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Erica Manfred

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Should He Pay If He Trades in the Old Model After Decades of Marriage?

Posted: 08/12/11 01:14 PM ET

Terry Hekker, a divorcee who is now in her sixties, was a traditional housewife during the '70s and '80s. She wrote a book, "Ever Since Adam and Eve" at the end of the 1970s extolling the virtues of staying home and raising the kids.

Her book countered the rising feminist tide of women giving up the housewife role to find careers. Back then there was a huge amount of controversy about career women. Most women took on the housewife role as a matter of course.

Then Terry, with admirable honesty, wrote "Disregard the First Book" in 2009. It seems her husband handed her divorce papers on their 40th wedding anniversary, leaving her financially and emotionally destitute.

The judge only gave her "rehabilitative" alimony for a few years. Somehow, she was supposed to find a job at age 67, with no training and no job experience -- during a recession when even 27- year-olds can't find work. In the meantime, her ex husband was in Cancun with his girlfriend. This story is all too common among divorcees of a certain age, mostly over 55.

I was a feminist early on, but so many women of my generation missed the feminist revolution completely. They were isolated in the suburbs with their families, and that is the way they liked it. Or at least, like Terry, they said that's the way they liked it.

Those women, the ones who stayed home to raise children and help promote their husband's careers, are now being blindsided by husbands who are going through the stereotypical midlife crisis.

Their husbands are trading in the older model for the latest one. We feminists shot ourselves in the foot -- or pocketbook -- by convincing the courts we were independent women and didn't need alimony. Alimony for life, which I think should be standard in cases like Terry's, is now a rarity, especially in my state, New York, which is where Terry also lives.

Eventually the argument that women should stay home with the kids became moot because most families needed two incomes to survive. Women had to go to work to keep their families afloat.

However, we're now experiencing a backlash where mommyhood is being extolled as a new route to sainthood, and "helicopter" moms spend so much time hovering over their kids they barely have time for a job. Terry is out there speaking to college classes convincing young girls that they must have a career and not depend on husbands, who may or may not stick around.

I totally agree, but this isn't going to solve the problem of today's older divorcee who doesn't have a career and isn't likely to find one in her fifties and sixties. I believe lifetime alimony has to be restored as the default for women who spent their lives as homemakers.

Those women's contributions to the marriage have to be calculated in dollars. How much would it have cost their husbands to hire someone to cook, clean and raise the kids for 40 years? That's what their wives contributed to the marriage and that asset has to be taken into account, just like the house and the IRA and other marital assets. Thirty years of full time help 24/7 at even ten dollars an hour comes to over two million dollars. Men who pay alimony for life are actually getting off cheap.

 
 
 

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