Twenty years ago this Thanksgiving, I got married. Two years ago this month, I got divorced. But I am not here to chronicle the history of a marriage gone wrong. Instead, I am here to commemorate a divorce that went right. And its success was based upon none other than my ability to consistently build my career throughout 18 years of marriage and the raising of two children.
Now I know there are many mothers, and fathers, who will forever dispute the benefits of being a working mom. Opinions abound about whether a woman can properly care for her children while keeping her career in tact. Just this past summer, Jack Welch, CEO of GE, referred to women's attempts to juggle work and family as one where "there is no such thing as work life balance ... there are work life choices, and they have consequences." Well, Jack, I agree, and if women choose not to work throughout motherhood, these consequences can prove dire.
Just look at the statistics. More than half of all first marriages end in divorce, and two-thirds of all second marriages suffer from the same non-fairy tale ending. For couples who have children, that number doubles. Half of the children born this year to parents who are married will see their parents divorce before they turn 18, with most being as young as 7-10. This all results in a financial aftermath that can be devastating for children. According to the Census Bureau, children whose parents divorce are almost twice as likely to drop into poverty than they were before the marital split.
What's a mother to do? The answer lies in what many moms still too often consider the proverbial four-letter word -- work. Although the fear of leaving ones children to be cared for at the home of another or in a childcare center is enough to send many mothers heading for the hidden cameras, phone tapping devices, and unannounced visits, being employed also provides the financial independence proven key to minimizing a mother's long-term financial risk and that of her children. I can testify to that. Due to my consistent career growth throughout motherhood, I was able to purchase my own home just two months after my divorce and keep my children in the private school they were already attending. Doing so helped to minimize any threats to my children's security which, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is the main cause of children feeling frightened and confused during this vulnerable time.
But almost as quickly as employment is proposed as a solution to stay-at-home moms, so too are the opponents' objections to it. Just consider the backlash to Leslie Bennetts' recent book, The Feminine Mistake (Are We Giving Up Too Much?), where the author contends that economic dependency represents the proverbial 'elephant in the living room' for stay-at-home moms. "While parents make sure to purchase the safest strollers, baby car seats, cribs and playpens, it's hard to understand why so many women are willing to turn over their very ability to feed their children to another person," she writes.
One practical reason these mothers put forth is that a job's financial compensation is usually not high enough to justify the cost of child care. While this is unfortunately too often the case, one thing these women tend to overlook, according to Bennetts, is that when they stop working, "their future earning potential also stops, and all future dividends in turn transfer to the working father." If the marriage ultimately fails, so too does a woman's ability to go back to work for much more than the minimum wage.
Fortunately, an increasing number of working women are starting to get the message. According to a Families and Work Institute 2008 study, 55% of working women provide half or more of the household income, and as many as one in four women living in dual-earner couples had annual earnings at least 10 percentage points higher than their spouses/partners, up from 15% in 1997. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new bestseller, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the ramifications of a woman's increasing financial solvency not only reduces stress for her husband and children, but also takes a giant step toward helping society as a whole. "When women help to increase the household income, it also allows them to invest in their families' health care, nutrition and education, enabling them to provide a solid foundation for larger social change," they assert.
In fact, this book takes its title from the ancient Chinese proverb, "Women Hold Up Half the Sky," which imparts the importance of women's unique contributions to any task, using the atmosphere as a metaphor for all things that blanket our planet. It is believed that by women joining men in holding up of the sky equally that both can not only comfortably co-exist, but also create a greater good through a combination of individual effort and collective benefit.
Who knows ... with women and men standing on equal footing and providing strong mutual support, perhaps we will even witness a decrease in today's divorce rates. Now that would really be something to be thankful for.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D. is President of Sokol Media, Inc., publisher of Work Life Matters magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org