The other day I had to ask my husband to spot me $20. He smiled and shrugged nonchalantly as he reached into his wallet. This scenario had become the norm in our house after I stopped working to stay home and care for our two young daughters. This scenario was beginning to bother me, as it was a blatant reminder of: 1) my lack of financial independence; 2) my impulsive tendency to spend and thus my inability to save money; and 3) the (growing) imbalance in our partnership.
Women and men alike, in 2016, are often uncomfortable talking about an issue that we believed to be long gone in society. Many women today hold positions that were once thought unattainable for our gender. Women everywhere are fighting for equal pay. Several women I know have a Masters or PhD. We are moving in the right direction. Or so I thought. I have completed a higher level of education than my husband yet here we are living like it’s 1956.
This didn’t happen overnight, nor was it an imposed upon idea. My husband and I made the decision together five years ago when I became pregnant with our oldest daughter Cali that I would stay home until she was in school full time. I had been raised in a merry go round of daycares from ages two thru four as my single mom did her best to balance full time work and parenthood. I didn’t want the same for my daughter.
From the moment we got together, ten years ago, my husband’s job as a diplomat determined where we would live and for how long. This ensured an unpredictable professional path for me, and little to no job security. I was on board because I was madly in love and have a wanderlust nature and two very transportable skills – teaching and writing. I foolishly believed that there would always be options.
When we married in 2008 nobody was surprised that I chose this path, as it would allow me to explore countries and cultures all over the world with a man who shared my passion for adventure. We support each other emotionally, and tend to be each other’s sounding board on all things personal and professional. Before babies entered the picture, we were equally earning and enjoying financial partnership. We both paid for dinners out, trips to Bali and the down payment on our first house. I still had savings in 2013 when our second daughter, Elle, was born.
And then something unexpected happened. I became consumed by and lost in the role of stay-at-home parenting. I gave everything to everyone – my love, my energy, my body, and my mind – all while allowing the most important thing (me) to fall to the sidelines. This neglect of self was not intentional. I would escape my exhaustion thru online shopping while the baby napped, spending on items I didn’t love nor need. I mistakenly believed that these things would fulfill the missing link in my life. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the most important item was myself; where I fit in outside of my role as a mother and wife.
I was still writing and being published, which was great but didn’t help pay the bills. We were living on one salary, and for the first time, we were stressed about money. My response was to spend more. I ploughed thru my savings in a year-and-a-half. It’s not something I’m proud to share. As an adult woman who over the years watched my mother work hard to give me everything – new clothes, dance classes, holidays abroad and a post-graduate education I should know better.
In January of this year I realized that I did not have my own money to buy a birthday gift for my husband. He knew this, gave me $50 and said, “Go buy me something you think I might like.” It was pitiful. I could sense his disappointment. But it was nowhere near the magnitude of shame I felt when he donated ten dollars towards our four-year-olds dance-a-thon fundraiser event at school. As he put the money in the envelope Cali looked at us and asked, “Why doesn’t mommy have her own money?” Even our four-year-old understood that daddy is in charge of money in our house. I had hit financial rock bottom. But sometimes hitting rock bottom is what shakes us out of a rut.
The above two events is what pushed me towards the realization that I needed to instigate the change that would move me towards financial independence. The next occurred early in the New Year when Cali brought home a class book project in which each student said what career they would like to have when they grow up. There on the big white page was a photo of my daughter holding an awkwardly oversized pencil with the words, “Writer” scrawled across the top. My heart melted and I knew that I needed to make financial independence happen – if not for myself – to model it for my young daughter. I had already modeled for her the importance of pursuing one’s passion – she understood that writing is what her mommy loved to do – now mommy had to find a way to make writing a feasible source of income.
The next push happened during a monthly catch up call with my best friend D. D and I bonded fifteen years ago over vodka shots, techno rave music, and a mutual attraction to Aussie men. She married one and I moved on to marry a German. But our taste in men aside, it was D’s endless stream of positivity that kept us close over the years. No matter the distance between us, we maintain a solid bond with weekly calls and Skype sessions when time zones and kids allow. D has been my biggest cheerleader (after my husband) when it comes to writing. She reads everything I send her, and offers up constructive feedback. When I casually brought up the idea of going back to school she shrieked with joy. I could see her beaming thru the phone line across the country, her eyes lit up like they do when she gets excited about something. “You should totally do it!” she practically screamed into the receiver.
It’s been three months since that conversation with D. Last week, I sat down with my husband and told him I wanted to go back to school. Knowing money was tight, and that we are scheduled to move to Manila this summer, I was unsure of his response. I sensed his hesitation and held my breath. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said matter-of-factly. What? Really? He continued: “We have a lot of expenses coming up with the move, but you’ve been working hard building a portfolio. Writing is something you love and are good at.” Was I asking permission? Kind of; it felt more like a mutual decision.
Before I could commit to a program and the fees involved in such an undertaking, I had to first get real about where that money would come from. In a whirlwind of a week or two, I packed up and sold several pairs of gently used designer shoes and boots on Kijiji, organized and returned the “unloved” and “unnecessary” items to their respective stores, and put together a half dozen bags of clothing that I could bring to any H&M store for five dollars per bag towards future purchases. It was a drop in the bucket, but a move in the right direction nonetheless. We also decided that once settled in Manila, I would begin to look for part-time writing opportunities, which would allow me to balance coursework and practical (paid) hands on experience.
Was I crazy going back to school after forty? Maybe. It was, I believed, crazier to continue this cycle of dependency. The irony is that thirteen years ago, I turned down my acceptance to a Masters in Journalism program. At the time I didn’t have the confidence to pursue writing. The path to professional fulfillment can be a long and winding road. As I research a variety of online programs, I feel both giddy with excitement and fearful of the unknown. I know that freedom, not just financial freedom but personal and professional fulfillment is possible, and that is the best I can model for my two girls.
Image via Tax Credits on flickr
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