This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today
There is a certain demographic which is particularly vulnerable when a couple separates: this is the 50-something woman who has never worked during her marriage, but stayed home raising the children while the husband is the main breadwinner. In many cases, it is because she has been a stay-at-home wife and mother that it has been possible for her husband to achieve whatever success he has managed to attain in his career.
In some cases, if the husband eventually decides to set up his own business after the couple have been married a few years, which again entails working endless long hours, the support of the wife is indispensable to keep the household ticking, allowing the man to devote all his energy and time to the venture until things take off.
After all, it is only when you have an in-built domestic support system that any person (male or female) can work 12 or 14 hour days, secure in the knowledge that they will go back home to a clean, orderly house, freshly laundered clothes, a well-stocked fridge and dinner cooking nicely in the oven. The kids have done their homework, have been given their baths and have been put to bed, and when you arrive home you are free to just eat, perhaps exchange a few words and then fall promptly asleep on the sofa in front of the TV.
In the absence of such an accommodating spouse to hold down the fort, for that kind of convenient set-up you would need to hire a housekeeper, a cook, a nanny and oh yes, a driver to ferry the children to and from their numerous extra-curricular activities, apart from the daily school run.
Of course, for the majority of women of my generation, this was the norm, and what was expected by almost everyone when you said the word ‘marriage’. It was taken for granted that the respective roles would be divided neatly according to gender between the man who brings home the bacon and the woman who stays home and cooks it, while also being the hand that rocks the cradle. No one questioned it, it was just the way things were, and it suited everyone fine because everyone knew their ‘place’ and it seemed to work. (Of course, there were women who also managed to have their own career or who were also directly involved in the family business, but I think it is safe to say that up to 35 years ago, they were definitely the exceptions, not the rule.)
The point when it stops working, of course, is when the marriage hits the rocks, and this is when a woman who has always been ‘just a housewife’ finds that everything which she took for granted, no longer holds true. She assumes that her husband will continue to be the provider and she can continue taking care of the house and the children who still live at home, even though they are now adults. Some women even think that the courts will automatically award them 50% of the husband’s income. But now comes the rude awakening: a separation means a Judge will decide how much alimony she is entitled to, and this is when she learns that no, she will not continue to be provided for in the style she was accustomed to because, she is told, at some point she should have gone back to work. As far as the law is concerned, it doesn’t matter how much the man is earning now, so many years later, when the business is thriving with a hefty turnover – the wife will only be entitled to a certain amount as alimony. “It is the danger of being a housewife when you have a family business” I was told recently, and seen in that light, I cannot but agree.
And until her share of the business and joint property is sorted out in what are often long-drawn out court cases, she will find herself in a situation where she is what is known as “income poor”.
I think what happened to many women who spent their 20s and 30s raising children is that they reached their 40s and found it very difficult to get back into the workforce, which is quite understandable if one has not continued to hone one’s skills and improve one’s qualifications. Re-entering the world of employment can seem quite daunting and intimidating, and the rapid changes which take place when it comes to technology can appear unsurmountable. So even though their children may have no longer needed them as much as they used to, the years rolled by and it just seemed natural to remain in the only role they have ever known. There is nothing wrong with this of course and, in fact, it is even admirable to see women who devote themselves so wholeheartedly to the family, but it is when things go haywire that the riskiness of such a situation strikes home. And although what we have is “no fault” separation and divorce (so no one is penalized for adultery etc), still it seems cruel and unfair when the separation has been instigated by the man who walks away, leaving a woman who was there during the hard times and who kept the home fires burning, and who now has to figure out how she is going to support herself when she has never had to. When the man is wealthy, especially, it seems churlish to begrudge the woman he shared so much of his life with from having a decent income at a time in her life when she is not very employable.
Of course, when it is the woman who walks away, she needs to inform herself very carefully about what will happen before she takes that step, she needs to get her financial affairs in order and take the precaution of saving enough money before she even thinks of filing for separation. Unfortunately, some women in that age group do not even have a clue about how much their husband actually earns, or what their joint finances are.
The question is: should a woman be compensated for having stayed at home to look after the children, making it possible for the husband to be successful (especially if he’s a businessman)? In countries such as France, there is this kind of provision, called a prestation compensatoire, so it is not unheard of. On the other hand, there will be those who argue that a man should not have to continue supporting his wife after a separation/divorce if she is capable of working, even though she had basically sacrificed her own ambitions for him to achieve his.
My instinctive reaction on hearing these type of stories is that, these days, no woman can really afford to be completely dependent to this extent and that women need to be wise and protect themselves financially, just in case. With so many marital break-ups all around us, it is rather short-sighted to automatically assume that marriage is going to be your financial shelter for life.
But for those who are already in this predicament, who saw 20 – 30 years of their life slip away while seeing to everyone else’s needs, and who have no real income to call their own, this advice is too little, too late. They will probably have to sell off their share of the joint property which they receive in the settlement, or come up with other ways to support themselves. Jobs for those who are 50+ are not easy to come by, especially if one is unskilled.
It is definitely not the future many women thought they would have to face when they first got married, full of hope and excitement, all those years ago.