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Opting Back In: Not As Peachy As it Seems for the Divorcée

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In 2003, Lisa Belkin coined the phrase 'opting-out' with her New York Times Magazine article "Opt Out Revolution". Since then, many journalists have taken 'pen in hand' to write about the trials and tribulations of women leaving the work-force to raise families, and a decade later of them opting back-in.

Judith Warner recently re-ignited the debate with her article "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In" in which she explores the provocative questions and consequences of the women who chose to opt-out more than a decade ago:

Had [these women] found the "escape hatch" from the rat race that one of Belkin's interviewees said she was after? Were they able, as a vast majority said they had planned, to transition back into the work force? Or had they, as the author Leslie Bennetts predicted in her 2007 book, The Feminine Mistake, come to see that, by making themselves financially dependent upon their men -- particularly at a time when no man could depend upon his job -- they had made a colossal error?"

Joan C. Williams, the Founding Director of Work Life Law (WLL) sheds some light on who these 'opting back-in' women are, and the consequences of their decision to have 'opted-out', in her HuffPost article "Planning a Career Break? Make Sure It's a Pause, Not a Dent" stating that, "When women leave the workforce, one of three things happens: They get divorced and often plummet into relative poverty; they find it nigh-impossible to get back in; or they find new jobs post-haste and everything is peachy."

The question of 'opting back-in' after having 'opted-out' is particularly important and applicable to the 60 million women around the world each year who become 'trailing spouses'. Women who give up their jobs or careers because their husbands have been offered a job in another city, or even another country. Women who in cases of an international relocation enjoy employment rates of 90 percent before their move, but are employed only 35 percent of the time after their move.

One of the realities of these relocations, particularly the international ones, is that marriages are put under added stress and are more at risk of ending in divorce, a phenomenon that already affects one-half to three-fourths of marriages in western societies. And, since divorce is the primary reason that most women are thrown back into the work-force, often post haste, the challenges these women face become particularly important.

First, the myth of the divorcée who "walks away with it all", getting the house, the kids, generous alimony settlements, keeping them in a life of luxury and ease with the poor down-trodden ex-husband out in the cold, slaving away to support his pampered, 'do-nothing' ex-wife (or wives) is exactly that; A MYTH. A myth perpetuated by society, fathers' rights groups, and a male-dominated entertainment industry, which still sees the world through the lens of Father Knows Best and The Stepford Wives (modern day versions: Two and a Half Men and Desperate Housewives).

Another common myth is that before becoming a 'parasitic' divorcée, the homemaker was a 'parasitic' toxic, trophy wife. The woman who, as Tara Winter Wilson in her article "Don't Fall for This Deadly Honey Trap" in the Telegraph says, "gives up work as soon as she marries, ostensibly to create a stable home environment for any children that might come along, but who then employs large numbers of staff to do all the domestic work she promised to undertake, leaving her with little to do all day except shop, lunch, luxuriate. Believe me, there is no shortage of the breed and I've been inundated with horror tales about them."

The toxic, trophy wife is only a small percentage of the upper-crust in our societies (1 percent of the population), and hardly representative of the majority of the stay-at-home moms who work extremely long hours with as much, if not more, dedication & diligence as those in the remunerated work force. Also, noting that not all of the wives of millionaires are useless 'parasites', spending their days sipping Chardonnay by the poolside (and sleeping with the tennis pro).

Women like Princess Di, Kate Middleton, Princess Letizia, Melinda Gates... Do these women in their fishbowl existence, and calendars filled with back-to-back tedious social functions really have such an enviable, pampered existence? And, what about our societies, who for thousands of years have prepared upper-class women to be nothing more than 'trophy wives', versed in the art of gracious entertaining and social networking? And, then the public and media, who are obsessed with even the most mundane daily tasks of these women -- paying homage to them as if they were demi-gods...

The whole 'trophy wife' existence, and pervasiveness of it in societies, is over-rated and over-reported. So what happens to those women looking to return to the work-force who do not fit into this crème de la crème/trophy category, 'trailing spouse' or not? Who is she and, why is she looking to 'opt back-in'?

