The Mommy Vortex: Primary Caregiver VS Breadwinner
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had three separate women I casually know ask me to recommend a divorce attorney for them. Each one had a unique set of circumstances surrounding their divorce, but all three women had one thing in common: they were all stay-at-home-moms. Each one, in turn, was struggling with the idea of child support and alimony payments, wondering whether the family’s choice to have one parent stay home and raise the children was such a good one, given their growing financial anxiety.
As with any legal recommendation, I need to hear a little about a case before I know the right lawyer to recommend. So I sat with each of these women to hear a bit of their personal stories.
The common thread in all of their situations was that they felt powerless – they were suddenly at the mercy of their spouse because he was the breadwinner and they were “just taking care of the house and children.”
Worse, two of the women were dealing with spouses who had used some creative financial tricks to hide their true income, thereby increasing their fear of what lay ahead.
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my first instinct, which I tactfully kept to myself, was that they shouldn’t have ever allowed themselves to become so financially dependent on another person. I immediately (and silently, sheepishly) scolded myself for thinking such traitorous thoughts against my fellow moms. These women sacrificed so much to do what they and their spouses thought was best for their families. And hadn’t I done the very same thing for two years? Among a hundred other chores over the years, they cooked, cleaned, fed, dressed, shopped, helped with homework, made goody bags, wiped noses, kissed boo-boos, bathed, and read to their children, over and over again, every single day. They got paid in kisses and hugs, they did not get sick time, they did not get vacation days, and they received very little appreciation from their peers and society for their 24/7 labor.
Wasn’t this hard, dignified work worth something?
Yet, now they were being told by their spouses and their spouse’s lawyers that they are owed very little, if anything, for their efforts. One female judge even went so far as to tell one of these women during a child support hearing to go out and a get a “real” job – you know, one that pays. The more I thought about it, the more outraged I became. Why should the childcare arrangements suddenly change upon divorce? Why should these spouses deliberately withhold financial information from their wives so that they have to pay less for the care of their children? I know every divorce situation is different, but these particular stories moved me, and made me wonder how many more women were facing similar difficult issues.
As I listened to these women during our brief conversations, I became enraged with the injustice of it all. I decided then and there that my daughter would never stay at home, that she would be financially independent if that ever became necessary. And then I thought more about it: by forcing my daughter into a career and advising her not to stay home full-time, I was devaluing the work of these three moms – and so many more like them – just like their spouses were doing. Shouldn’t their work – our work – be worth something? Shouldn’t they have some leverage, some bargaining power, for all of their sacrifices and ongoing labor? Why should they be left struggling just because they chose not to work outside the home – a choice their spouse once supported in theory and in practice?
I started researching the issue from a legal standpoint, and I was somewhat assuaged to learn that there are laws and courts all around the country that do take into account the work women do inside the home while supporting their husband’s career as the breadwinner.
But the collective wisdom is that divorce requires a lifestyle change for all parties, especially the stay-at-home-moms who may need to obtain a job in order to help pay for what will likely transform into two households. In his article, Divorce and the Stay-At-Home-Mom, which appeared in the Huffington Post in 2011, Thomas Greenwald very matter-of-factly explains that it is rarely financially possible for a stay-at-home-mom to maintain their lifestyle after divorce, even if the spouse is completely honest about his financial assets and income.
From a practical perspective, I understand that one breadwinner supporting two households might be financially difficult, or even impossible. What I don’t understand are those breadwinning spouses who deliberately withhold financial information, thereby placing their stay-at-home wives in a position of mercy, struggling to make ends meet, even when the breadwinner’s lifestyle doesn’t really change for the worse.
Moreover, I find it maddening that the trust these women put in their spouses has been betrayed, and for all practical purposes, used against them. I know full well that there are two sides to every story, but I don’t understand how these women are left with no power, no bargaining leverage at all, when they were the primary caretaker of the household and all its occupants. Situations such as these undermine everything women do individually and collectively to raise their children to become productive members of society.
As a lawyer, I keep coming back to the same premise – don’t be financially dependent on anyone. But as a mom and a wife, that advice makes me really sad. It’s not how any of us want to live, with our work devalued and our relationships of trust hanging in the balance. Reality, though, seems to come creeping in, stealing our security and dignity like a thief in the night. And truth be told, I’m still not sure what I’ll tell my daughter.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.