Katie Holmes: What can we learn from Katie? She is clearly a girl who never stopped thinking about tomorrow. She married a big star, apparently with an ironclad prenup that didn’t rust, and she never gave up her day job. Though some might question the Katie Holmes reference, I am using her to make a point. According to all sorts of tabloids, amongst them People Magazine and The Huffington Post, Katie is walking out of her marriage not just wealthy but prepared to live well with whatever career points she accrued during her short five-year marriage and not much bloodletting on the way out. Katie never stopped thinking about “her tomorrow” and I find that unusual amongst a certain population of women. True Katie was and is a celebrity before, during and likely after Mr. Cruise, so she has a leg up on your average American female. But I think Katie has something else: Vision and Imagination. Katie clearly had the vision to imagine her life, both pre-Tom and post-Tom, as a life in which she could depend upon herself, always. And that is something I have found missing in some of the women I have encountered as a psychotherapist, that ability to both imagine and envision a life on your own, something I consider essential for all women.
Dependent on The Ex: For many years I have observed a recurrent theme amongst my female patients that never seems to fade, no matter the decade, or the current fashionable ethos: the theme of female financial dependence on men. This is particularly striking to me as my professional training dates back to the early 70’s, a time when women around the country were recognizing the dangers of that financial dependency, and were taking up the battle for equal opportunity and equal pay with men which continues to this day. Yet, almost forty years later, I meet with women who willingly gave up their working lives once married and with children only later to find themselves financially dependent, professionally “out of date” and beholden to the kindness of a “stranger” who, once their intimate, is now their “ex.”
Crystal Clear: I must acknowledge that I am working within a limited socioeconomic sample of mostly middle and upper middle class, primarily Caucasian women, usually college educated, which is why, in some ways, this dependency trap is particularly striking to me. One might assume that these ladies would know better. But they don’t. What were the messages that floated out of the college dorms of the 80’s and 90’s? In the late 60’s and 70’s some of us knew that 1.5 children was tops for saving the planet, birth control was our job, and that it would be dangerous to be totally dependent on a man for anything, especially money. Was it the increasing affluence available to families in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first century that clouded female thinking, or the shift to a more child-centered mindset with the ever-increasing reports on how to raise happier and more successful children, that obscured what earlier seemed so crystal clear: that no matter what, women needed to be able to take care of themselves?
No Choice: Two-family incomes have increased over the decades, so many women have gotten the message that being a wage earner is important, perhaps because they have no choice. Their lifestyle and its day-to-day financial pressures requires two incomes. But many of the women with whom I have worked over the years were living in single income households, with the male as the sole breadwinner. They recount to me how, together with their spouse, they decided to stay home to raise their children, forsaking a full-time job without replacing it with a part-time substitute, and often abandoning cherished career goals and accomplishments. When their marriages failed, these women had not earned even a modified income for often as much as two decades. Despite holding responsible volunteer positions in their communities, which required great skill and competence, they had nothing to show to the job world that would be viewed as employable material or job worthy. And more alarming, they often let professional certifications expire, forsook completing graduate degrees, let lapse professional licenses or eschewed continuing training in their fields, a form of self-inflicted obsolescence.
Identity Lost and With It Much Else: No matter how mutual the couple’s original decision to go down the one-income path with the stay-at-home mom, no matter how “mutual” the money earned may seem, ultimately everyone knows who earns it. And a side bar to this theme of female financial dependency is often the loss of identity that many of these women feel, the loss of the image of that working self, and with it, self-respect and self-esteem. Coupled with that is the child/parent imprimatur that can accompany the process of the male wage earner as if “doling” out his earnings to the financially dependent aka “needy” wife/child, joint bank account not withstanding. And if the marriage starts to implode, and often the very roles that each member finds themselves in with this scenario play a significant role in the marriage’s deterioration, then the woman really feels like a fool! “I let this happen and now what am I going to do? How can I take care of myself, have a decent quality of life, when I have spent all these years outside of the work force?” This harsh wakeup call is devastating for these women. On top of feeling that they have “failed” at marriage, they also feel stupid, frightened, unprepared and humiliated for not protecting themselves better.
Even Rich Working Men Can Begin To Resent The Stay-At Home Spouse: There is an additional potential outcome of this female financial dependency: the husband’s perspective. Ironically many of these husbands who may have supported the “stay at home” wife solution “in the best interests of the child” gradually begin to harbor some resentment for what they perceive as their spouse’s life of ease or just an easier life, compared to the demands of their work hours, mortgage responsibilities and rush hour commute. Even the fabulously wealthy male who has no need of an additional income earner in the family “to take some of the pressure off,” may start to denigrate his wife’s lifestyle choices, judging her activities as trivial, self-indulgent or unstimulating. If he is returning from Shanghai, and she is returning from a round of a doubles set on the tennis court, there can be a serious disconnect indeed.
Suggestion Box: Well, I do have some. First never stop thinking about tomorrow in personal/individual terms. The shared life – the “we” – is wonderful but it should never subsume the me/I under it. Every woman has to have vision and imagination to prepare and protect and be all she can be. No man, any man, or child, justifies abrogating the need for developing and sustaining the ability to care for oneself in adulthood. Men know that as boys and never seem to forget it. What happens to some girls? Did they forget that essential learning point or were they never taught it? And female self-responsibility relates to other areas as well, birth control, career choices, balancing parental responsibility and devotion with the need for self-respect, and creating for oneself both stimulation and self-sufficiency independently as well as in connection with others.
Katie Holmes is in some ways a very cool lady. She slipped out of the clutches of what appeared to be a life bordering on institutional control, and out of the hands of a man with great financial power and fame, while still remaining emotionally and financially intact and apparently with primary custody for her child, all in the span of a few weeks. Obviously a great deal of preparation and forethought went into this rather smooth dissolution of a marriage. But what I am recommending has a different slant: put preparation and forethought into planning for your adult female life, and continue that thinking when married and in fact, throughout your lifetime (including the possibility of a prenuptial agreement, even if you are not about to marry a wealthy man) and never stop thinking about tomorrow, your tomorrow. No one else can do that for you.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012