I blindly grew up and into my 30s assuming the standard-issue feminist party line:
Women's work is uncompensated and undervalued. When women become stay-at-home mothers, that benefits men's careers, and when the marriage ends, she should be compensated for that lost earning potential. Both partners' lifestyles should be the same when the marriage ends!
Then, I watched my friend get divorced, and face alimony.
He had a high-earning career, and after spending her 20s in low-paid retail jobs, his wife stayed home full-time until the kids were in high school, then worked part-time retail, tried to start a couple of craft businesses that went nowhere, and then started sleeping with her massage therapist.
When they divorced, this couple stayed on mostly friendly terms and would get together with the kids, who were by then in college.
His career continued on while she struggled bitterly. Since they broke up in the middle of the housing and stock market bust, there weren't many assets to divide.
The kids were out of the house, so there was no child support. When they split, he had been laid off and was unemployed, so there was no alimony.
She went from a very comfortable life as a suburban housewife, to struggling very hard to get by, living in a shared apartment.
At the time, I was incredulous about this. He should support her, I screamed in my head. Her lifestyle is so compromised compared with his.
Today, I recognize alimony as a dated, sexist construct that has grown out of its intended purpose, and only holds women and gender equality back.
First, some basics on why and how stay-at-home motherhood hurts gender equality:
When I push back against the stay-at-home mom fantasy — the myth that children fare better when mothers do not work, and that this lifestyle benefits anyone at all — I am often met with: “What do you care? We should respect all women's choices in the spirit of sisterhood!”
When women choose to stay home full time, abandon career and earning, in the name of better mothering, or commitment to family, we all lose, most especially women.
Why alimony is wrong, sexist, and unfair:
“As much as we would like to think the court is blind when it comes to alimony and gender, at least in Las Vegas, I would tend to disagree,” says Molly Rosenblum, founding attorney of The Rosenblum Allen Law Firm in Las Vegas, Nev.
In her Nevada practice, which handles family law, criminal defense, and civil cases, Rosenblum sees more women asking for alimony, about 90/10 women to men. And 95% of women receive alimony compared to 5% of men.
In Nevada, there is no set formula for alimony. It’s decided on a case-by-case basis considering factors like:
- Length of marriage
- Health and well-being of both parties
- Financial need of the alimony-seeking spouse
- Employment status of the seeking spouse
- Income disparity of both parties
Rosenblum leans toward the idea that Nevada’s alimony statutes compensate spouses who have truly been in long-term marriages, setting aside their own careers for the betterment of the wage-earning spouse. And although it’s not perfect, she believes it is equitable.
But there are definitely unfair scenarios that play out, depending on the couple.
“My overall sentiment about alimony is that it is risky business,” Rosenblum says. “In Nevada, if the receiving spouse remarries, they no longer get alimony.”
Rosenblum says the receiving spouse often loses financially when they move on to a new relationship — especially if he or she stayed home to raise the kids while their ex earned a ton of money.
“My personal opinion is that a spouse who may be entitled to alimony should look to be compensated elsewhere,” Rosenblum says.
Other options might be asking for a larger share of the house equity or a bigger piece of the savings or retirement accounts. Rosenblum says if handled correctly, these options can put them in a better financial position long after alimony payments end.
1. You model a stereotypical female roles, which informs your children, spouse, friends and neighbors
If you, woman, are home, your children equate housekeeping, child care and other unpaid ‘women's work' with women. They see their father, a man, earn in the world. That informs their ideas about gender and what is expected of women and men.
That is why Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn found, in her study of 34,000 people across 24 countries, that girls raised by mothers who worked outside the home for pay, achieved more academically and grew up to be women who achieved more professionally and financially than their peers who had stay-at-home moms.
Boys raised by working moms were more caring for children and older people living in the home than their SAHM peers, and grew up to be men who were the same — all while achieving as much academically and professionally as those raised by SAHMs. In short: kids grow up to be what they see.
2. Stay-at-home moms influence sexism in workplaces
Men — especially the white variety — still very much control corporate and government policy, and are far more likely to advocate for policy that supports working parents if they themselves share in family responsibility because their wives work, too.
“Employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”
3. Stay-at-home moms hurt the economy
When you do not participate in the labor force, the world misses out on your unique talents
Recent headlines such as “Closing the gender gap could grow the economy by $2.1 trillion” (CNN) scream that the best way to grow the economy is to better engage women in the professional world.
You consumed educational resources that were designed for the benefit of all of society. You worked hard to earn positions, raises or build a business.
When you drop out for any significant period, all those collective skills and network are paused — or tossed out. That is a brain drain that we, as a society and world, cannot afford to lose.
4. The choice to stay home with children hurts the hiring and promotion of other women
Your departure from the workforce discourages managers and companies from hiring, training and promoting women since it sets the precedence that women of a certain age will just drop out indefinitely to have babies. Read: “Motherhood Penalty Affects Women Who Never Have a Child” (NBC).
5. Staying home with kids means you abandon the women who stay and fight for equality
My friend Maria, a divorced mom, has fought her way into an executive position at the male-dominated accounting industry where she's worked for 22 years.
She told me: “Every time a woman in my company drops out to stay home and ‘be a mom,' I want to scream. I think, ‘I and every other woman in this big company need you to be here in these meetings and fight for them.' I feel let down and, frankly, abandoned. They left me here to fight alone.”
6. Stay-at-home moms shame working moms
Culturally, Americans believe children need stay-at-home moms. Pew found that 60 percent of Americans believe it is best for kids when a parent is home full-time, and a full 40 percent of Americans say that children are harmed (!) when mothers work outside the home.
A full 70 percent of U.S. mothers work, and the majority of those who do not would like to work, but do not because child care is so prohibitive, studies find.
The majority of moms who work do so because they need to eat, and their children need to eat — not because it is a lifestyle choice. In other words,
When women say, “I don't want to go back to work because I love my children,” that means, “I love my children more than you do. I am a better mom.” We all love our children. Here a very important fact you need to hear right now:
The University of Maryland’s very important meta-study, “How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?” found that for children ages 2 to 11, it makes no difference the number of hours a mother spends with her when it comes to the child’s academic or psychological success.
7. Stay-home moms perpetuate the myth that motherhood is enough to fulfill us
Betty Friedan's 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique established this five decades ago. We are having the exact same emotion vs fact debate today. Let's move this conversation forward.
8. Stay-at-home moms are more prone to poverty
Whether you stay married for the rest of your life, divorce, or your spouse passes away before you do (statistically likely), you are more likely to be poor.
A financial plan in which an entire family is dependent on one income is simply bad planning. After all, you know you should buy life insurance in the unlikely event that you or your partner dies.
The chances of that happening are far, far lower than divorce, disability, illness or unemployment — all situations in which a second career could mean the difference between staying in your home or living out of your car.
The fewer women living in poverty means good things for all women — and members of the world.
9. Women who do not work are less likely to be involved in family finances
Knowing everything about your household finances is critical in the event that you divorce, or otherwise are forced to manage the money in the absence of your spouse (he becomes disabled, unemployed, dies, is incarcerated or any other horrible things that happen every single day).
One study found that women's involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income. In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them.
The more involved a woman is with managing money, the more security she and her whole family have. this contributes to making wiser, empowered decisions, and being safe in every sense of the word.
10. Women who do not earn their own money are more likely to suffer domestic violence
A full THIRD of U.S. women will be abuse victims at the hands of an intimate partner, and in 99 percent of those cases, financial abuse is part of the equation. You are in physical, emotional and sexual danger when you do not have your own money.
11. When you divorce, stay-at-home wives and moms are screwed
You have the same ~50 percent chance as the rest of us (though some studies suggest the divorce rate is higher in marriages when one spouse is financially dependent on the other).
Alimony reform is underway in every state, and while you may get short-term maintenance (think about that term: a man who you are no longer involved with is forced to maintain you), you are now expected to earn a living.
