Love and Money
Love. It will mess us up every time. If I had a dollar for every woman who comes into my office who has placed ultimate importance in life on her personal relationships, putting them in front of her own needs, I could solve world hunger.
Why this happens is an area of intense curiosity for me. I think about it every day. It may be a direct result of socio-cultural norms, the ingrained way women seek a mate to provide for them, even in this day and age. Or it could be because of the chemical makeup of the female brain versus that of the male brain. A result of being, literally, wired differently. Probably, it’s a mixture of both, a spectacular and accidental meeting of the two that has the catastrophic result of lowering women’s status, both in their own minds and in the views of society. It’s a big, hairy idea to tackle, I know, but I think it is worth examining if we are ever going to have the full and equal contribution of women to a world that is desperately in need of us.
So, why do women continually sacrifice their own financial well-being for their relationships?
I have a female pro bono client, aged 68, who gave her son $300,000 to buy a property, which left her with $72,000 for her retirement. She had no loan agreement and had not established a payback plan. Her son, who approached her because the bank would not lend him money (first hint of trouble), cannot pay her back. He is broke. So now she is too. How many women have given up their careers to raise their family, only to have their marriages break down, and are left with few prospects for earning their living after a fifteen year absence from the work force? How many women are scared to ask for a copy of their husband’s tax return or pension statements? How many women cook food they don’t like, clean up messes they don’t make and loan out money they don’t have? Or even worse, how many of us become small so he can be big? Like the vice president of a national bank who has her husband manage their money so he won’t feel threatened. Or the business owner who after thirty years of running it by herself, gave him half of the value of her company on their wedding day. True stories. I have hundreds of them.
It seems that overwhelmingly, women find themselves to be at the low end of this equation, while others in their lives are flourishing. What the heck is going on? Let’s take a peek under our cerebral cortexes to begin with.
In her book, The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine explores the nuances between men and women, and helps to explain how women’s brains – and notably, hormones – cause us to value different things, at different stages of life. The result of these different valuations affects everything – from career decisions, to who we form relationships with. Essentially, Brizendine asserts that the female brain is deeply affected by different hormones and their influence shape a woman’s values and desires. She states that girls have a heightened ability to observe and feel emotional cues from birth, based on studies of babies in a maternity ward. These girls grow up to become women who are more likely than men to incorporate their mother’s nervous system into her own. Because girls are born with the ability to hear emotional tones in voices and the ability to read facial expressions, they are built for connection. We are born for relationships.
Girls and women are then socially programmed to keep the peace and maintain social harmony. Be a “good girl”. Maintaining relationships at all costs is the goal for girls. Add to this equation that men are, on the other hand, roughly twenty times more aggressive than women. No wonder we’re the sex more likely to be dominated. Recognizing the biological differences between men and women helps increase our awareness. Once aware of what is triggering an impulse, we can then choose to act, or not to act, on it. Choice being the operative word here. So, biology accounts for part of the reason women consistently put their needs behind the needs of others, specifically when it means keeping the peace and maintaining the relationships we so desperately seek. But how we are raised also contributes its large share of responsibility.
After years of seeking equality, women still take a back seat to men where money and power are concerned. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg asserts that men still run the world. For proof, look at this fact: Twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.”
The fact that too few workplaces offer the flexibility and access to childcare and parental leave necessary for pursuing a career while raising children, is one part of the problem. But, women have internal barriers that also inhibit us from progressing through the work force into positions of power and leadership. These often, unconscious barriers, are dense and can contribute to us lowering our expectations and continuously compromising our career goals to make room for partners and children. Take the very familiar situation of the stay-at-home mother. I get it – raising children is difficult, particularly in the face of two demanding careers, so staying at home might not only be the path of least resistance, it might look like the only path for the well-being of everyone in the family. But the stay-at-home partner sacrifices something much more than their salary in making the decision to delay or give up their career.
As Sheryl Sandberg asserts, as a society, we can’t afford to lose the contribution of these partners, who are, by and large, women. Yet, the corporate world is created, designed, and run by men, with corresponding male definitions of success and preferences. It’s a language created and determined by men that women don’t speak especially well. The need to conform to this hierarchy, which may be counter-intuitive to women, is part of the reason women don’t rise to the top of the corporate ladder, and drop out of the workforce altogether. The facts speak for themselves. Women account for slightly more than half of the university populations in North America and are equally represented at the entry level of the workforce. Yet by the time that pipeline is filling leadership positions, it is overwhelmingly stocked with men. Suddenly, women have left the building.
It’s impossible to speak about female barriers without talking about fear. Sandberg says, “Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.”
I like to ask my clients, what would you do, who would you be, if you weren’t afraid?
The answers hurt to hear. Lofty goals and high expectations that too frequently fall by the wayside, somewhere between entering the workforce and menopause, causing a dangerous sinkhole in society that swallows women whole.
Staying out of the rut to begin with by maintaining your power by staying in the work force and continuing on a career path, regardless of the various demands of relationships in life, is one solution. But women come into my office everyday who find themselves stuck in a relentless spin of over work at the office or home, who need a way out beyond spinning their wheels, and making a bad situation worse.
I believe there are three courses of action for women who find themselves experiencing the consequences of putting personal relationships ahead of their well-being: change the circumstances, negotiate a better situation, or leave the relationship that is keeping you down.
We need to interrupt the patterns that don’t serve us. So where an imbalance is created by one partner working and the other staying at home, the partner at home might need to start working or maybe even charging for their labour. And perhaps, the other needs to contribute more in the way of traditional household tasks. First, acknowledge the imbalance, next interrupt the pattern. An equal footing will ultimately result in a happier and more productive environment. But don’t expect it to happen easily or without some storms.
It’s not in your best interest to not show up for your life. Eventually, this will catch up with you, whether in the form of unhappiness, low self-esteem, or even, depression. Not to mention financial dependence and insecurity. I want women to claim their place in society, for the betterment of all. I want women to own their biological differences and to make more informed decisions. I want women to sit at the table, the same table where important decisions are being made, whether that’s in corporate culture, in our communities or at the kitchen table. I want women to be able to be women, while having nurturing relationships without having to sacrifice their personal rights and freedoms.
It all starts and ends with our relationships, but let’s not get lost in between.