Thursday, August 14, 2008

Infidelity isn't just about sex, it's about power

I've felt conflicted about writing about the John Edwards scandal. I supported the Edwarss '08 campaign, I have met them both, and I like Elizabeth a lot. I finally got my initial thoughts off my chest earlier this week. I don't want to get bogged down in the details of their situation, but reading the reaction to the news, I feel compelled to write once again.

One reaction to the news has been that the American people are too uptight about sex and we shouldn't be such Puritanical morality police. It seems to me that only men can afford to think that way. To me it's not just about sex but about power. The women I've talked to have all said "How could he do this to his wife, to risk what they have built together?" I am glad to see more female commentators such as Ruth Marcus at The Washington Post contributing their analyses, because it really does look different from our point of view.

Maybe not all women would agree with me on that, but this week I am revising the Mojo Mom chapter on financial and career planning. I have to get across the tricky message that each mother has to create her own safety net that will support her in the case of life's unexpected crises including unemployment, divorce, illness or death.

Not an easy topic to communicate! And in the context of the book I don't want to deliver it as a hammer blow, but rather a realistic, proactive heads-up that we each have to be ready to support ourselves and our families if necessary.

Marriage is an imperfect institution and yes, many marriages end. I have seen it up close and personal from the kid's point of view, as my parents and many of their cohorts divorced. But marriage is still the foundation that many of us have chosen to count on. When couples split up, men tend to do much better financially than women, who may end up with little support, no financial credit for the caregiving they've done for years, and primary responsiblity for the kids. The research documenting this effect is controversial, but even a corrective study said that women have an average 27 percent decline in their standard of living and that men have an average 10 percent increase in their standard of living after divorce. In my own experience, I saw that divorce was highly expensive and disruptive for both men and women, but often the wives were displaced homemakers who had to scramble to find a new job, while the husbands continued on established career paths. The wives has supported their husband's career paths in so many ways that yielded no reward once the marriage ended.

So if a wife cheats, she knows she may be pulling the rug out from under her own life--and obviously creating devastation for her husband and children--I don't mean to condone it in any way. But there is a power differential in many couples: when a husband cheats, he's throwing away her financial security for her. The Edwards affair illuminates this situation into high relief, as Elizabeth so obviously invested in and sacrificed for his ambitions for the benefit of the whole family. Yet he can throw it all away on a whim. This public explosion of a marriage we were invited to admire is a wake-up call for all married women: if it can happen to them, it could happen to me. It cuts through our blissful denial to remind us that we are potential members of a very angry First Wives Club.

Where does this land us? Back at page one of Feminism 101? Into a maze of policy reform to make sure that safety nets work in a way that makes sense in a modern world? Mothers & More reports that The minutes of the Social Security Council meetings held in the late 1930's reveal that Social Security was designed to discourage women from employment, to encourage men to work by linking benefits to income and years worked, and to send a message to women to stay married since their economic security was tied to being a dependent of a wage-earning husband.

I am still trying to process my feelings and thoughts and channel them productively, but honestly, for now I am just pissed.

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Blogger Chris Austin-Lane said...

I read "The Price of Motherhood" to mean basically that the most important economic decision a woman makes who wishes to be a mother is who her spouse is and how likely their marriage is to break up. I'm a stay at home dad, just getting back into the work force after 3 years, and it was pretty hard. As long as most couples don't have a partner style of parenting and as long as most primary caregivers are women, this will probably be true. (Not that some improved social safety networks wouldn't be great, but I think, as a stay at home dad, that Dads need to be 50% responsible for everything - including missing meetings and sick days and so on. That would be a great thing for the quality of life of dads and would be good for kids and make divorce less inequitable for women.


10:40 PM  

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