Statistically women wind up poorer after divorce than men — typically because we have less earning power to start with. Take away any recent work experience, you are s-c-r-e-w-e-d.
The challenges for divorced women with no recent work history run deep. Want to keep your house in your name? Without two years work history, you can't get a mortgage.
You also likely can't get a car loan or credit card with a decent interest rate. In short: the pay gap, wealth gap and women's choices overall plummet without earning power.
12. When women stop working, you have far fewer choices, and we all lose
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a woman’s earnings drop 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years.
This calculator created by the Center for American Progress projects the potential impact to a woman’s lifetime earnings when she takes a break mid-career.
A 26-year-old woman earning $50,000 per year stands to lose more than $800,000 in wages, raises and retirement benefits over her lifetime when she steps off the career path for just five years. You also can't get a decent car loan or credit card or mortgage.
13. SAHMs' post-divorce / separation life is tumultuous
When you are in financial straits post-divorce/separation, you are understandably afraid, and acting in fear leads to bad decisions and poor behavior.
Any family attorney or divorce court judge will tell you that terrified women and angry men then spend a lot of very contentious time and lots of money with lawyers and judges arguing over money.
This conflict bleeds deeply into your co-parenting. It is impossible to share parenting time and decisions in a healthy way if you are duking it out in court. Your children suffer the most.
These are the same children who were supposed to benefit from the countless hours you spent with them at home.
As a citizen, I am affected because courts are jammed up with petty arguing over custody and alimony, while actual abuse and neglect cases are marginalized.
As a society, we all suffer, because statistically, when men are marginalized in custody cases — and they are in 80 percent of cases that go to court, in favor of giving mothers primary custody, despite 55 reviewed studies that prove that equally shared time with kids is best for children, once again following in those gender-stereotype — they tend to drop out of kids' lives all together.
This is good for no one. Not you, not me, not the kids, dads or penal systems, which are full of kids who did not grow up with involved dads. Ladies, be part of the solution.
14. How alimony hurts the gender pay gap
There is a lot of pressure on women in the workforce to forsake their economic power in lieu of family.
Pew found that an astonishing 40 percent of Americans believe that children suffer when their mother works outside of the home.
And study after study finds that the 21% gender pay gap is a result not of rich white men in C-suite keeping competent women down, but rather women choosing to compromise their careers to care for loved ones.
This pressure is so great that women who actually earn a living, falsely label themselves “stay-at-home moms.”
A recent project between my friend time management expert Laura Vanderkam and Redbook magazine found that 62% of described stay-at-home moms contributed to their household income, including 25% who run businesses.
I know a blogger who earns $80,000 per year and calls herself a stay-at-home mom — a disconnect that is both common and destructive, since it perpetuates the economically oppressive pressure to abandon our livelihoods and lives for our children and husbands.
Meanwhile, all research confirms: It makes zero difference how much time a parent spends with a kid after age 2, and the greatest indicators of a child's future wellbeing is her mother's education and income level.
Let us not forget: Working mothers are far less prone to depression and anxiety, and divorce rates are 50% higher for families in which one spouse does not work.
In other words: We glamorize stay-at-home moms, when science proves again and again that everyone is happier, healthier and more financially secure when both parents work.
After all: Divorce rates have been more or less steady at 50% for 40 years. The other 50% of couples? Unemployment, disability, death and other catastrophes mean a one-career family is a precarious financial agreement indeed.
And when these families do divorce or separate, the new paradigm is likely to be very sexist indeed, with the mom having primary care of the kids, and being financially dependent on her ex's child support and/or alimony payments.
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Breaking the cycle of the wage gap
So this is what you will do to make sure we break this cycle of women sabotaging their own wellbeing, and that of their children, marriage and for women and society overall:
You will identify a girl. Maybe it is your daughter, or granddaughter. Niece, student, mentee or neighbor. She might be 6 or 16 or a young woman of 26. You will tell her with zero nuance or caveat:
Always have your own money.
Never give up your ability to earn.
You are not an adult if you chose to be financially dependent on another person.
