Well, it happened – I guess it was inevitable. Things have been going pretty smoothly with Michael working out of the house for these last couple of months – actually more smoothly than I expected. Friends have even asked me if we’re driving each other crazy yet, with him being here all the time. “No, no,” I’ve said. “Things are going really well!” And they have been . . . until a few days ago, we had our first work-related skirmish. Michael contended that I haven’t been helping enough with firm business; I was caught completely off-guard and retorted with all the things that I have on my plate – you know, seven kids, running and maintaining a house, no outside help. Oh, and also? I’ve been out of the legal field for more than a decade – I really need some guidance at this point as to what I should be doing to help.
Well, suffice to say that things got nasty on both sides. All’s well (pretty much) now, but it’s had me doing a lot of thinking the last few days about all that I do, and how little it’s valued compared to what Michael does, and how this is really a societal issue. I think what goes on in my house is pretty representative of our society and how it values things and people based on the bottom line: money.
Despite our belief about how progressive and enlightened we are, there still seems to be a “breadwinner” mentality in households across America. Whomever earns the most money has the most power – however subtle. The work of the highest earner is generally seen as more valuable, more important – and this seems to be true even in dual income households. One spouse or partner almost always earns more than the other – and let’s be honest: it’s usually the man who earns the most because equal pay for equal work between genders is still not a reality – and that person, on some level, is held in higher esteem, even if it’s only by him- or herself, and even if it’s only slight. God help you if you’re a stay-at-home parent who doesn’t bring in any money.
Throughout my first marriage, my husband and I both worked, but he always earned more than I did, and he always lorded it over me. It didn’t matter that I was smarter and more responsible than he was – he held the reins in the marriage, in part because he earned more money. He could spend money however he wished, but I was not supposed to. It was on the extreme side, and to be sure, there were a lot of other issues going on, including his need to control me, but I really don’t think it’s all that unusual.
When Michael and I got married, we both worked, and he earned more than I did – but he brought debt and an absence of assets to the relationship, while I had a house in my name, no debt with the exception of the mortgage, and some money put away. For the first time, I felt a little bit of that power that I had never had before; I was worth more money, at least on paper, and I didn’t neglect to remind him of that when squabbles over money came up. When I quit working when Joey was born, there was a definite shift. Suddenly Michael was the sole breadwinner, and he actually told me that I had lost the right to decide where the money went (I know! Don’t hold it against him – it was a long time ago).
Over the years, we’ve adjusted our attitudes about power and control in the relationship based on money, but there is still this unspoken assumption that what Michael does is more important than what I do – because he brings in the money. Even the kids seem to have this perception that “Daddy works to make money to pay for things, and Mommy just stays home.”
I just stay home. I’m just a housewife.
The other day, after Michael and I had this . . . ahem . . . disagreement, I paid close attention to how I spent an average day: I got up at 6:15, and “worked” until the kids went to bed, more than thirteen hours later. But, I realized, so little of what I do – housework and laundry, running to the store, dropping off and picking up from school, scheduling doctor and dentist appointments and getting kids to those appointments, planning and making meals, emailing teachers, researching lesson modifications for Finn, making our annual Christmas cards on the computer, helping with homework, paying the bills, sitting on the phone trying to sort out our health insurance – so little of it is valued in any way because none of it really produces tangible results, like a paycheck. There is a lot of lip service paid to how important moms are and the work they do, but the truth is, the stuff we do isn’t actually held in very high esteem. Sometimes I think that the only way that what I do will ever be really and truly valued is if I stop doing it. You know, like – wouldn’t it be great, I sometimes think, if I could fake my own death – just for a week or two – and spy on my house and watch everyone completely crumble, sobbing and falling on their knees, finally realizing all that I did and how important it actually was? I know, morbid. But seriously, you see what I mean?
Any way you slice it, the lower-earner, or non-earner – usually the mom – gets the shaft.