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Staying Equal After Saying "I Do" — Even If You Stay At Home

Staying Equal After Saying "I Do" — Even If You Stay At Home

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about weddings and marriage, and not just because COVID-19 has strained every branch of our family tree, including the one connecting my husband and me. More than that, the topic has been on my mind because the wonderful video editor behind my weekly YouTube show, Doomsday Happy Hour, left about two weeks ago for her wedding (last-minute prep included) and honeymoon. This reminds me of the most unromantic part of our final wedding prep: signing a prenup — a prenup I insisted upon.

I wanted the prenup to clearly identify our premarital savings, so we could ensure they remained separate. That was it. Ultimately, though, it became apparent that this document was critical for a second, even more important reason: to protect us, but mainly me, on a going-forward basis in case our relationship didn’t go the distance.

As a child in the 80s and early 90s, I didn’t initially realize that there was anything distinctive about my family. (I didn’t know, for example, that I was the only kid in kindergarten who called her lunchbox a briefcase.)

But we were different — and not simply because my mother worked; rather, she was always the more career-oriented parent. And when I was about ten, she became the sole breadwinner, while my father became a stay-at-home dad. Ironically, it wasn’t until I switched to an all-girls school in seventh grade that I heard about there being a “glass ceiling” for women, and it would be another fifteen or so years before I believed it was real.

Thus, it might surprise you to learn that I explicitly made the opposite choice. That is, before my husband and I said "I do," we agreed to prioritize his career over mine, especially if we were blessed with kids. Mind you, I wasn’t planning to stop working. I was just saying that if we were able to have a family, I would choose to decelerate career-wise in a way that he would not. I saw this as “taking one for the team” — the team being our family.

So I was appalled when my husband’s attorney repeatedly urged him to try to cap the amount of his annual earnings in which I’d be entitled to share. Putting aside the fact that the cap she proposed was meager compared to the cost of living in our area and that it was less than what I usually grossed each year (and I didn’t seek to cap his share of my earnings), I believed marriage entailed a 50–50 partnership.

We’d agreed on a division of labor and responsibilities such that I’d focus more on the home and he more on his career for the collective benefit of our whole family. Just as NFL defensive linemen earn millions though they add no points to the scoreboard tally, even if I didn’t add dollars to our bank account, my contributions mattered. I mattered. A marriage that left no room for partnership also left no room for me. So it was simple: No cap or no prenup (and no prenup, no wedding).

[Related: Divorce: The Financial Essentials]

So what? Why should you care? Well, for the same reason you should care about the chatter generated by the Bezos divorce in early 2019. Responding to one friend’s observations that behind every great man is a great woman and Bezos didn’t build his empire alone were comments like (typos included):

TJ: yes I’m sure the “strong woman at his side” is the reason for Amazon. Get real! Lmfao

TJ: …put it to a poll. Ask all the divorced men on here to chime in and ask if they feel their former partners deserve half of what the worked their lives for… and ask them if the gave it up willingly. Let the people speak….

MK: She wrote the business plan and was Amazon’s first employee…

AW: These things need to be handled on a case by case basis. I don’t read up on Bezos. Maybe she did support him and contributed ideas. But, let’s take someone like Linda Bollea (Hogan). She had nothing to do with the success of Hulk Hogan… yet she took an obscene amount in the divorce that she flaunted.

Though offensive (especially in what’s omitted), TJ is not the real problem, and his second statement reflects the ongoing truth that men out-earn women and are promoted more readily. The problem is actually AW, and even MK, as they suggest that MacKenzie Bezos (or Linda Hogan) needed to contribute directly to her husband’s work to merit an equal portion of the wealth he accumulated during their marriage. This doesn’t just devalue the contribution of women as mothers, but says that stay-at-home parents are worthless.

Equally troubling is the notion that, without a prenup, divorces should be decided on a highly individualized basis. The problem has nothing to do with Bezos v. Bezos. Had a judge given MacKenzie Bezos (now MacKenzie Scott) only 1/100th of the wealth Jeff Bezos accumulated during their 25-year marriage, she’d still be a billionaire.

But we don’t have one law for the rich and one for the rest of us, nor should we. This means that your run-of-the-mill divorce would be subject to the same case-by-case, potentially capricious, decision-making AW suggests. And if women don’t have the security of knowing at the outset that they’ll be treated fairly both throughout their marriages and in the event of divorce, we’re making it unsafe for them (us) to consider all options and choose the division of labor that best suits our families.

[Related: Sometimes the Best Option is One You Didn't Plan For]

For many of us moms (and some dads) it boils down to one question: Who will care for our kids as well as us? Now consider how much more glaring the contrast may be between mom and paid help if one child has special needs or is disabled. Moreover, depending on how much mom (or dad) earns and how expensive childcare is, being a working parent to non-school-age children may not be worth it, especially if a nasty boss or long commute is part of the equation.

So what happens when mom goes back to work after what may be a years-long hiatus? Many women have difficulty taking maternity leave without imperiling their long-term career growth, even at companies where they’ve toiled for years as dedicated employees. So how much trickier will it be for this mom to reenter the workforce and thrive?

Perhaps, then, she’ll opt to stay home even after the youngest starts school, especially if one child has greater needs. Or maybe she’ll go back to work the very same day her baby enters kindergarten, but then the couple splits just before or right as she’s starting to contribute to the bottom line.

A friend whose husband dumped her for a younger woman noted that while her finances suffered somewhat post-divorce, many of her similarly situated friends were left with “not a pot to p*ss in.” When we speak of progress for women, we often focus on opening up male-dominated professions, pay equity, and expanding maternity leave (hopefully without inhibiting future career growth). Rightly so. But if we want women to be valued equally, we must recognize and value every contribution a woman makes, and the reality remains that, whether we work outside the home or not, women are usually the primary caregiving parent.

In the same exchange referenced above, DEW asked (again, typos included):

Lets say his wife at the same time was building her comapny….lets call it BAMAZON. She become the billionaire amd his company Amazon failed. They get divorced. Is he entitled to half?

Tellingly, there were only two replies, both from women. One wrote “yes he should get 50%” and the other “absolutely.”

This is a basic human issue. I hope my parents stay together, but if they don’t, my dad should get half of my mom’s earnings. However, the fact remains that I never once saw another stay-at-home dad in the pick-up line at school, and when my mom’s firm had events for partners and their spouses, my father was invariably the only male among the spouses.

Until stay-at-home dads don’t stand out as my father did, this is a women’s issue — and a children’s issue, and a family issue. And I suspect that once we address it, discussions around equal pay, maternity leave, etc. will happen more readily and be more productive.

[Related: Solving the Savings Shortfall]

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This article was originally posted on Medium, and was adapted from a submission to a Boston-based women's newsletter.

A mom, wife, and lawyer-turned-recruiter, EJ Peters now hosts a weekly YouTube show, Doomsday Happy Hour, focusing on comedy and careers. She interviews pioneering women, career-changers, career and resume/interview coaches, and a few men. Visit her at www.doomsdayhappyhour.com.


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