Gave Up Your Career For Your Spouse? You Deserve to Be Paid
A romantic relationship is often the biggest financial risk a woman takes
There was an uncomfortable moment at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony when Donald Sylvester gave his acceptance speech after winning an Oscar for sound editing the film Ford v Ferrari. “The real support comes from home. So I want to thank my wonderful wife of 34 years, who gave up her editing career for me to pursue my career. But she raised our kids, and she did a great job, because neither one of them are politicians.”
There was some applause as he began to thank his wife, Penny Shaw Sylvester, and then it stopped. “Gave up her editing career” was perhaps the wrong way to phrase what many might consider it — a woman sacrificing her needs, goals and desires for her man — but she made it very clear that that was exactly what they agreed to.
“To say that I don’t work is absolutely ludicrous, but what I did do is leave the entertainment industry … I love what I do, I love working with the schools, and I love helping children and helping our community, which I think is so much more productive than just cutting a film. I live in the real world. And I help real people.”
That’s all well and good. We all have choices although sometimes the choice to opt out is less a choice than a necessity.
But for the women — and, increasingly men — who give up their careers to take care of the home and kids, here’s the thing — your “sacrifice” may be appreciated in the moment, but not necessarily forever.
Especially if you divorce.
Because typically when a couple divorces, it’s almost universally assumed that a woman who gives up her career to support her spouse is now somehow “walking away with his money.” That’s exactly how MacKenzie Bezos was talked about when she and her husband, Jeff, divorced.
“His money”? Everyone seems to forget that she gave up her career to care for their children, which helped her husband be successful in his career. There’s no way Jeff Bezos would be who he is today without her support and hard work.
Should she and all spouses who do that be compensated for that mutual decision?
Hell yeah, is what I say.
And recently, so did an English judge in awarding a wife, a Cambridge graduate, more than $513,000 for “curtailing her legal career” to care for the children she had with her former husband.
The judge — a man, in case anyone was curious — recognized what so many of us don’t acknowledge or assume is what one does for one’s family: the unpaid, unappreciated work of keeping households and relationships running smoothly that allows the other spouse to focus all their time and energy on doing their job well. As he said:
“[The woman] viewed herself as the parent who would take primary responsibility for the children. The husband’s career took precedence. I accept that it is unusual to find significant relationship-generated disadvantage that may lead to a claim for compensation but I am clear that this is one such case.
But why wait until a family breaks up to compensate the person who gives up their career for the good of the family? Shouldn’t the person who does that — typically the wife — be compensated in real time?
The idea that domestic labor should be paid dates back to the 1890s, and has popped up from time to time, and gained momentum with the Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s and, more recently, in Italy and India. It never caught on although there have been individual efforts to make it happen, albeit not always successfully.
And yet it does happen in some circles. Wednesday Martin created a stir when she wrote about the wife bonuses given to women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in her 2017 book Primates of Park Avenue, “distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school’ — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.” Many people were horrified by the idea, but isn’t the real horror the economic inequality and dependency that occurs in a breadwinner-homemaker marriage?
As Martin writes:
The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses — dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.
And it should.
Will knowing that they can earn the salary they gave up to care for their family if they end their marriage lead more former-career-turned-stay-at-home wives to seek a divorce after their main job — raising the children — is over? Maybe. Knowing that a few hundred thousand dollars awaits you would certainly go far to alleviate the dire financial situation many women experience post-divorce
The judge said he considered this case special, noting that it would be “unusual to find significant relationship-generated disadvantage that may lead to a claim for compensation.” But I don’t see it as all that special considering that a romantic relationship is often the biggest financial risk women take.
Any person who gives up an established career to care for a family and becomes completely dependent on their spouse creates “relationship-generated disadvantage.” And that is very, very significant.
Want to learn how to address the relationship-generated disadvantage in your marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.