I was about to fire off a comment deriding the author for preaching such sexist pap when I had a flashback. Unlike the examples given in the article, my little lie was not to conceal extravagant indulgences from hubby but the unexpected expense of emergency surgery for Pretzel, our newly adopted, sweet little mixed breed puppy. Still, the principle was the same. I knew my husband would croak if I’d spent $1000 on surgery for a puppy we’d found at the pound.
When I heard the screech of brakes and the howl of agony my stomach dropped. I knew it was Pretzel. She must have slipped out unnoticed when the kids left for school. When I rushed to the rescue and found her suffering but alive, I scooped up that limp fluff of golden brown fur, wrapped her in a blanket, got in the car and headed straight to the vet. The news was good. She’d be fine, but she needed hip replacement surgery. I blanched when I heard the cost. I knew my practical spouse would see this incident as unfortunate, even sad, but the proposed expenditure? Out of the question. How would I get that sum together without telling my husband?
“Could I pay in installments?” I asked. Yes, me, an affluent middle-aged woman. Cash in hand, I made secret stops at the vet’s office for months. As for hubby, I came up with another little lie: a sum for the surgery that hubby could swallow. One “pretty little lie” followed another: When he noticed my expenses were higher than usual I made up something – a designer dress or a spa day – to explain it away.
When the canine calamity happened I’d just left my 80-year-old mother’s hospital bedside in Dallas to come home to Houston for a few days. Mom had fallen down a flight of stairs at an art museum, breaking – you guessed it – her hip. The morning after her emergency hip replacement procedure, her arrogant surgeon (is that redundant?), a doctor who’d never seen this patient before, had declared her “not a candidate for rehab.” Evidently this big-headed, pig-headed genius had never encountered an elderly patient hallucinating in the aftermath of anesthesia.
Oh no, I thought, I won’t let him have the final word. I dialed a neighbor who happened to be a world-renowned rehab specialist. “The doctor won’t give my Mom a chance to walk again,” I told him. “Can you find a spot for her in Houston?” He came through. The puppy’s hip fracture occurred while I was waiting for my mother to be released to my care. Pretzel hobbled around in a cast for a while but regained full mobility. Mom walked out of the rehab hospital.
Men. Holding me hostage, because I had no control over our family’s finances, no money of my own and no authority to challenge a surgeon’s decree. When my mother’s well being was at stake, that didn’t stop me; I was no stranger to challenging authority.
Another flashback brought a childhood memory: Each day when Dad left for work he’d ask Mom, “Need some cash?” She never said no. Over time she squirreled away a sizeable surplus in her dresser drawer. Her not-so-secret stash covered occasional splurges, or gifts for Dad on birthdays and anniversaries. And gave this adult woman the dignity of discretionary spending.
Speaking of “little lies,” although my male boss in a federal agency couldn’t legally ask if I planned to return to work after our first baby arrived, over and over again in his folksy, fatherly way he’d say things like, “You’re leaning toward being a full-time mom, right?” I had to look him in the eye and lie to protect the maternity benefits I’d earned. At least I didn’t lose my job; until 1978 women could be fired for being pregnant. Public policy bred deceit: until most states adopted no-fault divorce (2010 in New York!), even if both parties wanted out, they had to concoct a pretense for dissolving a marriage,
After I entered holy matrimony, since banks wouldn’t issue a credit card to me in my name, my CPA husband and I shared an American Express card. Each month he’d review the statement and ask questions like: “Was the $85 charge from Elite Salon and Spa yours?” Beyond annoying, those niggling little questions were demeaning.
At mid-life, although I needed my husband’s signature to apply, I acquired my own credit card. It was in my name, right? Still, the statements were addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.” The same for charge accounts. Even on joint bank and charge accounts the mail was addressed to the man of the house; wives were considered “authorized users.”
In 1961, when President Kennedy established the Commission on Women, he said, “We want to be sure that women … can provide a better life for our people, in addition to meeting their primary responsibility, which is in the home.” Jackie must’ve loved hearing that.The same thinking prevented women from serving on juries. Who would care for their families?
Maybe the article offering women tips on how to hide pricey purchases from hubby is still needed. How sad is that? Big Little Lies, a novel and award-winning TV series, explores society’s glorification of marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship. The book and its small-screen spinoff reveal the lengths to which women go to conceal their misery. Why? At what risk to themselves and their families? The pretty little lies we tell our husbands often lead to big lies we keep – about domestic violence, addiction, and more.
I was a kept woman. Before I returned to the workforce, eventually earning more than my husband, I traded my personal dignity for comfort, security and social status. I awakened with a vengeance – that’s just the word for it – after the second women’s movement. Wearing my volunteer hat, I launched and led an adult literacy initiative in ten cities. In Houston where I resided, the mayor and city council took note and adopted the plan I’d crafted for a new agency to open and operate high-tech adult learning centers. Without consulting me, they named me the Executive Director. Me, an at-home mom and volunteer leader.