In my research, I have found it only takes telling a young person this critical message one time. The message taps into such a primal, visceral need for freedom, power and independence, even very young girls understand it intuitively.
But do not tell her just one time. Tell her again and again. Like you make sure your child knows to be kind, and say thank you and not to chew with her mouth open. Just as you make sure that young people know how to swim and must eat vegetables, this is a non-negotiable.
Knowing this shapes the life decisions you make
Because when a child is raised to reap the magnificent bounty that is the education, professional, political and financial equality that women in this country in the 21st century enjoy, and understand that she will never, ever chart her own course in this world until she embraces it as her duty to exercise it in its fullest, you set her on a certain course.
On the right course. It is a course that affects every single vertical of her life:
- The choices she makes in where she attends college, and how she will pay for it (because when you are wise about your education and related finances, and do not assume that a man will take care of you and your debt eventually, you make better choices).
- The career path she pursues.
- The relationships she forges with friends and colleagues (because these are the spine of her entire life).
- The money she does and does not spend on fun.
- The money she does and does not invest.
- The partner she selects (or rejects).
- The children she chooses to have (or not).
- The age she chooses to become a mother.
- The way she sees herself in the world, the value she brings to her partner, her children, friends, and the world around her.
By saying: “Always have your own money,” to a girl you are saying:
“You are powerful. And I believe that you will never, ever give up that power.”
She gets it. She will thank you. And women everywhere, forever, will thank you.
Alimony contributes to the wealth gap
When women earn their own money and think like breadwinners, the wealth gap will shrink. One study found that women’s involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income.
In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them. Consider these alarming figures on female financial literacy from workplace wellness program firm Financial Finesse:
- One-third of women feel confident about their investment allocation, vs half of men
- 66% of women report a general knowledge of investing, vs 85% of men
- 63% of women report having a handle on cash management, vs 78% of men
- 47% of women indicate that they have an emergency fund, vs 62% of men
One, a stay-at-home mom told me at our kids' bus-stop that if she ever got a divorce, her husband would have to pay her out the nose for all her “sacrifice.” Never mind he was perpetually unemployed in a middle-class job.
Where did she think that all that money would come from? Bottom line is she was relaying the common assumption that men always pay women when they have children together, and this woman had no money, a neglected career and a low-income husband.
Ending alimony would be a boon for family financial security, ringing a clear, screaming alarm that you, woman, must plan for the very real chance that both spouses’ income will be likely critical to the family.
What will it take for people to realize — and plan for — the fact that divorce rates have hovered around 50% for decades? Divorce is just one risk.
Maintaining a career is about being a responsible member of your family. Even if you have the hottest, most committed marriage that lasts until the end of one of your lives, there are other realities you must plan for.
And if you are divorced and dependent on income from your ex, never forget that he could lose his job, die, become disabled, chose a lower-paying career, see his business tank, or go MIA.
You have no control over that, and if you depend on his income, you live in fear every single day it will go away. Shift that energy into your own income and career, which you do have control over, and watch your life change.
Unemployment. Nearly four out of five U.S. adults will face severe joblessness, near poverty or being on welfare. Men in recent history have been far more likely to suffer in an economic downturn.
During the recession – from December 2007 to June 2009—men lost 5.4 million jobs while women lost 2.1 million. Again, this is a numbers game. Betting on your husband to support you and your family simply is not a good financial move.
Disability. Nearly 5% of all eligible adults receive disability insurance benefits.
Life. Crap happens. Accidents, psychotic breaks, natural disasters and fires. You have no idea what is in store. So you do smart things. Like keep a career going, which boosts your family’s financial security by 2x at least.
15. Alimony is legislated dependence for women
An end of alimony would force each able-bodied person to be financially responsible for themselves.
Suffragists and feminists before us fought bitterly (and sometimes joyously, one would hope) so you and I have financial and legal parity with men.
We have a ways to go, but for the most part in this country women have the opportunity to support themselves. With opportunity comes responsibility. You choose to be financially dependent on someone else (like a husband), you take a risk.
