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An Ex to Grind
Let me begin with a few words of caution for women in their thirties and younger: if you think sexual equality is a nonissue, a relic from your mother's or grandmother's bra-burning past, a subject that's so yesterday, think again. The debate over it is back in a new and particularly insidious form, and I need to warn you about it. Please don't groan and say, "Sexual equality? She must be an alarmist." I know what I'm talking about.
You see, this isn't about whether women can succeed in the workplace. That's a given. It's about whether our success has cost us; about whether the fact that we're running companies and winning Senate seats and performing delicate brain surgeries has made us vulnerable to men who will glom onto us for our bucks, not our boobs.
I'll be specific. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman in the once-male-dominated field of financial planning, pulling in a high six figures as a vice president at the Manhattan-based investment firm of Pierce, Shelley and Steinberg. I was well regarded and well compensated, because I was good at helping my already wealthy clients become more wealthy. The sexual equality thing never crossed my mind.
But then something snapped me out of my complacence. I began to notice that with women grabbing more and more of the big-ticket jobs, men were being relegated to the so-called pinkcollar ones. Suddenly, women were the doctors, the lawyers, and the college presidents, and men were the nurses, the paralegals, and the librarians. We were undergoing a seismic shift in our culture, and I realized there had to be a consequence.
Well, there has been a consequence. Men, discouraged byour growing dominance, are starting to shrug their shoulders and drop out of the workforce altogether, leaving it to us to support them. Take a look around if you don't believe me. Ask your friends. It's happening, and it's throwing off the balance, impacting both the way we hook up and the way we break up.
This still isn't hitting home for you? To be honest, it didn't hit home for me until it hit my home.
In the early years of my thirteen-year marriage, my exhusband was the breadwinner. Then his career ended abruptly, and I became the breadwinner. At first I wasn't concerned about our change in roles. A study had just been released reporting that wives were outearning their spouses in over a third of households, so I knew I wasn't the only woman bringing home 3 the bacon. I accepted the fact that if you're the partner who's up, you should assume responsibility for the partner who's down, no matter which gender you are.
But then my ex-husband's bout with unemployment became chronic, which is to say that he didn't lift a finger to find himself a new career. The marriage unraveled. We couldn't handle the role changes after all. But as distressing as that was, the divorce was worse. Why? Because I got stuck assuming responsibility for the partner who was down, ev en though we were no longer partners!
I was forced not only to hand over a huge chunk of my assets to my ex but to pay him alimony too. "Maintenance" they call it in New York state. Whatever. We're talking about me having to write checks to the guy every month for eight years. I was a good and generous person who gave to numerous charities and never cheated anybody out of anything. But this? Well, I balked, to put it mildly.
Maybe you're thinking that if we're the big achievers now, we should stop whining and just fork over the cash in the divorce. But here's the thing: when it's your turn, you won't want to fork over the cash any more than men did when they were hogging the power seat.
Did I go to extremes in my effort to wriggle out of my legal obligation to my ex? Sure. Do I regret what I did to him? Deeply. But I was caught up in that nutty fantasy about menthat even as we're out there conquering the world, they're supposed to be the strong ones, capable of rescuing us, or, at the very least, providing for us.
It's all so confusing, isn't it? Well, maybe this little story of mine will help sort things out.
Or maybe it'll simply confirm that equality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholden.
Sign here," said my d iv orce a ttorney, Robin Baylor, a fortysomething black woman with impeccable credentials. Harvard for her undergraduate degree. Yale for law school. Louis Licari for the auburn highlights that were expertly woven through her short, spiky hair. The two of us were sitting in her elegantly appointed, wood-paneled conference room at a table the length of a city block. She had just passed me the gazillionth document pertaining to Melanie Banks (me) vs. Dan Swain (my ex). "It's the last one," she announced.
"Promise?" I said with pleading eyes as I glanced at the huge file she had on Dan and me. So much paper. Such a waste of trees.
"Trust me, yours wasn't as complicated as some," she said, and she wasn't kidding. She'd handled my friend Karen's divorce, which became a truly unsavory affair after it was revealed that Karen's ex was not only an insider trader with the SEC breathing down his neck but also a bigamist with two families on opposite coasts. "You've waited out the year of legal separation, and now you're just signing the conversion documents. Once these are filed, you're divorced. Case closed."
"Closed?" I said. "I wish. Thanks to this settlement, I'm tied to Dan for seven more years.Having to pay him while we were separated was no picnic, but having to write him checks for the next . . . Well, the whole thing makes me sick." An Ex to Grind. Copyright � by Jane Heller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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