According to Maria Angeles Duran, a leading Spanish sociologist and expert on non-monetarized work in societies, homemakers work 30.5 - 61 hours/week; efforts for which they receive no pay or financial benefits. They do a myriad of jobs in managing their homes and families, working 24/7 with no time off for vacations or holidays with diligence, dedication and love. If paid fair market value for the tasks they performed, they would receive almost $100,000 year.

The valuable contribution that homemakers make to her family's success (and thereby society) is documented in decades of research by the global mobility industry. As Sebastian Reiche, Associate Professor at the IESE Business School in his article "Trailing Spouses: In Need of Organizational Support" states, "The trailing spouse plays a key role during expatriation, influencing assignment success, expatriate adjustment and performance... [and] fulfills the biggest role in upholding family life."

So why is it that when these women enter divorce courts, they and the contribution they have made to their family and husband's career is treated with such disregard and disdain by the courts?

Statistics show that while mothers usually retain custody of their children in about 85 percent of divorces, this reflects agreements of both parents rather than court decisions. Gender-bias studies of court systems across the USA, detailed in "Are "Good Enough" Parents Losing Custody to Abusive Ex-Partners?" by the Leadership Council, report that courts award father's custody of children 70-94 percent of the time when they request it, even when the mother has been primary-caregiver, and even in cases of documented domestic abuse.

In addition to being discriminated against in custody decisions, women are also discriminated against in alimony decisions and the division of common property assets. Once again these gender-bias studies found that women received 25-35 percent of communal assets vs. 65-75 percent for husbands, largely due to "the failure of the courts to take seriously the rules surrounding discovery in family law cases".

This issue is particularly problematic for 'trailing spouses' whose common property assets are usually held under multiple jurisdictions, and/or off-shore accounts. Without proper diligence of a women's legal counsel to subpoena the courts for complete financial records, unscrupulous husbands can easily hide millions of dollars in assets, declaring the family insolvent and/or bankrupt during a divorce, and defraud the wife of what is rightfully hers.

Unfortunately, most lawyers and judges,

"minimize the time, energy, and lost opportunities involved in being a homemaker and primary caretaker of children. Judges generally are reluctant to acknowledge that these contributions are a genuine partnership asset of the marriage. Moreover, the Commission found that [judiciaries] den[y] women the economic resources to retain competent legal representation. As a result, women are critically disadvantaged in enforcing their legal right to alimony, equitable distribution of marital assets, and child support."(Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Study Commission)

This type of gender-bias is explained by the High Commission for Human Rights in its report "Project on a Mechanism to Address Laws that Discriminate Against Women", stating that,

"[when] a judge described a stay at home wife who was seeking to claim a share of matrimonial assets after divorce as "sitting on her husband's back with her hands in his pocket" seemingly forgetting that the "cock bird can feather his nest because he does not have to spend all day sitting on it" or put differently, that a man is enabled to go out into the paid workforce because his wife is taking care of hearth and home for him..."

With the Commission going on to state that this situation constitutes "legal disenfranchisement" of women within the family and marriage.

Statistical analysis of court systems in Spain by the Instituto Nacional de Estadisticas further document gender-bias in family courts, showing that only 10.26 percent of women are awarded alimony settlements, with reported averages being $370/month for women after an average of 15.5 years of marriage, and an average age of 42 years olds. With unemployment rates hovering at 26 percent, and gender-bias as well as age discrimination a serious problem for women seeking a job in Spain, the reality for these women is bleak, if not impossible. After having dedicated decades to raising children and helping husbands build careers and six-figure salaries, these women are condemned to a life of extreme poverty. But, if they dare to reclaim what is theirs under the law they are treated like 'gold-diggers' by everyone concerned. Few other workers in our societies are treated with such disrespect and disdain.

