Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Men, Not Meal Tickets

As a freelancer/struggling novelist/auntie to the Catholic Singles of the world, I do not make a lot of money. If my husband hated his job, I would live in a puddle of guilt. But fortunately my husband loves his job. And fortunately I make enough money for some of our extras. For example, half one of my paycheques bought us our new refrigerator. I love that refrigerator. It stands in the kitchen as testament that I, Seraphic, am not, financially speaking, a slug.

My mother has been a housewife for almost forty years, as was her mother before her. Both my mother and grandmother occasionally worked part-time jobs, usually behind the counter of a shop. My father's mother, who had only two children, worked full-time, from about 1929 to retirement. But I didn't know her before she retired, so my primary model of family life is Man Works Outside House for Money/Woman Works Inside House for Free. This is very old-fashioned, as is the fact my father has worked for the same employer for 40 years.

I don't know how to put this nicely, so here goes: our generation (meaning everyone born after 1965) was ripped off. We are often thousands and thousands of dollars in debt by the time we leave college, and we do not have the employment opportunities the Baby Boom had. In 1969, MAs could walk into their pick of academic jobs while they completed their doctorates. Compare that to 1999. (Shudder.) And in 1949, a skilled labourer--a joiner, say--could support himself, his wife and four children on his salary, as long as he handed his pay packet to his wife before he went to the pub. There was no question of Mrs Joiner putting the four kids in daycare and commuting to a grey-carpeted office to work eight stultifying hours. The contrast to today makes me want to weep, it really does.

Now, as usual, the Nice Catholic Girls and Boys of the western world (but, I suspect, particularly of the USA) wish to be a sign of contradiction to the world. Many Nice Catholic Girls do not want to put their children in daycare. They want to stay at home and teach them to read and watch them grub about in the backyard. They want to make nourishing dinners that have to simmer for an hour. They (quite reasonably) baulk at the idea of rising at 6 AM to drive their kids to daycare before driving to some jill-job (or even career) before rushing back to the daycare at 5:15 PM and then home to do in five hours the things housewives have all day to do. And many Nice Catholic Boys (especially in the USA) don't want their wives to "have to work." They gamely volunteer to shoulder all the financial responsibility themselves. God bless them.

However, let's be real about this. Let's look at the dollars and cents. Let's look at the pounds and pennies. Let's look at the mound of debt with which too many of us leave college. In today's world, not working--or working at a poorly paid job, however glam or interesting--means a serious financial sacrifice. On television, artists and musicians and whatnot have these marvellous, hip clothes. Columnist Carrie wears Prada. Well, let me tell you, columnist Seraphic wears charity shop. Buying new shoes is a big, big deal. The most interesting men I know, real artists, real musicians and whatnot, stand around in frayed trousers, battered shoes, ancient shirts, sipping gin and debating the merits of Mahler. In some glorious ways we are rich, but in others, we are poor.

"But you're married," I hear someone say. It is a tiny, soprano voice, coming from somewhere in the American southwest. And I say, "So what? I didn't marry the man for his culture-worker's pay. I married him for his quirky eyebrows and his beaux yeux bleus. That way, even if we have nothing to eat, I'll have something to look at."

In short, very few of us are going to live like people on TV. The men/women we meet are probably going to be burdened with student loans. We are probably burdened with student loans. We, we women, are usually going to have the choice of working or of being poor, of working or of seeing our husbands' faces go grey from the responsibility of carrying the entire financial burden.

Marriage is not a meal-ticket. It rarely was before (housewives worked from sun to sun), and it usually isn't now. Even if you do marry a man with a big salary, and no debts to pay off, he could get ill. You could have eight children. You could have two children and then one child with very expensive special needs. You could get ill. All kinds of things could happen. As some poor office mate, a single mother who married a man she met on a beach in the Dominican Republic, wailed, "I thought marriage would make my life easier."

