I’ve always been a financially independent person. That’s not to say I’ve been loaded (I haven’t) or that I haven’t borrowed money in times of need (I have), but I’ve always known what it was like to work hard and get paid cold cash money in return. I just never realized how much I valued the exchange of hard work and hard cash until I was no longer in charge of my own finances.
I’d been working in New York City for a decade, mostly in publishing, before I had my first baby. Like women everywhere, I struggled with the dilemma of going back to work or not after my (unpaid!) maternity leave was up. On one hand, I loved my job as an editor of a small luxury magazine, but on the other, the nanny fees were going to eat up most of my paycheck. (Daycare options were either creepy or non-existent.) And so, after a lot of back and forth with my husband, we decided we could, at least for a year, afford to have me stay at home.
Once it was decided, I was actually really looking forward to the change. Besides not really wanting to leave the baby yet, I’d also been schlepping to offices for years and the idea of not having to get on the crowded subway in the morning filled me with glee. And so began my new career of feeding, diapering, entertaining, taking care of household crap, and coming up with lots of activities for my son and I to do so we (I) wouldn’t die of boredom. Though some working women may read this and think it sounds God-awful, I actually enjoyed my new job of mom. I was both good at it and loved it.
But there were unexpected downsides as well. For starters, unlike at a day job, I didn’t have a boss or co-workers to remind me I was good at what I did, or anyone to complain to when days got rough. Some of my friends were envious of what they perceived as my new life of leisure, and others wrote me off as a boring mom who wouldn’t be fun anymore. But the biggest adjustment was not getting a paycheck. After years of seeing a regular deposit, adjusting to that awesome SAHP salary, zilch, made me feel, well valueless. (Maybe that’s why the acronym sounds like “sap?”)
These days I have a shared checking account that gets financed by the bank of dad – my husband. Prior to having kids, we kept our finances completely separate. We didn’t need to combine them – he paid some bills, I paid others. He paid for some dinners, I paid for others. It was never a problem. But now I continually find myself struggling over how to tell him that we need more money in this shared account so I can buy : things. You need things when you’re raising a kid – diapers, clothes, food, shampoo, new socks. And I need things too – clothes, food, shampoo : shoes. He’s not a cheap man – far from it – but as someone who always took pride in working and being independent, I can’t help but feel both embarrassed and ashamed that I am not making my own money to pay for said things. I’m doing exactly what generations of feminists warn against – being financially dependent on a man.
I know I’m not the only mother to feel this way. In fact, most of my conversations with fellow mom friends at the playground run along the lines of this: “I think I need a job. How do I get a part-time job? Do they even exist?” “I’m embarrassed to tell my husband I’ve run out of money again.” “I’m so broke right now I don’t have the money for playgroup.” “I haven’t bought a new winter coat because I just don’t feel like I can use the money on myself.” “What can I possibly do from home to raise some money while I’m taking care of the kids?” These comments all come from formerly independent, hard-working, and fiercely proud ladies. (Among them are a food stylist, a former documentary producer for the BBC, and an actress.) We’re not broke as couples, but as individuals, we’ve got nothing. And it really freaks us out.
I think that one of the worst parts about being financially dependent on my husband is that I can no longer be privately frivolous with the way I spend. When I worked and earned a decent keep, if I saw a pair of jeans I loved, I would simply buy them. If I needed highlights, I got them. If a friend wanted pricey Mexican for dinner, I was there, throwing down my card for an $85 dinner on a Tuesday night. Now I feel like I don’t even deserve a simple Old Navy shirt that’s on sale for $15, because it’s not “my money.” Also, when you buy everything from a shared account, it gives someone else insight into how you spend. You lose your self-respect and your privacy in one fell swoop. (No one but myself really needs to know how often I visit a certain cheese shop in the neighborhood.)
My husband and I have talked about my issue with this many times, too often for his liking. It always ends with the same conclusion on my part. “I’m going to have to go back to work.” It also always ends with his same answer: “I can support this family for a little while longer, we agreed you’d raise our son, which you’re great at.” Wonderful, right? Other women should be so lucky! But for whatever reason, like all the moms I know, I still feel guilty about the arrangement. “I know I should feel like what I do is enough, but I just don’t,” a fellow mom told me just yesterday. “Something about not getting a check makes me feel worthless.”
I’m not sure there’s a solution to these feelings of insecurity, so I try to remind myself that we can’t have it all. I know very few women can have enough quality time with their kids and enough money to feel comfortable buying what they want when they want it. At the end of the day, it was my choice to make the tradeoff to spend these early years with my son and it’s been worth it. Still, I would kill for a morning where I didn’t wake up and think, “I’m broke.”