A few years ago, I talked to a furious professional working mom in her 50s who was going through a divorce. Her anger focused on the widespread, long-standing, gender-neutral divorce laws in many states that for decades have required couples to split assets acquired during marriage. In practice, the law has largely taken money ex-husbands accumulated, and like Robin Hood, redistributed the wealth to ex-wives who earned less, little or nothing during marriage. This always seemed like fair recognition of women’s roles as childcare providers and household managers. But when the genders reverse, the practice seems to strike some women as unfair.
“That’s my money,” the soon-to-be-divorced woman argued, cataloguing the decades of working motherhood and sacrifices it took to accumulate her marital assets. “I earned it.”
Many women’s reactions to our country’s recent economic traumas remind me of that woman’s complicated, perhaps hypocritical, outrage. As women have increased our earning potential in the last 40 years, we’ve also had to grapple with the unpleasant reality of losing our hard-earned money and possessions. Last week a woman in my area chained herself to her house with a giant metal combination lock when her property went into foreclosure. A working mom at my kids’ school who runs an investment fund with many female clients explains: “I don’t manage money anymore – I manage fear.”
We working women have to get used to losing money as well as earning it.
Just as we didn’t have female role models for negotiating promotions with a boss or walking out of a car dealership with an automobile (and our dignity), many of us don’t have female role models for losing our assets gracefully.
Welcome to charting our own path, phase two.
Just as women compete and win in gender-unique fashion, we lose differently from men too. What I see is that we are simultaneously more emotional --it’s hard to argue that a bike lock is going to help you keep the bank away from your home. And more practical, focusing on the essentials of putting food on the table and a roof over our children’s heads, figuring we can hunker down and work harder and make up for the losses over time. In general, children’s immediate needs trump pride in the women I see facing economic hardship.
Hypothetically, women who are losing thousands in their mutual fund accounts or forking over money to ex-husbands should be more sanguine than moms losing their houses or healthcare or having their minvans repossessed. But no matter what you lose, losing financially is frightening and painful and demoralizing.
Despite this cool analysis I have to admit a photo in the Washington Post last week struck fear in my woman’s heart. The grainy black and white shot showed an endless line of formerly prosperous men in vintage business suits lined up waiting for bread in 1930 after the infamous stock market crash. In my head, I replaced every man in the photo with a working mom holding a child’s hand, a stream of loving mothers worried about feeding themselves and their children. There was only one appropriate, helpless, utterly female reaction: tears.