In the 19th century, most people worked and scrimped and saved before they got married. There were long engagements and, no doubt, quickie weddings when the almost-inevitable happened. In the novels of Louisa May Alcott, lovelorn couples are constantly delaying marriage until they have "enough to live on," which either means growing a nest egg or that the man has got far enough in his career for a good salary.

I'm not sure this is the solution for our 21st century woes. I'm not a fan, for example, of long engagements. However, I would encourage all Single people who feel a tug towards the married life to use their current freedom wisely. Work hard to clear debts and to save money instead of just backpacking around Europe or spinning out your days in one expensive MA program after another. And the advantage to not finding the Perfect Man for You until you are over 30 is that--and please remember that I love and obey Humanae Vitae--you are going to have fewer (or no) children and therefore less financial pressure.

Anyway, having got a letter today from a NCB who is worried that his student-loan debt and moderate salary would "disappoint" any NCG he might meet, I want to make it clear that NCGs who feel called to the married life are on the same page: we want men, not meal tickets.


theobromophile said...

Wonderful post and great thoughts about being constructive with our time as Singles.

As for Carrie and SATC: someone once calculated that for Carrie to afford her lifestyle (huge apartment in Manhattan that she has to herself, shoes, shopping, meals out), she would have to earn about $700,000/year.

Jennifer said...

The use your time wisely advice is good whether you feel the tug toward marriage or not. One generally should eliminate one's debts before spending on other things, I think. It's the responsible thing to do.

And theobromophile: I live in Manhattan, and that sounds about right. Most TV shows greatly exaggerate the lifestyle that relatively average salary jobs could actually afford. I remember when I was living in Los Angeles and Melrose Place was the popular show, those of us who lived there did a lot of eyerolling over the idea that the occupants of Melrose Place could even remotely afford those apartments on their salaries, nevermind all the swanky clothes and parties and travel etc. Insanity.

healthily sanguine said...

Ok Seraphic, I get what you're saying, but I for one refuse to let it be assumed that I will work after marriage! I actually tend to think one shouldn't underestimate a NCB: I don't know for sure, not being married, but I think in certain cases the sole breadwinner idea can still work. On the other hand, I do agree that dual student loan debt can serve to explode such an equation--and no one wants to be a slug when it's her OWN debt that's in question. However, if as a single girl you work your butt off and pay down that debt, why not talk in optimistic terms of allowing the man to bear the financial burden? Deep down, I think, most men really want to do just that. But if, in the final equation, the man ends up ASKING for your help in earning some money, you'll have to do the right thing and adjust. For the time being, though, I'm clinging to my idealistic homemaker dreams! :)

healthily sanguine said...

Sorry, one more thing, and not to be preachy (and I'm open to correction on this), but it seems to me that a sentiment like "I married him for his quirky eyebrows and his beaux yeux bleus. That way, even if we have nothing to eat, I'll have something to look at," though meant in jest, isn't going to be particularly gratifying to a guy. I've always read, and I think it holds true to experience, that men love to be admired--but more for their skills and achievements than for their physical attributes. At least, that seems fairly normal and good. The idealism is positively dripping now, but I really just think we have to encourage our men to be GREAT, to go beyond even what they think they can realistically achieve, by our belief and faith that they can, in fact, achieve it. It's a heck of a lot easier for me to believe in my boyfriend's handsome features than in the possibility of him conquering a certain vice, or of him getting a job in today's tough market, etc., but I believe not only in the things I see with my eyes but also in those I see only in their potency. :-)

healthily sanguine said...

(Ohh and by the way, lest I get a serious talking down by Seraphic on that last bit, I do have GOOD, OBJECTIVE REASONS (i.e., his prayer life, his past accomplishments in school/work) to believe my boyfriend can achieve these things--not just wishful thinking on my part! ;))

Jessica said...

