I’m not inherently offended by the idea of the “wife bonus” that Wednesday Martin documented in The New York Times and in her upcoming book "Primates of Park Avenue." Martin wrote, “A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good” school’ — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.”
If these bonuses actually exist, are they sexist? To the degree that it’s women being rewarded for doing traditional women’s work, yes, but if you’re going to enter into such an arrangement (whether it’s simply called marriage or a “bonus”), it’s smarter to get it down on paper than simply rely on your husband to fork over cash when you need it—if he feels like it. Perhaps these Upper East Side wives are the ones clamoring to codify their expected tasks so that at least a minimum payment is guaranteed. If so, kudos to them.
In Vogue, Michelle Ruiz asks whether stay-at-home moms deserve a formal salary, instilling the wife bonus with a more official title, and says the real problem is that most women will never see a dime for all the attendant work entailed by household upkeep and mothering. “For every glam stay-at-home, there are plenty of women like her, working overtime around the country—no mom bonus, no negotiation,” she writes.
The biggest problem I see in any of these arrangements is that, just as almost all jobs are now at will, so are relationships, even marriages. So if you stop working when you get married, unless you’ve signed a pre-nup stating exactly how you’ll be taken care of in case of divorce, you have no job security, never mind relationship security. Martin called these bonuses “a modicum of financial independence,” but how much independence can you achieve when you’re, by definition, dependent on someone else to provide it?
As matrimonial lawyer Jacqueline Newman told The Washington Post about rich couples like those Martin profiles as they enter divorce proceedings, “The husbands will say things like, ‘I could raise the kids, but you could never make a million dollars on Wall Street.” That’s where the glamour ends, to my mind.
Beyond the world of ultra-glam charity balls and bonuses, even those making far less can still be subject to the vagaries of their spouse’s generosity, absent getting the terms in writing. I worry when I see peers relying on their mates for basic spending money. I’m not talking about comingling finances or an occasional loan, or even households where households with such income disparity that one person effectively “sponsors” the other’s career, as Ann Bauer notably detailed about her own marriage, but not having any income at all or an easy way to enter or re-enter the job market should one need to. That puts women, no matter how much their husbands earn, at a distinct disadvantage.
As Martin writes, “Access to your husband’s money might feel good. But it can’t buy you the power you get by being the one who earns, hunts or gathers it.” I don’t begrudge these wives their fancy lives, but rather, I worry they might one day find the rug pulled out from under them.
Since moving in with my boyfriend, I’ve done everything in my power to earn as much money as possible, lest I feel in any way beholden to him. Sure, I want to be responsible with my money, but I don’t want to have to answer for every time I make an impulse purchase. That kind of micromanaging would feel too invasive for comfort. For me, having been raised by my mom, while my dad didn’t always pay the child support he owed on time, that’s important to my sense of self-worth. Would I feel differently if my partner earned millions? Perhaps, but even in that scenario, if I didn’t earn any of my own income, I’d be relying on his goodwill, and that imbalance doesn’t sit well with me.
I give the wives getting bonuses credit for playing within the rules of the system they married into. If that’s the only way they can access their husband’s wealth, better to take it than reject it out of a sense of false pride. But hopefully they’re stashing some of it away in case someday, whether out of financial necessity or selfish whimsy, those bonuses disappear.