A kept woman

5 March 2016

One of the biggest insults I’ve ever received was being called “a kept woman”. This was second only to being told “thank goodness you have a rich husband”. Both these things were said by women who I would consider to be friends. I’m sure (and very much hope) they were said in jest.

These unflattering descriptions refer to my present life as an expatriate wife. One of the conditions of my Malaysian residence permit is that I am prohibited from working here. It is true that, for the first time since I was 16, I have no formal job of any kind. However, neither I nor my husband would consider me to be “kept” and, as to his being rich, we wouldn’t be here if he was!

I heard another startling comment from an expat at a dinner we attended a while back. When she became aware of my situation, her first reaction was “I would never give my husband a cent” said with a certain amount of vehemence. The subtext of this was “why should your husband keep you?” Once again, I was taken aback but it made me think about why I attract these unwelcome remarks.

We met when we were very young and married a few years after that, when I was a Master’s student and my husband had just completed his Honours degree. We had nothing except our educations and married on overdraft. Since then we’ve always operated as a team and there has never been any “you pay for this” or “I’ll pay for that”. Our finances are all joint – house ownership, bank accounts, bills and expenses. We are each other’s beneficiaries in our wills.

We make all decisions together and, since we became parents, have always put the interests of our children first. A good example of this was our decision to relocate to New Zealand when the children were very young. It was not a good move in purely financial terms. It meant that we had to start again when we were half-way through our working lives and we had to settle for entry level jobs with vastly reduced earning power. But it was life-changing for the girls – they have grown up in a peaceful country where they have had the kind of educational and employment opportunities that would either not have been open to them or been beyond our means to provide had we stayed.

We accepted the company’s proposal of a move to Malaysia after careful consideration. Although it meant giving up my job, it was also a promotion with higher earning capability for Jim. This may give us a chance to retire at some stage, which would be a bonus we couldn’t have anticipated when we gave up our careers and started again at age 40.

If we were to look at our partnership purely in terms of who earns what, my contribution has always been less than Jim’s. And yet in terms of hard work and taking equal responsibility for our family life, my input is not insignificant. Wherever we’ve been, I’ve always found work, usually part-time so that I could fit in the childcare and after-school activities, the housework and meal preparation. Jim has been the bread-winner and my earnings have meant that the girls could have extras like music and dancing lessons, ball dresses and outings with their friends, and we could enjoy holidays, concerts and the occasional meal out as a family.

Though there are only the two of us now, I still do some part-time work (small editing jobs for which I am paid and taxed in New Zealand, I hasten to add) and run our home. If this is what a “kept woman” does, then I do it. My stay-at-home mother used to retort when someone mentioned a woman who worked, “you mean she works outside the home”. The majority of the world’s work in the form of childcare, elder care, cooking and cleaning is done by women. Women who work outside the home bear a disproportionate responsibility for these tasks too. And many of them pay another woman to do the domestic chores they don’t have time for.

I often wonder how other kinds of domestic partnerships work on a practical level. Do some people say “I paid the mortgage this month so you pay for the groceries”? Is there a month-end reckoning? “The mortgage repayments were $5000 and you only paid $2000 for the groceries, so you should pay the power and telco bills too.” Who takes care of the children’s expenses? Do they split the bill when they go out for dinner? Does the woman who would not give her husband a cent split every household expense with him? Is it a source of friction when he eats more than she does or when she uses more laundry powder?

I have been in company with women who complain that their “housekeeping money” has not been increased despite their partners having received an increase in salary. And I remember a colleague mentioning that she hadn’t worn a new dress in case her husband objected to her having spent the money to buy it. Instead it was hidden at the back of her wardrobe.

Haggling over who pays for what depending on who earns what, having to run the household on a fixed amount of money, or having to hide purchases seem humiliating to me. And I’m very glad not to be in such a situation. It also makes me value all the more the partnership we share and puts the hurtful remarks that prompted this rumination into perspective.