Wake up and smell the money
Deep breath here. This is a tough topic and Bennetts' approach is designed to stir controversy. But she is getting at important truths about marriage and motherhood. It's very tempting to live in denial of these hidden risks of financial dependency, but by the time a crisis happens, it is too late to prepare. One of her interviewees says, "It's very nice to believe, 'I don't have to worry, I can have someone take care of me. But you never know when he's goign to stop wanting to take care of you, or lose his job, or drop dead. There are too many what-ifs to be lulled into a sense of complacency like that.'"
I devoted a chapter to this topic in Mojo Mom. Rather than telling women not to take time away from the workforce, in "Keeping Your Resume Fresh and Financial Future Secure" I emphasize the skills and strategies women can use to stay competitive. I encourage you to take a life-long view of your career. Becoming a stay-at-home Mom should not be a one-way street and it's unfortunate that we tend to view it that way. The Opt-Out narrative has certainly been overwritten. (The Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent article on "The Opt-Out Myth." Thanks to Cooper for pointing out this article to me.)
Mojo Mom's strategies for a healthy financial future:
1. Take charge of your financial life. Be a full participant in your family's financial planning--do not delegate this responsibility to your life partner! Make sure you know how much money your family has, what your joint financial planning strategy looks like, and what your credit scores are. Do you know whether your bills are all paid on time? How much credit card debt and other liabilities do you have? Make sure you have credit cards and a few household bills in your own name to develop your own credit history. Start saving for a 3-months-expenses emergency fund in your own name.
2. Keep in touch with your professional contacts. Set up regular meetings or lunches with your former colleagues. Show up in your professional persona and talk about your expertise, not just your kids. Look for opportunties to stay active in your field and keep building your resume, even while you are out of the full-time paid workforce.
3. Continue developing new interests and skills. The "stay-at-home" period can be a chance to reinvent yourself. Take short courses, online classes, or enroll in a degree program. Many jobs these days require a Masters' degree, and even if you don't intend to return to work for years, you may be very glad that you made the effort to get those qualifications under your belt now. I have known semi-retired women who had to go back to the workforce full-time when they were suddenly widowed. Even with decades of valuable life and work experience, they found themselves shut out of many job opportunities due to the lack of an advanced degree.
4. Develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Your life is your "start up" company! What do you want to make of it? Yes, it can be hard to re-integrate into an inflexible workplace with a family. But more flexible options are opening up and starting your own business is one way to make that happen. I don't mean to be overly optimistic about these possibilities but I truly believe that a "results oriented" work approach that is freed from rigid schedules will become common in the near future.
5. Take advantage of the opportunity to make progress when you are in calm times. I have learned this lesson the hard way! Over the past year my family has faced several unexpected crises. If I hadn't stayed on track to finsih Mojo Mom when I did, it would have been hard to get it done over the past year. Always keep your own projects simmering, and turn up the motivation when you have the chance. If you stay focused you can get a lot done. I finished a novel and wrote a screenplay when I only had 6 hours per week to write, while my daughter was in a toddler preschool program. I valued that time like a hidden stash of gold and I didn't squander it.
Leslie Bennetts brings up excellent points about the financial penalities of taking time out of the workforce. I look forward to reading her book as a bracing wake-up call. Women do face a serious financial burden by becoming mothers. Ann Crittenden has famously said that becoming a mother is a top risk factor for women being in poverty in old age. And college-educated women can expect to lose a million dollars in lifetime wages when they raise kids. But this isn't just our individual responsibility, it's a societal issue. This is one of the problems of the Opt-out narrative. As E. J. Graff says in the CJR piece:
"The moms-go-home story’s personal focus makes as much sense, according to Caryl Rivers, as saying, 'Okay, let’s build a superhighway; everybody bring one paving stone. That’s how we approach family policy. We don’t look at systems, just at individuals. And that’s ridiculous.'"
So my final appeal to you is to get involved in advocating for pro-family social policies, and to work to fight employment discrimination against mothers. This is a huge societal issue. This is why I am so excited to work with MomsRising.org. There are many groups and individuals working on these issues, and MomsRising gives us a mechanism to work together to give mothers a strong political voice.