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Change My Life: The “Mistake” of Motherhood

The Feminine Mistake

Several years ago my Between the Covers Book Club read The Feminine Mistakeby Leslie Bennetts.

This was an intense discussion between women who had made a variety of choices for a variety of reasons, who were experiencing differing amounts of internal conflict about their choices. Because let’s face it, they aren’t easy choices and many of us feel we are choosing between “this sucks” and “this sucks worse.” It was such a stimulating book club discussion that one newly-converted-evangelical-self-designated-submissive-(though paradoxically truly domineering)-wife, who happened to visit our book club that night, claimed it was the worst night of her life.

Bennetts is a New York City writer who had teenaged children, a mythical egalitarian marriage and a much-loved, long-time nanny.

The book is an examination of the REAL long-term cost of women abandoning their careers in order to be stay-at-home-mothers or part-time workers, rather than continuing their full-time professions during the years of mothering.

The real cost of this choice is substantially higher than you might imagine. Having made the stay-at-home-choice myself it was a real eye-opener in terms of the long-term financial impact on SAHMs and part-time workers, as well as the broader impact on the economy, and even other mothers who do stay in the workplace. The choice has truly changed my life.

You’ll Eat Dog Food When You’re Old (if you can afford it)

For starters, you don’t accrue Social Security points as a stay-at-home-mom, and very few if you’re a part-time worker (if you are self-employed you must contribute to the system to get them) so taking 10 years out of your career will significantly decrease your retirement income. You also don’t get your husband’s points if the marriage ends prior to 10 years, even if you had 10 children by him.

You do not contribute to a 401K plan, which means no matching funds from an employer, during these years. Many families, going through the poverty spell of having a single income, can’t save in a separate IRA. If you divorce, his 401K may be divided, but it’s still retirement income lost. In fact, the way 401K and IRA investments work it’s the length of the investment more than the dollars put in (meaning if you put in $1,000 in 1999 and $5,000 in 2012, you would have more in 2020 from the $1,000 than the $5,000), which literally could equate to a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars by retirement.

This is why there are so many senior women below the poverty line.

You think you’re going to waltz back in? 

Mothers often don’t realize how difficult it is to get back into their original profession, many times because of motherhood discrimination. But, Bennetts points out, is it discrimination? Or have employers realized that investing in mothers can be risky because they actually do tend to jump ship when motherhood responsibilities interfere, whereas fathers typically do not?

Yes, from a broader feminist perspective mothers who abandon their careers do hurt other women, mothers especially, who do stay in the workforce. Not only because the mothers who stayed are outnumbered and have to deal with discrimination on their own, but because employers look at mothers with less credibility, because they do appear less committed to their profession than the men on staff, precisely because they are prioritizing mothering.

Then there is the broader economic impact of not having more women involved in the economics of the country. Women have been shown to be more prudent investors, more intuitive business professionals and bring a vital perspective to the workplace. The entire economy benefits from their involvement, as such, it is negatively impacted when women check out.

Childcare  

Though many professional women end up spending their entire income on actually working, with childcare expenses, commuting, work clothing, etc., Bennetts points out that fiscally, you’re better off doing that because by the time children go off to school and childcare costs are eliminated you will be higher up in your profession and making more money. You will also have accrued Social Security points, 401K income and seniority. If you take those years off, you’re losing experience years that equate to a significantly higher income over the lifetime of your career.

Now You’re Screwed

If you divorce, of course, you’re screwed. Because he now has many more years invested in his career and the reality is that you don’t get half the money. Courts value the father’s role as a parent and typically give him joint custody now, which means there is little to no child support and maintenance lasts only until you can feed yourself, in most cases. Either way, you’re not living your middle class lifestyle anymore. Now you have a big huge gap in your resume that means you’re starting somewhere near the bottom again, or at least not as high as you would have been, and answering to a 25-year-old woman who is still idealistic enough to think that she will make it through motherhood unchanged, and will be perpetually wondering what exactly your problem is.

This is according to Bennetts. She’s a tad cynical. A Debbie Downer.

Shit. Now What? 

I now find myself in the exact position that Bennetts’ apocalyptic tale warns of.

I am a newly-divorced 39-year-old woman, the mother of two children. I have been a SAHM/part-time worker for almost 11 years. A choice that my husband did not agree with, but which I made anyway. A choice which played a significant part in the destruction of our marriage. Not only because of the poverty spell and the constant struggle to make ends meet and the never-ending stress that put on our marriage, but because we were battling over control of my choices. Ironically, I fought extraordinarily hard for the opportunity to be in this financial position.

I have kept my finger in the professional pot, producing clips and a work history, but accruing no Social Security points. I did mark the 10th anniversary required to use my wasband’s Social Security points, which is prudent.

I have no medical insurance. I have a pile of debt. I have a big fat mortgage, which it turns out is more affordable than renting. My half of the measly little 401K we had finally managed to save was cashed out to pay for the divorce lawyer. I have no IRA or a savings account. I get enough money from him (he who went from a college-educated waiter to a middle manager in a Fortune 500 company on his way up at my insistence), to pay the mortgage and not much more. For four years. Which means he accrued 11 years of professional experience and a salary to match, while I have to start wherever I can and I have four years to get my financial shit together. He, and the marriage, it turns out, actually was a pretty shitty investment, according to Bennetts’ perspective. Or, looked at another way, he financially supported my choice to stay home for 11 years and will continue to help me until I get on my feet and become self-supporting.

Regret?

I figure I have about 21 to 26 years in which to focus on earning money before retirement starts beckoning to me.

Still. I don’t regret it. Isn’t that funny? See, the thing that Leslie Bennetts doesn’t account for in the book is the fierce magnetic pull I felt towards my children. The deep longing I had to spend all that time with them. The inherently feminine drive to mother them I felt, still feel, though it’ s lesser now that they are past five.

Those mothering years are years I won’t get back. The thought of spending them riding a subway for two hours a day, or sitting in a cubicle doing unfulfilling work 40 hours a week, was something I couldn’t stomach. The thought of dealing with workplace stress while trying to mother was not something I felt up to. Not when they were developing their selves. I didn’t want to miss it. I felt like their early childhoods would be a blink in my lifespan and it was a blink that I wanted to be present for. I have 11 years of my children’s childhoods to look back on, childhoods vanish you know. They come once, for a short period, and then they are gone.

It cost me dearly, true. But, I got to experience the deliciousness of baby skin, the intoxication of breast feeding, the exuberance of them experiencing the color yellow for the first time, the exasperation of potty training, the joy of teaching them to read, the high of seeing all of their firsts. Even though it was hard in a million of ways, these are things money can’t buy. I grew people. Humans. Awesome humans. Trade that for money that can vanish with the pop of a housing bubble? Not I.

I don’t regret for a minute having those years. Sure, I wish I were in a better financial position now. I wish I were swimming in a claw-footed bathtub full of $1,000 bills. Funny thing though, I know I’m going to be alright. I know that I will make money. I feel freed by their being in school all day. They don’t need me like they used to, they are independent and happy and well-adjusted. I did my job exceptionally well. I can make generating a big fat bank account more of a priority in my life now. I have to.

No, I don’t regret it. But, now it’s time to put my big girl panties on and shift my focus to making a mountain of cold hard cash!

Tracee Sioux is a Law of Attraction Coach at www.traceesioux.com.  She is the author of Love Distortion: Belle, Battered Codependent and Other Love Stories. Contact her at traceesioux@gmail.com.

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  1. […] The same look, now that you think about it, as the one they gave you when you described Marriage Shock, Baby Shock and Divorce Shock. It’s yet another secret of femininity, closely guarded and […]

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