A couple of years ago, The New York Times published an essay by Terry Martin Hekker, a mother of five who crusaded as a self-appointed spokesperson for stay-at-home motherhood back in the 1970s. After writing a book called “Ever Since Adam and Eve,” Hekker recalled, “I spoke to rapt audiences about the importance of being there for your children as they grew up, of the satisfactions of ‘making a home,’ preparing family meals and supporting your hard-working husband. So I was predictably stunned and devastated when, on our 40th wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a divorce.”
While her husband took his girlfriend to Cancun, Hekker sold her engagement ring to pay for repairs to the roof of her house. “When I filed my first nonjoint tax return, it triggered the shocking notification that I had become eligible for food stamps,” she reported.
She was able to parlay her involvement with the local Village Board into a stint as mayor of her community — “a challenging, full-time job that paid a whopping annual salary of $8,000,” she noted dryly. Looking back on her life, Hekker — the grandmother of 12 — doesn’t regret marrying her husband, because the result was the family she cherishes. What she regrets is having given up her economic independence and sacrificed her ability to support herself adequately.
Many of today’s young women see their decision to give up paid work and rely on a husband to support them as a positive choice that reflects their values and should therefore be respected. But in 21st century America, it has never been more clear that choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle is the classic feminine mistake. No matter what the reasons, it’s simply too risky to count on a man to take care of you over the long haul.
Half of all marriages end in divorce; the average age of widowhood in America is 54; and by the time women reach 60, two-thirds of them no longer have partners. Even those in lasting marriages must contend with an insecure labor market in which many men lose their jobs at some point — a hardship that proves especially painful for families who rely on a single breadwinner.
Meanwhile women’s life spans have doubled in the last century. The result is that American women are now twice as likely to slide below the poverty line as men in their later years — and 80 percent of those women were not poor before they lost their breadwinners. And yet our culture continues to encourage the fairy-tale fantasy that women should devote themselves to marriage and family, in return for which Prince Charming will take care of them forever.
I wrote “The Feminine Mistake” to document the risks of economic dependency and the benefits of work for women, and I believe the research makes it all too clear that dependency is a dangerous gamble most women will ultimately lose. But that doesn’t mean I am criticizing stay-at-home moms for placing the needs of their children ahead of other considerations. As the mother of two, I did the same thing, and I believe our entire society should give priority to the care and education of its children. Nor am I dissing the art of homemaking, in which I am an enthusiastic participant. My husband and I recently celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and I feel very fortunate to be married to a reliable partner.
But I have never depended on him to support me, nor would I ever take such a risky chance with my family’s welfare. I know all too well that life is full of unexpected challenges, and not everyone has good luck. When I finished writing “The Feminine Mistake,” I gave it to a friend, a classic suburban soccer mom who is struggling to support her children after downscaling her career to stay home, only to find that she couldn’t get a decent job when her husband ended their marriage and defaulted on his child support. He currently owes her well over $100,000 in back payments. (Unfortunately he is hardly unique; 70 percent of the child support cases in this country are in arrears.)
My friend’s reaction to reading “The Feminine Mistake” was intense. “I just can’t believe the way women get screwed,” she said bitterly. “I finished your manuscript at the soccer field, where I was watching the game with three other women. Two of us are divorced; our husbands left us for younger women. One is widowed; her husband suddenly dropped dead last year. Only one of the four is still married. Then I went home and ran into my next-door neighbor, who told me her husband just announced that he’s in love with someone else and he’s moving out. She’s a lawyer, but she hasn’t worked in 18 years and has no idea how to get a job. I tell you, it’s carnage out here.”
The carnage must stop. The feminine mistake has cost women far too much over the last century, but we can only escape it by recognizing economic dependency for the dangerously anachronistic trap that it is — and by embracing the challenge of creating happier, more secure lives. In striving to become a fully mature, fully realized human being, there is no substitute for taking complete responsibility for your own destiny.
Leslie Bennetts is a journalist and Vanity Fair contributor. This essay was adapted from her book, “”