If that marriage ends and you have little career equity and low earning potential as a result, you must pay the consequences of the downside of that risk. Taking that responsibility away from women, and perpetuating a model in which women are financially dependent on men, infantizes all women.
We are not infants. We are capable adults with untold professional and financial opportunities.
Take alimony out of the career-planning equation and we force women to take full responsibility for their careers and finances from the beginning of adulthood.
This is critical if we are going to close the pay gap, which has little to do with workplace sexism, and more to do with women choosing lower-paying professions and stepping away from careers to devote to family life — all in the name of being a “better” mother who spend countless time with her children, even though all the search proves that children fare better when they have moms who work, and benefit none from endless hours with their parents.
Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn found, in her study of 34,000 people across 24 countries, that girls raised by mothers who worked outside the home for pay, achieved more academically and grew up to be women who achieved more professionally and financially than their peers who had stay-at-home moms.
Boys raised by working moms were more caring for children and older people living in the home than their SAHM peers, and grew up to be men who were the same — all while achieving as much academically and professionally as those raised by SAHMs. In short: kids grow up to be what they see.
I talk about this on this blog, my podcast, and book, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), and am very proud to say I have converted many moms to getting off the alimony gravy train (one of my favorite reader book reviews: “Thanks for ruining alimony for me forever, Emma!”).
Many women say that this message has propelled them into a life of autonomy independent of the man to whom they were once married.
Nonetheless, there continue to be lots of vintage thinking about money, marriage, family, and gender, and in this post, I explain why all the typical arguments in favor of alimony are wrong.
Listen to my interview with McGinn:
16. Alimony makes divorce so much harder, more expensive, and dragged out
Alimony adjustments, enforcements and arguments, are the No. 1 reason that divorced couples return to divorce court, or otherwise spend money on expensive family lawyers. Think about it:
There are countless ways to fight about alimony:
- You suspect or know his income increased, and therefore believe you are entitled to more.
- He suspects or knows you are earning more (good for you!) and therefore he should be paying less.
- He believes (or says) his income decreased, or his living expenses went up, so he should pay less.
- One of your remarried, or is in a relationship or living with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and therefore your financial situation has changed, and one of you believes the payments should be adjusted, too.
- Someone believes income is earned under the table, is not reported, or otherwise being hidden.
And on and on. It's exhausting, toxic, keeps you enmeshed in the emotional part of the divorce for ever and ever, and the only people who benefit from this are the divorce lawyers, who laugh all the way to the bank.
Take alimony out of the equation, the co-parenting relationship improves, and the divorce is far more amicable from the start. In fact, you may even be file a no-contest, DIY divorce, for a few hundred dollars.
17. Alimony and child support keep you passionately attached to your ex
I have a friend who abandoned a thriving small business she’d built for 15 years when she married a successful New York City tax attorney and had a baby.
The marriage ended. He pays her a sum each month that keeps her in an Upper East Side two-bedroom, three-story townhouse, while she struggles to rebuild her business. “Tell your readers to never stop working,” she told me recently. “There is nothing worse than being dependent on a man who you are trying to separate from.”
Also, there is nothing better than knowing that your own life is entirely of your making. That is the definition of empowerment — gender or otherwise.
I was on WCCO CBS in Minneapolis speaking about this win my friend, anchor Jordana Green who receives alimony. “Isn't it unfair if you're used to living in a $500,000 house but have to move into an apartment when you divorce?” she asked.
My answer? “If you want a $500,000 house, pursue a career that affords you one.”
As one alimony reform activist emailed me: “Alimony law was created to ‘keep the lesser earning spouse in the lifestyle in which they are accustomed.' Using that logic, wealthy parents should be legally obligated to support their kids throughout their lives.” I agree.
18. Alimony makes co-parenting very contentious
Alimony and child support are the main reasons that people return to family and divorce courts again and again. There has never, ever in the history of divorce been a person who pays money to another person who they believe is capable of supporting themselves.
Since your ex is angry about paying alimony (and child support), that anger will manifest in all sorts of ways in your relationship, which has now been reduced to coparents. May not be fair, may be court-sanctioned, but you are lesser co-parents because this money came between you.
