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My husband gives me an allowance

By February 7, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

Sophie White explores the dangerous illusion of women’s choice.

Most of my friends in relationships keep their finances completely separate. It makes total sense, after all we’ve got the vote and contraception and have largely shed most of the stifling tyranny of hundreds of years of oppression. Right? We’ve even got women who don’t identify as feminists now! Surely that seems like a good sign, we want feminism to be redundant, that means all the work is done! So hooray, we’re equal. Nothing at all is wrong with the system and we can all go home.


And stay there, I guess, if the current working model is anything to go by.   

After having kids I began to notice a disturbing trend among friends and acquaintances. The formerly ‘woke’ spouse who was as hyped up about baby-proofing the house during pregnancy, suddenly ‘doesn’t change nappies’ or ‘do bedtime’. And far more knotty, the issue of money between these progressive, egalitarian couples became charged.

Post-kids, the woman’s earning capability is altered. If the kid has come out of her body then she will be somewhat laid up no matter how short a maternity leave she takes. If she chooses not to return to work, she’s arguably saving the household up to one or two thousand per month in childcare but isn’t compensated in any way.

‘We should charge our partners for their portion of this hypothetical childcare we’re providing?!’ I announced to a friend who assumed I was joking. Of course, she did. After all, it’s 2020 we’re choosing to stay at home or go to work, aren’t we?

In her 2018 book Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family, author and historian, Kirsten Swinth writes, ‘People say, ‘“I just need to organise my life like this and make the right choices.” Nobody’s saying, “I’m making choices in an impoverished world.”’

Is it this illusion of choice that’s now hurting women more than anything?

Women’s choices are always charged. The phrase alone invokes decades of struggle from reproductive rights to the botox question. And in the end, the phrase ‘women’s choice’ is practically oxymoronic in that, rarely is there a female decision not leaden with politics and punishment.

When it comes to the choice between career and motherhood, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Lazy media outlets have virtually engineered an entire vertical out of an invented war between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. We’re relentlessly presented with the narrative of having it all but never the means. And in a neat little trick of semantics, it’s all our fault if we’re failing because we make the ‘choices’.  
A year and five days after I was born, this cover landed on American news stands. The headline inside? A Mother’s Choice.

  Image from    Newsweek

Image from Newsweek

At the time, my mother had just returned to her full-time, demanding career in TV. My mother’s childminder, Mimi collected me in the morning and brought me to her own house where she took care of her four daughters.

My mother had received 14 weeks maternity leave and the TV show she worked on was off air until meetings began in August and I was five months old. When she returned to work, in addition to her job, she also had a new role to fulfill, that of ‘Woman Completely Unfazed By Motherhood’. 

‘I always downplayed my homelife,’ she tells me. ‘My male colleague was devoted to his kids and everyone thought this was so cute, whereas I could sense it was noted and frowned on if a woman behaved that way. There was another woman on the team always leaving early to collect children and people talked. I probably overcompensated. I wouldn’t talk to most people about you.’ 

Consider the cover line above:

How Women Balance the Demands of Jobs and Children.

A tiny tweak and you’ve got the real root of the matter, what this headline and every other article crowing about ‘having it all’ and ‘leaning in’ has been saying in the three decades since is:

Women, How Will You Balance the Demands of Jobs and Children? 

And the answer is with little to no help from the society that boasts improved equality but provides little support to working mothers nor values the work of the mother in the home. 

Today around three-quarters of mothers are employed in America with the  other quarter likely engaged in the more-than-full-time labour and radically undervalued work of childcare and care for ailing or elderly relatives – often both at the same time.  

A recent Oxfam study examined the massive disparity between the super wealthy and basically everyone else. According to Oxfam policy director, Gawain Kipke, ‘There’s something deeply sick about the economy and the fact that women around the world are doing so much work that is uncompensated, unrecognised and unsupported is part of the problem.’

Stats from the report indicate that women will spend on average four and a half hours a day on unpaid work while men spend about half that time. In wealthier countries, the ratio is slightly different but nowhere in the world do men do as much unpaid labour as women. 

And women are being pushed into this position. The continuing global gender pay gap means that they invariably have more of an economic incentive to give up paid work to remain in the home once the situation demands it. Thus creating the vicious cycle that keeps women trapped. 

Simply put, our society functions on women picking up the slack where social policy is failing the family and the eldery. It’s in society’s interest to keep women at the bottom of the economic pyramid so they can provide this free labour. 

Lifting the work ban, touting girlboss hashtags (vom) and female empowerment is lip service when the reality is, sure we can have a seat at the table but there will be zero initiatives to help keep women at the table. And this is when coming from a position of utmost privilege. If you are the mother of a child with special needs, a woman of colour, or coming from a disadvantaged social or economic position, the chair you’re sitting on might as well be resting on quick sand. And on fire. 

Sarah had been at this table forging a successful career in communications for two decades when she had her first child.

After giving up 20 years of financial independence, she found herself in a strange new landscape: she and her husband have always had separate money and now he gives her an allowance.

What is it like to be completely financially independent for two decades and suddenly have to ask for money to get your nails done?

‘We didn’t have the easiest time having our child and I had the luxury of choosing to stay at home,’ she explains.

