Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sophie the Giraffe, the Division of Labor, and Economic Independence

I bought a Sophie the Giraffe teether today. In short, I gave in to peer pressure. I can give you some of my rationale behind this purchase--my daughter is teething and chews on everything, I read excellent reviews (seriously, go read the Amazon reviews; people are in love with Sophie), it was cute, etc. But the real reason I spent 20 dollars on a little rubber giraffe is because I gave into the hype. What with Slate articles and an entire week devoted to Sophie-worship on the Bump message boards, I was curious. 

For what it's worth, my daughter seems to love her, but that's not what I'm writing about.

See, Sophie got me thinking. Some of the Sophie-related messages on the Bump  contained confessions. Some of the women had snuck around to buy Sophie, hiding their purchase from their husbands. These women confessed to wrapping Sophie up and pretending she'd been a gift. They were hiding receipts. Lying. To their husbands. About a rubber giraffe.

It reminded me of a childhood memory. I was in Walmart with my mom and aunt, and my aunt was buying River Rapid sandals for my cousins. My mom wanted to get me and my sister some, but she was terrified of what would happen if she spent over her weekly allowance and my dad found out. She ended up buying the shoes, but I remember being coached to not point them out and to not mention the price under any circumstances (and this was at Walmart, remember, so it's not like she'd just blown the mortgage payment on some child-sized Jimmy Choo's).

My mom left the workforce when I was born, and she didn't return until she divorced my dad twelve years later. By the time she had any economic independence, the budget of raising three kids by herself was almost as much of a restraint as my dad's rules ever were.

Maybe part of my drive to work is a reaction against watching this play out as a child, but I really don't understand the cultural norm of women as the "spenders." Of course, this is set against the backdrop of men as the "earners," and that's clearly engrained in the traditional division of labor. But it just seems to cut so deep.

I'm not talking about people with shopping addictions who go out and spend hundreds of dollars on credit every weekend. I'm not talking about major purchases that clearly ought to be discussed as a couple no matter who's earning the money. I'm talking about $20--the price of a few fancy coffees or a haircut. If you can't spend $20 without feeling you have to hide it from your spouse, I feel like that's an indicator of a serious power deficit.

And money is powerful, but often in the wrong ways. This whole discussion makes me think of the idea (constantly portrayed in pop culture) that men must show women their value through material purchases. If you love a woman, the message tells you, you need to show her with cash. Buy that sparkly bracelet, the most expensive bouquet of flowers.  Entire industries are built on this concept.

And it's a message that's particularly prevalent in contemporary music.

Consider Mary J. Blige's lyrics from "We Ride":
"Now fellas if you got a girl and she treats you right/ain't you gonna spend every dollar, every cent/Ain't you gonna make sure she stay fly"
Which is at least, you know, positive I guess. But there's a very dark flip-side to this kind of valuing, and I think we see it really well in Pusha T's lyrics from Kanye's song "Runaway":
"Split and go where? Back to wearin' knockoffs? Ha, Knock it off/Neiman, shop it off/Let's talk over mai tais, waitress, top it off/Hoes like vultures, wanna fly in your Freddy loafers/You can't blame 'em, they ain't never seen Versace sofas/Every bag, every blouse, every bracelet, comes with a price tag, baby face it/You should leave if you can't accept the basics/Plenty hoes in a baller nigga's matrix"
See, if your value becomes represented by things, then your value is easily transferable and easily diminished.

And if you have to ask for permission to make a purchase (which again, is different from making a joint decision on a purchase), then you are not an equal player in your household. You're just not.

I know that stay-at-home mother's are perfectly capable of having equitable economic arrangements, but I do think that one of my motivator's for working is knowing that I have the economic independence to make purchases without calling into question who controls the cash flow.


  1. I have those memories too (but with my mom and stepfather, and *when she was working full-time*--even after he was no longer working at all). That memory of financial abuse made me VERY careful about how we set up the ground rules and our financial arrangements as a couple. I need to have my own money and not feel accountable to anyone else about how I spend it.

    For me, that has very little to do with whether I work or not--but a great deal to do with how we count whose money is whose, what's a joint expense, etc. (and having separate accounts for non-joint-expense/non-necessity spending).

  2. This is a really fascinating post, and it's something that doesn't get discussed nearly enough. I have major spending anxiety, but I think the pressure comes more from me than from my husband. Still, I never spend any money on non-essential items in front of him. It's not that I think he would care, but there is definitely a load of guilt involved on my end. I'm in graduate school, so even though I'm in my late 20's, I make less per year than it cost to pay for my undergrad education per year. My husband makes three times as much as me. So even though we have equal amounts of free time, I can't help but feel like I need to make up for my economic deficiency by working extra hard around the house. And yes, when it comes to personal, non-essential purchases, I feel incredibly guilty to the point of hiding purchases.

    I don't remember my mom ever behaving this way. She never hid new purchases and even showed them off rather proudly when dad came home at night. Yet the income breakdown in her house was proportionate to my own (1-3). The difference seems to be that in my parents' home, my mom was not expected to work. My parents saw providing for the family as entirely dad's domain, so anything my mom earned was "extra" and spent as such. I'm not trying to blame feminism for my guilt, but since I see myself as needing to be "equal" with my husband, I also feel like I need to contribute 50% of the income before I can stop bearing the brunt of the housework or feeling guilty about what I spend.