The situation becomes even worse for victims of domestic abuse, as abusers can, and are readily using the elevated levels of discrimination against women within the courts to continue abusing their victims. Since economic abuse is probably the most effective way to intimidate someone, coupled with the fact that abusers are at total liberty to hide assets during a divorce, it is one of the most commonly used tactic. The victim is thrown into abject poverty and has the impossible task of defending herself in divorce proceedings, with the added strain of trying to keep a roof over her head and food on the table.

As stated by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in their report on discrimination against women,

"Despite overall advances in women's economic status in many countries, many women continue to face discrimination in formal and informal sectors of the economy, as well as economic exploitation within the family... While economic independence does not shield women from violence, access to economic resources can enhance women's capacity to make meaningful choices, including escaping violent situations and accessing mechanisms for protection and redress."

Another common tactic of abusers is to harass their victims with convoluted court-motions, fabricated accusations, and Machiavellian-type manipulations, furthering taxing a victim's precarious financial state and frayed nerves, as well as putting her job at risk for absenteeism. Many abusers will also harass and stalk victims at their place of employment, again jeopardizing her job security.

The trials and tribulations of these women are further complicated if she is an expatriate and under a foreign jurisdiction. The biggest problem for the 'trailing spouse' is that her residence visa, and work permit and job if she had one to begin with, is automatically revoked when she is divorced. She must return to her home country leaving her children behind, or look for work illegally in the country where her children reside. If she attempts to leave the country with her children, even if in her efforts to protect them from an abusive father, she risks imprisoned for international child abduction under the Hague Convention.

Whatever the country or situation of the 'opted-out', stay-at-home mom, for those who have been out of the work-force for less than 10 years, re-insertion may still be possible, even without lots of expensive MBAs/PhDs and impressive pre-exit resumes. However, for the woman who gave up her career and/or educational opportunities in deference to her husband's career, dedicating 20-30 years to raising a family, her chances of finding employment or developing a career, is nigh-impossible.

In my own situation, the ace up my sleeve was my unique life experience as a life-long globe-trotter, my fluency in English, French and Spanish as well as my cultural agility, my many years of working in expat organizations and community development, my international marketing degree, and my entrepreneurial and innovative spirit.

As Jo Parfitt and Colleen Reichrath-Smith author of A Career in Your Suitcase advises, "I looked inside myself, and decided I had to calculate which among my many careers had the most earning potential. I had to think hard about which of my skills would earn me the most money per hour and for which there was also a market."

After this 'soul-searching' in 2005, I came up with an idea for a start-up Internet company (Global Expats) that found a solution not only to my own personal challenges at re-insertion into the work-force, but also to the biggest challenge of employers around the world; the adaptation and integration of the relocating employee and his or her family. An added benefit of my idea is that it provides job opportunities for thousands of 'trailing spouses' around the world, and assists millions more in their career maintenance while abroad.

Additionally in my 'soul-searching', I foresaw the advent of the two most successful business models on the Internet today: social/professional networking, and local-search directories. However, due to my divorce in Spain which has been plagued by the many pitfalls of an international divorce, my idea has been 'shelved' for the past 7 years. But, after much perseverance and hard-work, it is once again 'getting off the ground'.

Which brings me to the challenges female entrepreneurs face when they 'opt back-into' the work-force after having 'opted-out' decades before, particularly when seeking funding from Silicon Valley. The capital venture industry is still dominated by an 'old boys' network (even if some are women these days), who view the stay-at-home mom with the same discriminatory stereo-typing as family courts. While a career stay-at-home mom, such as myself, might lack the experience of corporate executives in building companies, or the IT know-how of young, techy grads, stay-at-home moms have more knowledge and experience in meeting the needs of families around the world than anyone else out there. The corporate world would do well to heed the advice, and tap into the knowledge pool of the primary decision-makers of the biggest consumer-market in the world, the stay-at-home mom and manager of the upper-middle class family.

So as I continue to contend with my own personal challenges in 'opting back-in' with a new start-up company, I am also making in-roads in bringing awareness to the plight of women within family courts. Until, and unless, policy-makers recognize to what extent discriminatory policies in the courts are violating the rights of women, re-insertion into the labor force of the 'opted-out' mom and divorcée, will continue to be less than 'peachy'.