Even though my blog is only a few weeks old, I have already received a lot of terrific feedback from women about my book project. I want to share one email with you because it raises an issue that that I’ve thought about deeply since becoming a mom and it’s a topic that I intend to address in depth in my book.
P. from Toronto wrote the following:
“I don’t have a good ‘wish I had known’ story, but I thought I might share two recurrent conversations that I seem to be having with women friends. The first one is about what to do about going back to work (or not) when your youngest is now in full day school. For some friends, they had just finished PhDs or had jobs they didn’t like so there is no career to which to return. In other cases, they feel a bit stuck because in the time that has passed since they started staying home, their entire family ecosystem has evolved so that the mom does all of the house stuff including getting kids to activities etc. So her possible return to work has logistical, social and emotional impacts in addition to the basic and large impact of needing extra help. Perhaps there is a ‘I wish I had known’ discussion in there?
The other conversation many of us keep having is about our desire for a ‘wife’ (the old-fashioned kind), a ‘secretary’ (same) or a rent-a-grandparent. I’m not sure what the ‘I wish I had known’ story is in there but that topic sure resonates with 40ish moms in my group of friends.”
The situations that P. describes above are central to some of the recommendations that I personally want to pass along to women. In my case, I gave up a PhD to help my late husband Malcolm run the business that he had started just one year before and which provided his only source of income. Malcolm’s cancer had just come back and it was clear that he needed help. He was far too ill to do it on his own. I took a one year leave of absence from a fully funded PhD in order to help carry on the business and to give Malcolm time to get better.
Malcolm clearly still needed help one year later so I persisted. By the time he died I was in a real bind. My PhD research was too dated for me to go back and by then I had less interest in the topic. I was dealing with cancer on a daily basis as well as running a business; my previous academic work seemed far less compelling.
When Malcolm died I was in the process of applying for an Executive MBA but without a business to pay for the $65,000+ price tag, I couldn’t realistically pursue it. Why wasn’t there a business all of a sudden you might ask? Because our business depended on Malcolm for its existence. We ran a wholesale and retail business based on products that Malcolm conceived and created. I worked with Malcolm to develop the ideas and occasionally I gave him an idea that he developed into a product, but I couldn’t possibly replace the creative and artistic component that he provided. Nor could I hire that out; it was his original work. I was sunk. There was no obvious way for me to continue the business, which meant that my income was about to disappear.
Just as P. describes above, I had no career to go back to and no obvious path ahead. I was capable and had business experience but I didn’t have an easily definable skill (i.e. accountant, engineer, etc).
The underlying problem
In retrospect, my problem was obvious: I had allowed myself to become entirely dependent on my husband for my living. Thankfully I did not have any children at that point or I would have been in much bigger trouble.
It took me more than two years to sort out the mess after Malcolm died. Years ago, when I made the choice to stay in the business with Malcolm, I wish I had thought to ask, “What will I do if he dies? Where will my income come from?” I was so busy helping him stay afloat that I never took the time to step back and look critically at our situation.
It concerns me when I see women set themselves up to be dependent on their partner’s income while managing mostly unpaid family work. I get it: I’m a mom and I do most of the running around, planning and so on for our family. I see how the dependence on mom for structural support develops and how difficult it is to re balance. A child comes along and you take the first year off. Then perhaps you decide to stay at home because you want two anyway and you want to spend the early years with your kids. Then you look into childcare for two kids and decide that with the cost and hassle, you don’t end up making that much money going back to work so why not stay at home, save yourself the stress and take the opportunity to get fully involved in your children’s lives. Then the activities start and first thing you know you’ve become the CEO of home central. You can’t imagine how on earth you’d ever replace yourself, physically and financially. If you paid someone to do what you’re doing, it would cost a fortune, right?
But my question to all moms is this: If your husband disappeared tomorrow morning, what position would you be in? Consider the following:
1. Where would the money to live on come from? Would there be enough?
2. Would it cover your current life-style: house, kids’ activities and so on?
3. If you have no job to go back to, what will you do? What are your options?
4. If your husband died, would you have enough insurance money to cover all of your debts and tide you over while you reinvent yourself? If you’re divorcing, there is no insurance to help out.
5. Would you have enough money to hire the help that you would doubtless need to take care of the unpaid work that you used to do?
6. Would you have enough to help out with your kids’ education?
Going back to work or discovering another career might cause short term pain but I would argue that the pain is worth it in some circumstances. Each family’s situation is unique so there is no single answer for everyone. Asking “what if” simply serves as a powerful tool to look beyond the assumptions we’ve made about our lives. Few widows expect to become widows. Every divorcee I’ve spoken to and/or know went into her marriage thinking it would last forever.
My goal is to encourage women to ask uncomfortable questions and to set up some buffers right now while they have the time and emotional resources to do it. If your reply is that you’re insanely busy at the moment, just try handling your current work load while dealing with death or divorce and the myriad emotions (all of them terribly negative) that go along with that. We never know just how easy we had it until somebody pulls the rug out from under us.
If your response is that you can’t afford to re balance the situation at home, then you are in an even more precarious position. Perhaps consider putting your creativity to work and ask, “How could I afford to have someone else do more of the work at home?” or “How can I protect myself financially? What would it take?” Creativity works its magic once we give it time and space. If you really enjoy being at home and can’t stomach the thought of leaving, then explore some work-at-home options. If you disliked your previous work, as I did, then take the opportunity to explore the sorts of things that bring you joy and make you passionate.
If you don’t know what your passions are, then you might find the following book helpful: The Passion Test, by Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood. The latter helped me to refocus my energies on the things that really matter to me. This book project is for me the result of a long process of identifying my passions.
In the end, what I have learned is that everything we do in life involves a choice. Sadly, most of our choices are made unconsciously. We find ourselves moving along a path without really knowing how we ended up there. Whether we like it or not, that’s still a choice. What I’m hoping you’ll do is expose some of those choices to the light and ask “Is this the best choice for me and my family? Am I happy and protected?”
Regarding P.’s second conversation with her friends, I have joked with my husband Mark that my next husband will be a wife.