Healthily sanguine --
In your first comment ;) you mentioned that you "refuse to let it be assumed that [you] will work after marriage!" I'm curious...who do you think will be assuming this? Within a relationship, I think it's something that needs to be hashed out in conversation -- no assuming on either side. If you're talking the-world-at-large, well, they're going to assume what they want and it doesn't have to affect you much. On the other hand, if you're saying that you don't want to consider the possibility that you'll have to work after marriage, well, to my mind that seems short-sighted. (Keep in mind that I have never meet you and am not really addressing my comment to you at this point!!)
I come from a large homeschooling community, and most of my friends have always planned on homeschooling their future children, which pretty much precludes working full-time. Now, I love the idea of homeschooling, but I don't want to assume that's going to be my only role in life. Like Seraphic says, lots of unexpected things can happen -- sickness, death -- and I would hate to be caught in an un-employable state due to lack of education or preparation.
It's also good to keep in mind that there are hardships, joys, and blessings in many different paths of life, and I don't think one is necessarily more virtuous than others. (Daycare gets a BAAAAD rap in my social circle, but I don't think it's intrinsically evil!)

Kate P said...

Financial stuff is so difficult to deal with (not to mention discuss). In the U.S. a lot of people flock to money guru Suze Orman who asks--sometimes outright, sometimes not--just about every married female caller-in to her show if they're set up so they're covered if (when) the husband leaves. Overall, I like her advice, and actually last week she did console one woman who was distressed no one could love her with the amount of student debt she had. . . but I don't like it when she insinuates that every woman must be prepared for the day her husband leaves.

I wish she did more building up of marriages than tearing down, but I guess that's where she (and many others) are coming from nowadays.

Alisha said...

"I do have GOOD, OBJECTIVE REASONS (i.e., his prayer life, his past accomplishments in school/work) to believe my boyfriend can achieve these things--not just wishful thinking on my part!"

This belief in your bf is admirable but you have left something out of the equation - the unknown and the rest of the world. Just because someone has past achievements doesn't mean he will have the same ones in the future. Just because someone is talented, doesn't mean that talent will be rewarded.
I believed in my talent and still believe it is valuable to engage it and use it. What I now know that I didn't really have pointed out to me before, was that the rest of the world wouldn't necessarily agree/care/bother, and that I am, in part, dependent on the world - to be hired for jobs, etc.
If I had to do it again, I would have been mindful to acquire more "backup" skills...all that to say, keep your dream but prepare in case it can't unfold exactly as you'd like.
Moreover, I don't think it's fair to assume that deep down all men want to be the sole breadwinner or to assume sole breadwinner is the equivalent of provider. They may all have a need to provide, but how that takes shape from man to man will vary. A man may be very capable of being a woman's protector and supporting her but if he is in a field that doesn't make much money and his wife just expects he will take care of her financially without her help, that is unfair - that won't be contributing to his growth/greatness; it will just contribute to his stress and feeling like a failure.

Seraphic said...

Healthily Sanguine: goodness, where to start?
1. Homemaker dreams--I have no problem with homemaker dreams. If it weren't for all my writing, paid and unpaid, I guess I would qualify as a homemaker myself. Dorothy Day's daughter stubbornly wanted to be a homemaker, so she took a lot of old-fashioned farmwifery/housewifery courses which came in handy. In your case, I would encourage a lot of saving up so as to help buy the home.

2. Beaux Yeux Bleus. Once you get married, the rule book changes slightly. For one thing, you become the World Expert on your husband. My husband, who is a sunny soul, enjoys being told I married him for his looks. He would not enjoy being encouraged to be great. In marriage one considers the general, but hones in on the particular.

Meanwhile, I am convinced that whereas the correct stance towards a suitor is a balance between reserve and flirtation, the correct attitude towards a husband is praise, patience and pie-baking.

Jessica: I am sure there must be some good daycares, and better a daycare than some Hogarthian babysitter with a bottle of gin. Personally, I would strive never to have to put my own under-4 child, if I had one, in a daycare or with a babysitter.

