At the end of May, Melissa Miller and Julia McFarlane were awarded windfall payouts from their ex-husbands in a ruling announced as “the most important divorce judgement for 20 years.”
The Law Lords’ decision to award Miller £5 million after less than three years of a childless marriage, and McFarlane £250,000 a year for “as long as she needs it,” plus the £1.5 million family home, was feted as “a new definition of fairness.” It certainly was.
The key words, studded throughout these cases like buckshot, were “sacrifice” and “compensation”. These terms are so loaded you can almost hear them groan under the weight. By giving up a career, the homemaker, so the argument goes, has made a “sacrifice” and deserves to be “compensated.” But what underpins this is the idea that it is only the homemaker who has made a sacrifice. And, more specifically, that as the homemaker is usually a woman, that she had less choice than her husband in whether or not she made that sacrifice. The rulings are, at least in part, based on the dubious equation that the wife makes a home primarily for her husband, and that the husband has a career primarily for himself.
Clearly, no one should be left un-provided for at the end of a marriage. But in the drive to improve the status of women, there has been no consideration of the expectations that are shouldered by men.
The idea that Ms. Miller, a 36-year-old, able-bodied woman, who gave up work to marry a multi-millionaire, made a “sacrifice” that needs “compensation” is risible. As for Ms. McFaralane, are we seriously to believe that a high-flying female executive, honed in the arts of boardroom combat, was suddenly transformed into a meek wife who shuffled off to the kitchen because her husband told her to? Many high profile women give up careers gladly because they are yearning for children, they have had enough of the corporate rat race (at least for now), or their husband’s salary makes it feasible.
For every stay at home mum who has “sacrificed” a career to build a family, there is a working dad who staggers to the office each day, bent double under the pressure of financial responsibility — put upon him not least of all by the demands of his wife — and who barely gets to see his kids, or the home he pays for, because he is working crushing hours at a soul destroying job. This, we are told, isn’t a sacrifice, but a privilege. In this one-sided view, the breadwinner isn’t working himself into an early grave to support his wife; he is afforded the privilege of going to work everyday through support of his wife. And now, when the divorce papers come through, we can be sure that he will be appropriately penalized for that privilege.
The idea that men go to work because they enjoy it, and not because of the crushing demands of supporting their families, would be laughable if it were not so grossly unjust.
And the dads with office jobs are the lucky ones. The rulings are most grave, and in their premise of female sacrifice and male privilege, most contemptuous, in relation to the men who work filthy, hard, dangerous jobs to provide for their families. Are we saying to the thousands of men who are dying of asbestosis, or who are crippled from a lifetime of lifting concrete blocks, that their wives, who sit safely at home, are the ones who make the greatest sacrifice for the welfare of their families?
All that remains is the question of choice. If women have less choice over which sacrifices they make, there is an argument for compensation. But do they have less choice?
What if dad turned round and told mum that she should go out to work, while he enjoyed the formative years of their children’s lives? Some mothers might say yes, most absolutely would not. An Equal Opportunities Commission survey found that even though 7 out of 10 fathers said that they would like to take on a greater role in caring for their children, less than half of mothers said that they would want them to. And it is a matter of law that mothers, in fact, have greater choice over whether to stay at home or go back to work than fathers. Under current employment law, a woman is entitled to full year’s maternity leave, the first 26 of which are paid. Dads, however, get two weeks.
While mum can rely on dad to bear primary financial responsibility, she has the choice to stay at home, or go out to work, or balance the two. The father simply has to keep the cheques coming.
We are told daily of the problems faced by working mothers juggling personal and maternal needs. What doesn’t get discussed is what fathers might need. The fact is that while men are forced to stay at work, it is exactly their lack of choice that is subsidizing the choices of their partners. Miller and McFarlane are now to be compensated for choices they freely made and that were not available to their husbands. This isn’t compensation for sacrifice, it’s reward for privilege.
Men are in a double bind. They are expected to support the decision of their wife to become a mother, but are then told that they are chauvinists for standing in the way of their spouse’s career. They are required to work long hours to be providers, but then held in contempt for not being fathers. The up shot is that they are respected and valued as neither.
Perhaps what is most shocking, however, is that there is so little concern about what all of this might be doing to men. With ever more marriages ending in divorce, more and more men are being excluded from their homes, shut out of the lives of their children, and pushed into financial crisis to support it all. Throughout, they are subjected to a ceaseless media campaign that casts them on a spectrum that leads from inadequate to evil. Has no one considered that any of this might be contributing to suicide being the leading cause of death between 15 to 35 year old men – the ages when most men are having families?
But then again, that statistic raises so little national alarm that it’s hardly surprising no one cares too much about what causes it either.