Dana Lin was a stay-at-home mom for most of her marriage, and admits there was a measure of pride in not pursuing alimony or child support in her divorce, even though she could barely support herself — selling her wedding and heirloom jewelry to make ends meet, and not eating for days on end when her children spent time with their dad. She was entitled to $3,000 in monthly support alimony.
Lin, the mother of two grade-school daughters at the time, also didn’t want money complicating her relationship with her children’s father.
“I never wanted him to be able to say, ‘I can’t spend time with the kids because I have to work long hours to support you,’” says Lin, who at the time of the split worked part-time as a school office manager for $20 per hour.
Today, she says, she has a very friendly relationship with her ex, who “is an amazing father now,” while he was only marginally involved while married.
If you receive alimony, your ex is likely really angry about it. He will question all your lifestyle choices, want to know why you are not earning more yourself, and be resentful of any man who comes into your life — especially if you live together or otherwise share expenses.
All of this makes it so much harder to co-parent. So much more tension, suspicion, and anger — all of which you both need to shed in order to move on with your own lives and come together for your kids.
19. Alimony holds you back professionally, personally and financially
In most courts, you only get child support or alimony if you earn less than your ex. If that is always on your mind, it is easy to consciously or unconsciously earn less in order to qualify for alimony.
That money often makes women less ambitious, less professionally fulfilled, and more resentful of your ex. This is bad for you, a bad example for your children, bad for women, and bad for the pay and wealth gaps.
Meanwhile, plenty of women flip the script. Dana Lin was guaranteed alimony as a stay-at-home mom with a high-earning ex-husband. But she turned it down.
“I was very ambitious and had great earning potential,” says Lin, 43. “I didn’t want anyone to say I couldn’t make it without him.”
Lin pursued her dream of being a screenwriter, today working as a script doctor and ghostwriter. Two years ago with a partner she launched Zen Life Services, which provides stress training management skills to law enforcement employees.
“Living lean taught me to be more disciplined,” she says. “Sometimes if you have too much of a cushion you’re not as aggressive in pursuing your dreams.”
The takeaway? Keep a foot in the workforce, even when your kids are babies.
Accept as fact you have a 50 percent chance of being divorced, and even if your husband seems to fully support heading a one-income household, deep down he likely feels very differently — or eventually will.
Regardless of what everyone feels, the only feelings that really matter are the judge's. And as more women take the ranks of the courts, there is less legal inclination for alimony — especially when the petitioner is an educated woman who chooses not to earn a living.
Bottom line: Get off the alimony gravy train because your choices affect me, and my choices affect you
Nearly 400,000 divorced women receive alimony — a critical topic when considering post-divorce life, feminism, the pay gap, and women's empowerment — financial or otherwise.
I feel very strongly that every single woman (indeed, 97 percent of people who get spousal support are women) should turn down any opportunity for alimony, aka spousal support, as it is a took to keep women to be dependent on men and not take full responsibility for themselves.
None of us live on an island. This is community and society and we are all intertwined. Choices matter, and when you make choices that hurt gender equality, I am hurt by that. All women, children and men are hurt by that. I am responsible to you, and vice versa.
I get the challenges. I appreciate very much that childcare is prohibitively expensive. I recoil at the fact that the United States has some of the worst maternal leave, child care, and health care policies when it comes to working parents.
I work very hard in both my personal and professional lives to change that. I also understand very much the incredible social pressure to stay at home full time with children.
This pressure is rooted in the misconception (some of the numerous relevant studies cited below) that this is what is best for children. I meet many women who make the decision to fully abandon their earning power and become dependent on husbands with genuine belief that this is what is good for their families.
Many others leave the workforce because child care costs make employment unaffordable.
The United States needs vast policy change.
But votes and calls to legislators are not enough.
Each of us is called to make choices for our lives and families that aim for the greater good — including equality for all people. The more educated you are, the more money, access, privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to others to live a life that pushes the envelope for positive change in the world.