What? They hadn’t consulted me – they’d seen me bring the issue forward and take a leadership role on the mayor’s literacy task force. They knew I’d drafted the plan the task force adopted but overlooked the fact that I was, unlike my task force colleagues, a volunteer.
Although we hadn’t expected this development, my family and I took stock of the situation. Could I grab the opportunity they’d handed me? My husband’s career had flamed out. He’d watched my idea pick up steam over three years. Like an idea hatched in the proverbial Silicon Valley garage, I’d tested and tweaked the model, and found powerful allies to fend off challenges by the old guard as the idea gained momentum. Now, amazingly, I had the chance disrupt the status quo, to replace old, ineffectual one-one-one tutoring programs with high-tech, instructor-led neighborhood learning centers. “You made this happen. You should do it,” my husband urged.
My heart felt like an old flame was whispering, “Come back to me.” But my head heard my mother urging, “Whatever you do, be there when the kids get home from school.” I’d channeled that warning. Our youngest was about to enter first grade. “What about Jake?” I worried.
“We’ll help,” our teen daughters chimed in. “Dad’s here during the day, he can shop and cook, and we’ll get home from school before Jake. We can help with carpooling and babysitting. Go for it, Mom!”
After a 17-year time-out, I swapped socks and sneakers for pantyhose and pumps and returned to the workforce. And yes, Mary Tyler Moore’s hat-tossing moment flashed through my mind as I entered the downtown office tower, exited the elevator on the 19th floor, and headed for a mahogany and leather-clad space loaned by a high-profile law firm.
The commission was blessed but not funded by our elected leaders. I secured a grant to cover a modest salary for me. Why modest? The long gap in my work history. I had no recent salary to match. That practice would come back to hobble me again years later when I landed a plum job in the nation’s capital. What lured me and my family to Washington? The chance for me to lead and shape a new U.S. program intended to be the showcase for a global non-profit promoting social entrepreneurs.
Did I earn what I was worth? C’mon. The compensation discussion began and ended with “What was your last salary?” How many women have been trapped into below-market rate salaries by that question? Happily, that practice is losing favor. New York City has banned questions about salary history. Announcing the new policy, Mayor Bill de Blasio said it would end discrimination resulting in women getting lower pay than men when switching jobs. Women have also been lowballed, as I was, on the assumption that a married woman is not the chief wage earner. No one asked, but my husband had retired. We needed my salary.
We’re on the cusp of another women’s movement. Maybe this time we’ll gain control of our financial security, advance in the workplace on our merits, and, if we need or want to, support our children and ourselves by establishing our own households. No need to lie to hubby about matters large or small. No need to deceive the boss, who might well be a woman with children. Women will have the weight of equal rights on our side of the seesaw. At home. At work. In the public sphere.
Barbara, what a wonderful story. Although I have had to work my entire adult life, I can clearly identify with this story. I recall being rejected when I applied for a Sears credit card before I had a husband. I remember when my boss told me that men got larger raises, because they had to take care of their families. At the time I was divorced and a single mom – no child support. All of that changed as the laws changed, but so many of us had to put up with it. I never had to lie about what I bought or how much I spent, but I empathize with those who were put in that position. Thank you for sharing your story.
BRAVO! Thanks for bringing your tale all the way into the greatly enlarged present time! Still far to go, yes, but with models like you times will keep on changing! One of the funnest things happening in these grim times!
blessings and carry on!
What a beautifully written, touching, and inspiring essay. Barbara deftly points out wry twists of fate that will stay with me: the dog and Barbara’s mother both needing hip surgery at the same time and rescued in different ways; the way women were kept financially dependent on their husbands, even if they earned more money; and the error in a newspaper that gave Barbara a wonderful professional opportunity and much needed income to support her family–but at an unfairly low salary. These vignettes remind me not to take anything for granted, and at the same time to be grateful for the countless number of people who lie (often putting themselves in peril) in order to make the world a better place.
Thank you, Barbara Kazdan, for a fine piece. As a women’s historian, I was especially interested to see how the limitations–legal and otherwise–that I often described in lectures actually played out in one woman’s life. If I were still teaching, I’d assign it!
Thanks for the eye opening essay.
I have no idea of the soul draining aspects of having to lie about spending money.
My mother was one of the first women pharmacists/pharmacy owners in the USA, and while married to a doctor, she always taught me to have my own money. As a trooper in the second wave and one of the first women consultants at McKinsey, I can say I have never taken a cent from a man except what they paid for on dates.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. Sounds like you had a great role model.