Kate P: I've read one or two of Suze Orman's books and enjoyed them. Although depressing, I suppose her to-the-wife advice was good. When I was thinking of making my own break for it, I read about what men did to prepare financially when divorce was in the air and what women did (nothing), and I decided I was going to do what men did. Meanwhile, husbands usually leave by DYING, so I suppose we wives all have to consider the ramifications of that.

healthily sanguine said...

Good thoughts everyone! I occasionally think of Seraphic's "husband dying" point--men often do die first, so it's certainly pertinent. I'm not saying it's wrong for women ever to work or even to put their kids in day care (I feel that day care is a sadder fate for children than being with a mom who loves them, but I realize the latter is not an option for every family).

I suppose I AM rebelling against the societal expectation that both parents/spouses in a marriage will work to earn money: because that expectation is there! It's been there since the 80s, when my mom was raising my siblings and me and getting flak for being a SAHM, and it hasn't left. Part of it, as Alicia rightly points out, is financial realism/pessimism given student loan debt, the current economy, the lack of compensation in certain fields, and the widespread unavailability of a living wage for a sole breadwinner (man or woman) to earn. But another part of it is a lack of understanding of how much a traditional family/home structure really affects the upbringing of children--I strongly believe having the mom at home has a positive effect and it's an objective worth striving for, even if some sacrifice is involved. Further, even without children in the picture, I don't necessarily feel it's "unfair" to expect a husband to support me or that I owe him a down payment on a house (which, in fact, at this point I could supply) in order for our marriage to be a true partnership. Rather, the best gift I can give him is my happiness, contentment, and peace: and if I know myself at all, this will mean ideally not working for a paycheck--though, as I know many women who find great fulfillment in their work, I understand this is not the case for everyone!

So yes, Jessica has a great point that there shouldn't be any assumptions in a relationship. My thought was just, not that men should be seen as a meal ticket, but that it IS sometimes possible (and even good) for them to provide for a family unassisted.

theobromophile said...

On husbands leaving: yes, it's usually the wife who files divorce papers, and husbands often leave by dying... but they could leave by dying when you are 45 years old and they had a massive, unexpected heart attack. So it's best to either carry excellent life and disability insurance, or to be prepared to take over.

On homemaking: yes, husbands do want to be able to provide, and staying home is often best for the kids, but that hardly means that being a stay-at-home mother is the unqualified best thing for every member of the family. Husbands may want to do things, but that doesn't mean they enjoy it, and it certainly doesn't mean that it's not a huge burden.

fifi said...

This fascinating article


is from the president of the Vatican Bank, who blames the current economic crisis on low birthrate and lack of savings, with people living outside their means. (Plus, young people who can't get jobs can't save money, which contributes to the problem).

I couldn't help but recall his remarks when I was reading Seraphic's description of boomers who had their pick of academic jobs in 1969, vs today. If you think about it, more babies means we need more hospitals and schools, more grocery stores, more children's clothing stores, and all the jobs that come with those establishments.

I loved his comment that instead of thinking of the world as a a pie, with more people necessitating smaller pieces, we should realize that "the pie is dynamic." Having to care for more people stimulates our creativity and innovation, which in turn stimulates the economy: we come up with creative solutions to provide for everyone, and to cut down on waste. “Human beings are not mouths that consume, but minds that produce."

The good news, as it relates to this discussion: those babies we all would love to have are just what the world needs!

The bad news: he says making do with less is another more immediate solution to the problem. :(

Jennifer said...

Re: Suze Orman - I was thinking, too, that she may have been including men who die in 'leaving'.

And I give a hearty 'YES! EXACTLY!' to Alisha's points. :)

Kate P said...

If Suze weren't constantly screaming, "Pre-nup!" I would be more inclined to equate leaving with dying, like most here have agreed w/Seraphic. I'm not saying you're wrong; maybe it's just that financial advisors are geared toward preparing for things not to work out.

Fifi, thanks for sharing that article. I'd like to show it to some people who think children are nothing but burdens.