterness.
And then—ours? Ha. It’s mine.
You don’t understand. But I do. Because it’s not a male-female thing. Not a greedy-bad-selfish husband versus giving-good-selfless wife. It’s a breadwinner versus dependent dynamic. And it sucks that in our most intimate relationships who makes the money matters so much. But it does. Oh, it does.
In my family, it’s usually me—and it’s our money when things are good. But when I get angry? It’s mine and could you fucking stop wasting it?
(Sean pauses at this moment and looks at me. You sure you want to be writing this? he asks. I need to, I say. Can you take it? His eyes return to the screen.)
You’re listening, but she, she’s appalled. Do you see her? She’s there on the periphery, right there… And she screams: It’s ours, ours. We’re a team. Forever. He appreciates everything I do, everything I sacrifice.
Sure. For now. While things are good.
And now, you’re angry. Because you’re not stupid or naïve. And the decision to stop earning, to stop building a career, to become financially dependent on someone you love-trust-are-building-a-forever-life-with… you didn’t make it lightly. Or alone. You made it together. And so, for five, 10, 15, 20 years, that’s what you did… and now?
I want to tell you… I want to tell you that staying out of fear, financial or otherwise, is worse than leaving in uncertainty. I want to tell you to make your decision on the assumption that everything will be ok… but will it? I don’t know. I can’t tell you. The financial and emotional consequences of the dissolution of the worst and most dysfunctional of marriages are vast.
And really… yours isn’t so bad.
Still. I’ll tell you none of that. I’ll make my supportive friend noises. Give you contact details for lawyers and links to the child support guideline tables*** and mediators’ addresses.
And heave a great, grateful sigh of relief… that it’s my money.
That my decisions to stay and love and work and build and negotiate and change and continue and grow together—complicated though they are—they never include financial fear. Dependence on someone else writing a cheque. Paying the bills.
(Buying my compliance in the decisions he makes for our (his!) children.)
(This is really difficult to read, Sean says. I nod. I know. And yet… why? “I don’t need you. But I want you.” It shouldn’t be difficult. It should, actually, be glorious. I am free and independent, and I choose to be here, with you—when I could be, would be just fine without you. But I want you. I want this, us. But. Need? No. Not financially, anyway. And that’s all we’re talking about here, my beloved. Money.)
She —that woman over there, who is convinced that her partnership-lovership-marriage is forever? — is so angry with me. I don’t understand her, she says. Her partner. Their love. Their trust. How they’re rewriting the rules of conventional marriage… by living what looks like a conventional marriage (he at work, she at home) but what is actually radical homemaking** and how they’re going to save the world and raise a new generation of children who…
It’s a beautiful story. And why argue? She won’t listen to me anyway. And maybe, who knows? Maybe she will be one of the lucky one-in-two. After all, 57 per cent of the American women married between 1985 and 1989 were still married 15 years later. Only (only!) 43 per cent were divorced.* Maybe her guy is completely exempt from and unaffected by dominant social habits and mores. Maybe he really will believe it’s our money, and that the work she does in the house and garden, with the children and all those quotidian tasks that make his career possible is just as valuable as the work he does that brings in the money that pays the bills and buys all the things.
I haven’t seen a man—or woman, for that matter—for whom that holds true come end-game. But they could exist. They could be evolving.
But… “maybe” is not good enough for my Flora. Nor are those odds. I want her, whether she loves one partner forever or walks any other path, free. Loving and staying because she wants to. Not because she feels she has to. Staying and being in the relationship without giving up her power—her economic clout—because we live in a world in which money matters. And who makes the money matters.
Now you’re really angry with me, because… well. Because. I understand. Be angry. It’s fine. I deserve it. Your agony and fear terrify me, even though they don’t play out in the path I walk… because my Flora, my Flora, suppose my Flora walks your path? Suppose she chases a fairy tale… and wakes up in a cage?
I want her free. Independent. Making choices out of love, commitment, reflection, and yeah, reason, sure, reason. But, not fear. Never fear.
* “Marital Status & Living Arrangements: Most People Make Only One Trip Down the Aisle, But First Marriages Shorter, Census Bureau Reports.” Census.gov. Retrieved 2012-03-27. via Wikipedia
**Radical Homemakers is the title of a rather fascinating book by Shannon Hayes … which is worth reading regardless of whether you hated every word I’ve written above or nodded furiously at each paragraph.