Sunday, September 28, 2008

pt. 1 The Economics of Traditional Marriage: Up Close and Personal

Brought on by some events in my personal life, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the economics of marriages, how they came to be, how they evolve, how they might be changed, and whether there's any hope for actual equality while financially depending on one's partner. In the first part, I outline how I've seen the structure of a traditional marriage play out in real life (apologies if the post is a little helter skelter. As is so often the case in feminist thought, thinking about this topic has been as therapeutic and personally necessary as it has been political):

My parents were married at 18, about a month after graduating high school.

My dad was the primary earner in the house throughout my entire life and their entire marriage, with my mom working low-income, part-time jobs off and on. With the exception of the early years, while my dad was trying to establish his own career, her work was more of a hobby than any meaningful supplement to the household income.

My mom just started as a full-time teacher last fall, and earned barely $12,000 a year as an intern. She began going to college about 6 years ago when my youngest sibling started going to school full time. Even when my mom was a full-time college student, she was expected to get errands done before my dad got home to work, to call so-and-so about fixing that, to go to the bank to get money out for this, to take kid #4 to dance lessons, and yes, to make sure the house was clean so that when my dad got home from his high-stress job, he would "be able to relax and be comfortable."

Together they own a 3,600 sq ft. house, three newish cars between the two of them, having
bought used cars for two of my siblings and made car payments on my leased car for three years. They've paid for college for three kids and my mom in the course of the last 6 years. They kept their family in a very comfortable, even excessive, financial situation.

In January, they separated. My parents only have one child still under 18, so my dad makes the house payments on the now much-too-large house my mom shares with my sibling. And he gives her some undisclosed amount of child support for the one kid he legally has to support. He lives in a fancy new condo he bought himself, with brand new decorations and furniture. He regularly invites me and my siblings for weekend excursions.

My mom lives pay check to pay check. Sure, she gets by and she's still significantly more privileged than most. But the injustice of the whole thing stands out to me. My dad never would've had the career he had if he didn't have my mother at home tying up the loose ends and taking care of his kids and property. That was the bargain they made. They were equal partners, they told us, each taking care of a particular but equally important role.

My impression is that legally my mom is entitled to much more than she's getting now, and that's why I've found myself in the odd position of encouraging her to hurry up with the divorce. But she's waiting for him to initiate the proceedings. He has lawyer friends. He has some reasoning for wanting to wait to get it done. And so, she waits for his okay, just like she did throughout their marriage. Legally she might get more and she certainly has the right to ask for it now. But practically? No, practically she's learned her place in the marriage and in the divorce. My grandparents defensively explain to their friends that even though my dad has left, "he is still paying for everything and making sure everyone is taken care of." Oh, well let's give him a hero biscuit. Not only does he keep the control, he even gets the social benefit of the impression that he's doing something noble by "giving" my mom what's rightfully hers.

And so, well, partnership my ass. The truth is though, it's not like my mom suddenly became powerless when her marriage failed. Thinking back, she never had power. He who had the money had the power. Nothing was going to happen without the bottom line from my dad. Sure, maybe technically she could've accessed money with the accounts, but she never would have. She never would've surprised my dad by buying him a car for his birthday (like he did for her once), because she didn't feel as entitled to that money as he did, and I have to say, I've never come across a couple where the non-earning spouse did exert s much power over the couple's finances as the earner did. The capitalist system just wouldn't make it feel right.

Next up, I'll do some thinking about the curiously progressive nature of alimony, hopefully with a little actual research on how today's laws came to be.

1 comment:

ln said...

Awesome post, H!