Risky choices

When Terry Martin Hekker’s Modern Love column (non-select link, thanks to Jody) was published at the start of the month, Mieke emailed me to ask if I was going to blog about it.  I sort of shrugged, and emailed back "She needed a better lawyer; I don’t have much else to say."

I decided to write about it after all after reading Christine’s DotMoms post about her reaction to the article and Ellen Goodman’s commentary.  I was struck by how much Christine reads Hekker’s regrets about her choices as devaluing the housewife role:

"But, what’s wrong with being a housewife? Why do I feel a sense of inadequacy, a sense of broken dreams when I utter the term?"

I don’t think Hekker’s saying that either caring for her children or the volunteer work that she did when they were in school was not worthwhile, or in any way diminished her as a human being.  (In fact, she explicitly says that she wishes she had furthered her education after her youngest child started school.) She’s just saying that the sense of accomplishment she got won’t pay her rent.

Does the risk involved in stepping out of the labor force mean that no one should do it?  Of course not.  People do financially risky things all the time — from quitting corporate jobs to become schoolteachers, to starting their own businesses, to taking low-paid but flexible jobs so that they can work on a novel. 

As Anne and Laura pointed out when the article first came out, there are plenty of things that one can do to cushion the financial risks involved in being a SAHP, from signing a pre- or post-nuptual agreement spelling out the breadwinner’s obligations to keeping up your professional skills.  Warren and Tyagi would add that you should be keeping your fixed costs as low as possible, to increase the odds that the SAHP could cover them by returning to work if needed.  (They encourage families to consider having non-working adults seek employment if fixed costs are more than 50 percent of family income: "A family that is financially strapped and yet has an able-bodied adult who isn’t even looking for a job is, 9 times out of 10, a family that is living out the consequences of a decision that once made sense — but no longer works.")

I think we’re in denial about how ordinary risk is.  As a result, people often feel like they’re being criticized when someone points out that they’re making a risky choice.  (Alternatively, they feel like they’re special — see the new Peace Corps ad that asks "Has anyone ever called you crazy?")  The response is often denial ("Yes, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, but mine won’t") rather than rational planning.

One time I was taking a self-assessment, and one of the questions was "what’s the riskiest thing you’ve done?"  My answer was having children.  That sounds bizarre, even to me.  How can something so conventional be considered risky?  But parenthood is an irrevocable commitment (much more so than marriage, as I’ve written before) and you don’t know what hand you’re going to be dealt.  And while most of the cards in the deck are good ones, there are some real heartbreakers in the pack.  I once compared being pregnant to being strapped into a rollercoaster as it slowly chugs up the first slope — nothing much is happening, but you know it’s leading up to a wild ride, and it’s too late to get off.

12 Responses to “Risky choices”

  1. landismom Says:

    I agree–and the risk still falls more on women than on men in our society. It’s not unheard of for a dad to get/seek custody in a divorce, but it’s clearly not the norm (yet). Which means for many women, making one risky choice on top of another (like having kids and then staying home with them) means they are in a much worse place when the unthinkable happens. And that’s pretty sad. I work for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important of them is that both my dh and I grew up in divorced families, and I know that the odds of our marriage surviving are pretty good, but they’re nowhere near 100%.

  2. Maria Wood Says:

    Great pregnancy metaphor.

  3. amy Says:

    Sure. And a regret like Hekker’s only makes sense if you have normal, healthy kids. I’ve got a friend whose first child has a fairly severe autism-spectrum disorder, so “all children in school” in no way frees them to run out and earn like crazy. They’ll be helping that kid with his homework, fighting school admins, and running around to various therapists till he’s grown, and who knows what after that. I don’t believe any kind of warning shows up on the EPT stick about that.

  4. Jody Says:

    Elizabeth,
    A technical note which you should feel free to delete from comments: there is a New York Times RSS link generator available on-line at http://nytimes.blogspace.com/genlink
    You need to use the original link to use the generator (the one that’s live for seven days after original publication), so I either bookmark the RSS links against the possibility of future blogging (I refuse to tell you how many of those links sit ignored in my bookmarks file) or I do a technorati search until I find someone who used the original link. Then I generate the RSS link, which is good in perpetuity.
    I’ve done that for the Hekker article, and then I made it a tiny URL for this comment:
    http://tinyurl.com/d86jd
    Took me about three minutes.
    I figured this out when I updated my selective reduction files and wanted to provide an active link to the original Amy Richards piece that got my knickers in a knot.
    As for the actual topic (insert rueful smile), I agree with everything you say. Whole-heartedly. But that didn’t stop me from having a three-hour fight with my husband about some of the finer points of marital inequality that result when men exempt themselves from the demands of feminist action. Sigh.
    Cheers,
    Jody

  5. Moxie Says:

    Jody, how did I know the tip about using RSS to game the system was from you even before I saw your name? I would not want to be your enemy, that’s for sure.
    Elizabeth, this was a great post. So good, in fact, that I’m having a hard time formulating a response.

