Six months after I started dating the man who is now my husband, and one month after we moved in together, he lost his job. The start-up publication Peter worked for shut down with no notice, just as the country was entering the worst recession in 70 years. We had an expensive new lease, a few thousand dollars' worth of furniture we had purchased together, and — suddenly — a single income to support our lives.
A veteran of start-ups myself, I was back in familiar territory; during the 2001 recession, I spent two years looking for a full-time job. So I knew how to handle the money part of the problem: an immediate shift to an austerity budget, with dates set for further cuts — this is when we sell one of the cars, that is when we break the lease and find something cheaper. So we kept our finances in order. But our household was still in a mess.
Remembering well my own humiliation and fear, I encouraged Peter to play video games when he wasn't freelancing or looking for a job, which was the only thing I could think of that might keep his mind off his worries. It probably helped that I understood what he was going through. Although, only to a point. If you're out of a job, even the most supportive partner can't alleviate the agony of not knowing when you will work again. And helpmates, meanwhile, can't assuage their own frustrations and helplessness at watching their loved ones suffer.
I thought of this tangle of emotions whenever I saw another article about the "mancession" that was disproportionately taking jobs away from men. And then again during the "he-covery," as "male" jobs in sectors such as manufacturing rebounded, while female unemployment continued to rise. A recent headline in The Nation asked: "One Mancession Later, Are Women Really Victors in the New Economy?"
Yet outside of battles over who unloads the dishwasher, how do I win if my husband loses? If his income falls, both of us have to cut back on our spending, and by the same amount. If my employer goes under or my industry implodes, I will face the anxiety of wondering whether anyone will ever hire me again. But he'll feel the stress of trying to soothe a frantic spouse and his own panic at supporting the household alone.
Even before we got married and mingled our finances, our interests coincided. There aren't many exciting ways to spend money, after all, without inviting your partner along. And overindulging would have made it even harder to pay the rent.
Every so often, people call into Dave Ramsey's syndicated radio show on personal finance and ask whether they're "on the hook" for a mountain of student loans that a spouse racked up before they met. Dave's reply is always basically the same. "Not legally," he'll say, "but how are you going to have a good life if your husband is broke?"
Of course, not everyone lives in a "traditional" household. One in four now consists of one person, and many others are made up of a gay couple or a single parent with kids.
Over the course of a lifetime, however, most of us will find our fortunes entwined with people of both genders. Most single people will (or have) set up household with a member of the opposite sex; most will have children with them, too. Almost all of us have mothers and fathers whose economic opportunities shaped our own, and brothers and sisters who sooner or later will share the burden of parental care. And regardless of gender, if our parents or siblings or children should find themselves in need, most of us would sacrifice our own money and comfort to help them out.
Women's success in moving into the workplace on equal terms with men counts as one of the greatest advances in human history. But in focusing on women's progress, let's not forget that men and women often share a household — and a life. No man is an island. No woman is either.
The writer is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
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