Monday, May 12, 2008

What if My Husband Leaves Me?

I thought I would spend this week addressing some of the main arguments against choosing a housewife lifestyle presented in today's culture.  Certainly none of them will be a surprise to you.  And while I am interested in creating a discussion around these arguments, I don't pretend to have perfect rebuttals.  Why?  Because I know that not everyone can or should make the choice to stay at home.  But some can, and maybe some should.  If they choose to, certainly they will have to wrestle with these issues as I do right now in my adventures as a housewife.

The first dilemma that I have encountered since making the decision to stay at home is the financial vulnerability that creeps in as a consequence of my choice.  This vulnerability comes with the question, "what if my husband decides to leave me?  what will I do?"  When I was working I didn't have to ask this question.  My income certainly wasn't high, but it was enough to pay rent and buy groceries and carry a cell phone.  I had a small, if subconscious, comfort of knowing that if my marriage were to unexpectedly crumble overnight, I had the means to move on.  

I am no longer in that situation.  Instead of the comfort of my own self-reliance, I am dependent on my husband to provide for me.  Certainly this dependence is one of the things that sparked the passion of the women's movement.  So many women are taken advantage of due to this type of dependency.  In fact, during my role as a banker, I encountered many women of all ages who were suddenly left in a lurch from a relationship gone awry.  Most of them made the transition to independence eventually, but it was indisputably harder for them than the women with careers.

It is a valid argument, then, that women should work and maintain their own income in order to protect themselves.  It is unnerving to rely on someone else.   In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is irresponsible for me to promote a lifestyle that cultivates this dependency.  In the end, however,  my conclusion is this: being willing to be financially vulnerable is not the worst thing in the world, and can even strengthen the commitment between two partners in a stable, healthy relationship.  That said, I do think that if you are planning to stay home, an economic back-up plan is important.  Important not because you are paranoid that your partner may abandon you, but because it is wise to prepare for rainy days, whatever they may look like.

A backup plan can look like a lot of different things, but there are common elements that I think need to be present.  One is that no woman in a relationship, working or not, can afford to opt out of the finances.  It is really important to have up-to-date knowledge about your assets, your expenses, the due dates of your bills, etc.  Furthermore, it is really important to establish credit in your own name.  Same goes for retirement savings.  Practicing money management, even if you are not the one earning the money, is critical.  

Two, maintaining relationships in the community is important, particularly with business people.  Too often a choice to stay at home inevitably translates into a withdrawal from society at large, or at least a retreat to a peer group in the same situation.  Knowing only housewives and stay-at-home moms will not provide a lot of help to you if you suddenly need work.  On the other hand, being actively involved in the community, where business professionals have had an opportunity to witness your skills in action, could be a great help.  

The same reasoning applies to the importance of maintaining workforce skills.  Keeping a resume up-to-date is important, including any recent involvement in the community, as well as marketable skills like organization, communication, conflict resolution, and knowledge.  Staying at home doesn't mean growing stagnant.  

Finally, consider opportunities to generate income on your own, even if the income is small.  The practice of applying creativity and skill to the marketplace is a great habit to cultivate, and can provide money on the side.  Some especially entrepreneurial women who work from their homes have found ways to generate a modest living in their own right.  I would encourage all women who decide to stay at home to keep their minds open to income earning possibilities, even if they are small.

Will applying the above suggestions completely protect a housewife from financial calamity if her partner bails out?  No, it won't.  But they will greatly improve a housewife's confidence in her ability to provide for herself in the marketplace, and will increase her chances of weathering the transition gracefully.  The truth is that choosing to stay home does increase your financial vulnerability, but it does not negate your responsibility to exercise control over your financial future.  A true housewife knows her dollars and cents, even if she isn't making them.

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