  6. CGG Says:

    What struck me about the Hekker piece was how much it sounded like women I know, most notably my own mother. A better lawyer probably would have helped her out financially, but not emotionally. I think a lot, not all but a lot, of women who chose to opt out of the workforce do have that mindset. I like where you’re going with viewing being a stay at home parent as a financial risk.

  7. No Nym Says:

    It would be interesting to look at SAHPs and see if, in aggregate, the risk of not earning money paid off in the long run. Having one parent stay home might be a satisficing heuristic.
    If it tends to pay off, the issue would be how to diversify the portfolio. One could use asset allocation techniques to monetize part time work, savings, etc. The heuristics typically offered, such as “save 20%” may be suboptimal. More or less savings and ongoing education might be needed to offset the risks of being a SAHP.
    Alternatively, one might start selling divorce insurance.

  8. amy Says:

    Divorce insurance…I’m taken with the idea, but in the end I don’t think it’d work unless you were talking about a giant lump that could be annuitized meaningfully in the event of divorce. Otherwise you’re left with the same old problems — divorced SAHP lacks job skills, CV, dewy complexion. I’m also not sure how it’d work actuarily, since most marriages that fail fail early, before the co. has a chance to collect offsetting premiums. Add that to high divorce rate, and I don’t see immediately where the money is for the insurance co.

  9. amy Says:

    sorry double. Just to give you a sense of scale for what the premiums might cost even if divorce rates were low for the first 20 years of marriage: Because of my husband’s disability, I’m buying about $2M worth of life insurance. If I died, it’d pay off a small mortgage plus college for one child, plus about $100-150K/yr to replace much of my work (nanny, pt housekeeper, handyman, legal, accounting) here in this low-cost-of-living town. The annuitized lump would only last about 15 years.
    Term premiums run about $1500/yr. I’m under 40, healthy, fit, statistically unlikely to die during the policy’s 15-year term. Consider then what it might cost to get a divorce-insurance lump that’d pay out substantially for, oh, 35 years. I think few people would be able to afford the premiums, even if divorce were unlikely.

  10. Sarah Says:

    The imagery of pregnancy as a roller coaster has captured my imagination. And the Hekker piece has bothered me about the lawyer issue as well. But maybe as the SAHP, I am too optimistic.

  11. Elizabeth Says:

    The idea of divorce insurance is interesting, but impossible because of the moral hazard/assymetric information issues. No one will ever insure you against something that you can control when it happens.
    As a society, we do have a form of divorce insurance — the spousal benefit under social security, which you can receive if you’re divorced after being married for at least 10 years. Does it sustain people at the standard of living to which they’re accustomed? No. But it prevents older divorced women from being penniless.

  12. dave s Says:

    Hekker got herself a nice publication in the NY Times. And it makes her point very nicely. It’s been a while since I read it, and it’s behind a pay wall now, but, from memory –
    Some things may not add up – she and her husband put five kids through college, how much is left for any couple after they have done that? The mister went off on a nice vacation (with the new girlfriend) after the divorce, and she sold her ring to pay for a new roof – so this says she kept the house, not too bad. They were in their sixties, so neither of them likely had a lot of forward earning potential – if they had stayed together they might have been scrabbling a bit, too. She said he was an alcoholic – again, not a suggestion that says money would be sluicing in on his side.
    There’s a lot we don’t know, from reading the article. We know she felt betrayed, and it seems to me she was betrayed. We know that she feels she ought have gotten out more after her youngest got out of college, and that seems right to me whether or not the marriage cratered. Elizabeth, I think you have it wholly right when you note that ‘..we’re in denial about how ordinary risk is..’ – we have managed to lessen the risk exposure of ordinary people in a whole lot of areas, and then when a car gets side-swiped and someone dies or a marriage ends or there is a not-normal child after a complicated delivery we tend to think there has to have been some way to fix it, and sometimes there’s not.

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