I have heard the decision to stay at home described as a luxury many times. I’ve also heard people say that returning to a career is a luxury for many mothers. However, the system that paints this choice as a luxury in either direction is ignoring both the financial ramifications for women and the emotional erosion of providing unpaid, undervalued labour in the home. Not to mention weathering the creeping sense that your status has diminished as a result.

Before children, everything was fair and equitable for Sarah and her husband. ‘We kept all finances separate,’ she explains. 

‘When I stopped working, I always assumed I was going back. It was only going to be 10 months and I had some maternity pay plus the state benefit. He was going to take on more of the household expenses that I usually paid. So it was fine initially. It only started coming up when we realised I wouldn’t be going back to work and we thought “shit, how is this going to work?”

‘I could hear my own mum – who didn’t work – saying “make sure you always have your own money”. When we met, we were essentially working in the same job, he earned only a couple of grand more than me. I had been married before so I was very standoffish about everything. I didn’t want anything to do with his money and, frankly, I didn’t want him to have anything to do with my money.’

‘When I decided to not return to work, I was having a panic but still didn’t want his money, in a really crazy way but it was probably the only thing that I felt I could control.’

‘So now, he transfers money to me which sounds really old fashioned like my ma getting the housekeeping money. And it makes me feel weird. I am working [around mothering] so I am still getting some money sporadically but it’s a weird situation for me and I don’t know what to do about it.’   

With the birth of their second child, Sarah knew things would change.

‘I know I’m not going to be able to work for a while. And I know I’m putting pressure on myself. I catch myself thinking, “when can I get back to work? How quickly can I get a new baby to nap so I can fit some work in?”’

Sarah’s phrasing is undeniably interesting. In saying, ‘When can I get back to work?’, she is ignoring outright the sheer labour of caring for two young children. It’s a cultural gaslighting of women. The work of carers has been so chronically devalued that it has lost any recognition of being work – even by the (primarily) women who carry out that work. As though children are merely sentient appendages requiring little more than passive supervision.

Speaking to other friends, I’ve also heard women grappling with the idea of continuing their career when their income may only match or be slightly above the cost of childcare. And it seems to solely fall to mothers to shift and accommodate the new family arrangement. It’s rare we hear of men even being instrumental in sourcing childcare, nevermind justifying their own career ambitions in the face of a new domestic set up.

‘I see women doing all of the life admin while nothing changes for the men,’ Sarah agrees. ‘I can see why people split up. Because they’re literally going “I fucking hate you, you haven’t helped me in six years, you’ve actually made the six years harder”.’

The allowance in Sarah’s mind is for the household needs and whatever money she can make, while managing the house and caring for a baby, is for the niceties of life – nails, haircuts, nights out. But as anyone who’s attempted to work around a baby knows, this money is hard earned. 

‘He’s into sport,’ Sarah says of her husband. ‘He goes to matches in the UK and I don’t think it would cross his mind to think about spending that money. Whereas if I were to buy myself something, I’d agonise over it.’ 

‘I have a friend who stayed home with the two kids and she was always blond and she rang me one day so upset, it had obviously been playing on her mind for ages, she said, “I’ve such bad roots and he won’t give me money to go and get highlights.” And it was such a controlling thing, he was denying this fundamental part of her. You do hear of this kind of financial bullying and especially in domestic abuse situations. You can see how some men would use that as a controlling thing.’

‘It needs to be a bigger conversation,’ Sarah continues. ‘Often women might reduce working hours and their salary might be down by a fifth and maybe that doesn’t seem like a big enough deal to address or make allowances for but actually, is she leaving herself with no disposable income?’   

It can seem like not enough to quibble over but it’s the freedom we’ve fought for. Women having autonomy and value in society is still a relatively new concept. We are still trying to figure out what equality looks like.

Sarah is quick to clarify that her husband takes pains to reassure her constantly. 

‘It’s not coming from him. It’s me. Definitely over the last few months, I’d have had teary moments of “I don’t want your money” and he does always say “it’s our money, it’s for our family”. But [with motherhood] you’ve already had this major adjustment. You can’t quite get out of your own head and can’t quite get over what’s happened to you in this really short space of time.’

Financial independence is a crucial part of the identity we, as women, build as adults and it’s an independence that’s been hard won. 

‘The money thing is very hard to let go of,’ Sarah says. ‘It’s like admitting that I’m a stay-at-home mum which is perfect but I don’t know why I can’t get to that point. I definitely felt a load of judgement even from close friends when I said “I’m not going back”. Loads of “You’re fucking what?!”’

‘And it’s not as simple as the “why can’t women support women” thing, it’s the conditioning from so long, of it being instilled that you have your baby, you take max 11 months, then your kid is in a creche and that’s what life is and if you step away that it’s considered weird now… And I think a lot of people are just pretty unhappy in their lives, rushing from home to creche to work.’

‘I no longer believe you can have it all. And I don’t want it all. Over the course of my life I will have had it all, just not at the same time. And I’m fine with that now. I’m just not going to have all of my bits together. Maybe if I had kept all my bits together, I wouldn’t be in this situation.’ 

We laugh grimly but the underlying, unsaid truth lingers. Men aren’t worried about having it all, their choices feel like real freedom and they’ve certainly never been asked ‘who’s minding the children?’

Main image from Pixabay


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