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Are Women Too Naive About Marriage -- and Divorce?

3 years ago
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There's a sobering article in last week's Salon that bears reading by all mothers near and far. Titled "Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom," it depicts the mindset of a recently divorced, partially-employed mother of two who -- after being out of the workforce for 14 years -- discovers it ain't so easy getting back into the game when she needs a full-time job.

The author, Katy Read, only partly blames the current economic crisis for her job-hunting woes. Rather, she places most of it on her decision 14 years ago to invest first and foremost in her children ("sliding . . . skating . . . supervising art projects . . . helping them with their homework") over and above things like securing a retirement fund or a sufficiently well-cushioned savings account.

As she writes: "I did what the experts advised: developed my skills, undertook new challenges, expanded my professional contacts. I advanced creatively if not financially, published essays in respected literary journals that often paid (cue ominous music) in copies of the magazine." Fast forward 14 years and Read finds that "My income -- freelance writing, child support, a couple of menial part-time jobs -- doesn't cover my current expenses, let alone my retirement or the kids' tuition."

Her conclusion? Much like Sandra Tsing Loh -- who, in a much-hyped article in The Atlantic a few years back urged women not to marry lest they end up, like her, in a workable but loveless "companionate marriage" -- Read does the same. She counsels new mothers to forget all that stuff they hear about having "quality time" with their kids. They should go get a job so that they don't end up broke and bereft like her.

It's tempting to read this piece and dismiss Read as somewhat unworldly. As my colleague Jill Lawrence opined in a private email exchange about the article, "You really have to be hopelessly naive to believe that you could abandon your career and never have to worry about money. Or that her husband would never die or lose his job."

Particularly in a world where you can't open the newspaper without reading another article about the death of journalism, one would also think that Read would have realized long ago that freelance journalists who earn real incomes are about as prevalent these days as full-time travel agents. (For a quick and dismal take on the dire state of journalistic salaries right now, see this mock job posting for a news producer on McSweeneys. Ouch!)

It's also no secret that divorce itself is expensive. The average cost of divorce in the U.S. is estimated by Forbes to be $15,000 to $30,000. Court fees can add $25,000 for a two day trial. A study by Ohio State University 's Center for Human Resource Research found that divorce reduces a person's wealth by 77% compared to that of a single person.

But I read Read's piece a bit differently. I didn't think it was so much about the financial realities of divorce for women -- though that was the ostensible topic of the article -- as it was about the continually high, and unrealistic, assumptions women bring to the table about marriage. As my colleague Sarah Wildman put it in the same email exchange: "The unspoken bit in here is that she assumed she'd never divorce."

Precisely. Sure, according to The National Marriage Project's State of Our Unions 2007 report, for the average couple marrying for the first time, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50 percent. But despite all the statistics, all the studies, all the newspaper articles, and -- let's face it -- the divorces of friends and family members, many women continue to believe that our marriages will somehow be different. Others might fall apart. But ours won't crumble. It's a sort of NIMBY -- "not in my backyard" -- phenomenon applied to our personal lives.

And something tells me she's not alone in idealizing the security of her marriage. Go read some of the entries over on the blog Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy where D.A. Wolf (another freelance writer!) talks about the "isle of denial" which she lived on throughout her marriage and well into the divorce. In a particularly moving post entitled "Something Like Marriage," Wolf confesses that as early as her honeymoon and even on her wedding day, there were signs all around her that "I was married; and he was not." And yet, so strong was her need to believe that her marriage would endure that she silenced those voices inside her head that pointed towards the growing gulf between her and her husband.

Or go read "Heartburn," Nora Ephron's thinly disguised 1983 memoir about the break-up of her marriage to Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein (which was subsequently made into a film starring Meryl Streep). Throughout the book, even though the Ephron-stand-in protagonist knows something is amiss (it turns out that her husband is having an affair while she's pregnant with their second child), she works desperately to keep the marriage together. (Ephron, like Wolf, has since channeled her insights about marriage and divorce into a community-based forum: she is the Founding Editor of the Huffington Post's new divorce vertical).

I myself am hardly a hopeless romantic. Heck, not so long ago, I wrote a post on these very pages encouraging more women who were "settling" in unhappy marriages to dump their husbands. But I too -- another freelance journalist, mind you! -- find it incomprehensible to conceptualize my marriage ending and what it might mean for my sanity, let alone my long-term income stream.

I remember once, about nine years ago, having a terrible argument with my husband in front of his office. It ended with me slamming his office door, running out onto the street and bursting into tears... about what, I no longer remember. What I do remember was the sensation -- for the very first time in our life together -- that our marriage, like so many others I knew, was fragile. That it was possible that we, too, might not make it. I was unemployed at the time, in the midst of a career change and had an eight-month-old baby. And I suddenly thought: what if?

I can't speak for Katy Read. But when I read between the lines of her story, I wondered if she, too, was overly, perhaps naively, invested in the permanence of her marriage.

That doesn't make her stupid. It just makes her human.

Follow Delia on Twitter.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Culture, Jobs

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