EXCERPT: 'The Feminine Mistake'

But my mother paid a high price for these interruptions to her professional life. During a career in book publishing that spanned more than thirty-five years, she worked for three major companies, spending at least a decade at each. As a result, she received three different pensions when she retired. One is for $161.82 a month; one earns her $183.45 a month; and the third brings in $236.75 a month. The grand total of my mother's pension income is $582.02 a month. My father died in 1985, so my mother subsists on her pensions, which add up to $6,984.24 a year, plus her meager Social Security payments. Needless to say, this does not provide a lavish lifestyle.

My own professional history has been very different. Like my mother, I first went to work at the age of sixteen; I held down a full-time job during my senior year in college and began my career at the age of twenty. But I've never taken more than a weekend off between jobs since then. Because there have been no interruptions to my labor-force participation since I came of age, my work history looks much more like that of a man in terms of continuous employment, steadily increasing compensation, and the resulting investment and retirement-planning opportunities. Over the years, my career has become a significant ongoing asset, rather than a temporary source of income that I dip into and drop out of in response to personal considerations. I'm not rich, and you never know what the future might bring, but I am far better prepared to withstand its economic challenges than either my mother or my grandmother ever was.

These days, as I listen to younger women talk about their choices, the echoes of the past reverberate like a Greek chorus in the background—one that many of them seem unable to hear. Occasionally a powerful voice will break through, trying urgently to communicate the dangers that can lie ahead like jagged rocks underneath calm waters, waiting silently to sink an unwary ship.

On New Year's Day 2006, The New York Times published an essay by Terry Martin Hekker, a mother of five who had once crusaded as a self-appointed spokesperson for the joys of being a full-time homemaker. More than a quarter of a century ago, Hekker wrote a book called Ever Since Adam and Eve and made a national tour: "I spoke to rapt audiences about the importance of being there for your children as they grew up, of the satisfactions of 'making a home,' preparing family meals and supporting your hard-working husband," she recalled. "So I was predictably stunned and devastated when, on our 40th wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a divorce."

While her husband took his girlfriend to Cancún, Hekker sold her engagement ring to pay for repairs to the roof of her house. "When I filed my first nonjoint tax return, it triggered the shocking notification that I had become eligible for food stamps," she reported.

Hekker was able to parlay her involvement with the local village board into a stint as mayor of her community—"a challenging, full-time job that paid a whopping annual salary of $8,000," she noted dryly. How many of today's affluent wives would welcome the prospect of spending their later years trying to live on eight thousand dollars a year?

Looking back on her life, Hekker—the grandmother of twelve—said she doesn't regret marrying her husband, because the result was the family she cherishes. What she regrets is having sacrificed her ability to support herself adequately.

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