The ‘cost’ of earning a second income
In the eternal debate between the housewives and working women, many women contend that they have no choice but to work since it is not possible to live comfortably on a single income. While this may certainly be true for those in a lower economic class – women whose husbands have simple jobs like being a cashier or parking attendant – or single mothers, ironically often the women who put forth this argument are those whose husbands are in well-paying, white collar jobs. Of course, a little more money coming in is always useful, but when one considers the overall cost of earning that amount one has to wonder whether it is really worth it.
Consider the Overheads
The obvious economic overhead is the amount required to be spent on child care. Derek Thompson, at The Atlantic, writes: “The Census Bureau has found that child-care expenditures rose more than 40 percent from 1990 to 2011, during a period when middle-class wages stagnated. Since the 1990s, child-care costs have grown twice as fast as overall inflation. In California, the cost of a typical day-care center is now equal to almost half of the median income of a single mother.” This is true for most countries around the world. When one of my relatives working in Australia went back to work, she confessed that nearly her entire salary was being spent in paying the baby sitter, but that she needed to head back to work immediately after having her baby “to stay relevant”.
In Asian countries, hired help is available at relatively low costs. However, the downside is that such untrained workers may end up creating more stress for the working women because they need to constantly supervised and are often unreliable. They may quit or go on leave for days at end without giving adequate notice. Besides this, in countries like India, where the concept of working from home or flexible work hours is not common, families spend a huge amount on extra classes and summer camps, just to keep the children suitably engaged when none of the parent is around to spend time with them. Children as young as 4 or 5 years old are sent to classes after school so that someone will oversee while they do their homework.
Besides child-care, there are other costs such as maintenance of two cars, money spent on clothes, makeup and other accessories to be suitably attired for office, and perhaps even additional medical expenses because of the physical and mental strain of having a full-time job. Food expenses also tend to be more. The family may typically eat breakfast and lunch outside on an everyday basis because the morning rush doesn’t allow them to prepare it at home. This may again add to the doctor’s bill if one is habitually picking up fast food instead of the healthier, more expensive options involving fresh, wholesome food.
This is just the economic cost, but perhaps the most important cost to be considered is psychological. What is the cost paid by the mother when she leaves a sick baby behind? What is the cost of missing the child’s dance recital? What is the cost of not being there to wipe the tears or share the laughter? Only a mother can know the true cost. In one of the episodes of ‘America’s Got Talent’ a comedian decided to be funny by insulting the judges. He pointed to supermodel Heidi Klum and said “Heidi, how is it that you are a mother of four, yet you look like you haven’t spent time with any of them?” His lines were not considered funny, but he certainly hit the jack pot in being insulting. There’s nothing worse than calling a woman a bad mother. Hence the toxic nature of ‘Mommy Wars.’ There’s literally a war: “stay-at-home mothers often criticize office-going moms for neglecting their kids, and working mothers often disparage their at-home counterparts for getting some sort of retro free ride.”
The central issue is the precious relationship between a mother and child. Most working women admit to feeling a gnawing sense of guilt over not spending enough time with their children – which incidentally doesn’t get better even when the children are older. Anne Marie Slaughter resigned from her job as director of policy planning at the State Department in Washington “because of [her] desire to be with [her] family and [her] conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.” Teenagers may not be as demanding of their parent’s time as infants are, but they too need quality as well as quantity time so that they don’t get overwhelmed with peer pressure.
The stage at which children are progressively more responsible and self-sufficient, there’s the added responsibility to take care of aging parents. Last year my father was diagnosed with cancer. I immediately planned two trips one with each of my daughters so that we could spend time with him and give support to my Mum. He passed away soon afterwards. I know that if I had not had the flexibility to up and leave and spend those few weeks with him, the regret would have remained with me for the rest of my life.
Another subtle cost to be considered is the strain that the husband and wife relationship has to undergo when both are working full-time jobs. At the end of a demanding day at work, who is going to pacify who when both are equally tired and still have to face up to dealing with children and any household chores that may be pending? Women typically become resentful of their spouses when they feel they are not doing their bit in the house and men feel irritable when they come home to clutter and a harassed wife. Unsurprisingly, according to a detailed study on relationship of stress and conflict in couples, “marital conflict is especially likely on days that both spouses experience high stress.” This is because “stress may leave people depleted of the energy needed to engage in a meaningful way with their partner.” In fact due to the “‘fight or flight’ response” activated by stress, “stressed spouses may be primed to act aggressively, interpret ambiguous situations negatively, and be more likely to respond with confrontational behavior.” Studies like this serve to emphasize that which is obvious – in today’s highly competitive workplaces if both husband and wife are working full-time, it is almost impossible to not let their work-related stress interfere with their relationship.
Dual-income couples may also find that the extra money comes in at the cost of their ‘me’ time. The traditional model of the man being the bread-winner and the woman being the homemaker gives both some time during the day that they can call their own – for the woman it may be when the husband has gone to work and the children have gone to school, and for the man it may be when he comes home from work to a neat and smooth-functioning house. This should be time to recharge their energy and uplift their consciousness. This is particularly important for those of us who are serious about our spiritual life. When both husband and wife are juggling work and home, its difficult to add devotional life to the equation which is already stretched to breaking point. There seems to be just enough time to do things that can’t wait – children have to be fed and deadlines have to be met. No matter how committed one may be in their heart, under the circumstances, only a few can muster the physical and mental strength for daily reading of scriptures, chanting of the holy name, serving one’s personal altar and volunteering at the temple or church. At best it is done with inattention, or only on weekends. We should stop and consider whether we are willing to let our lives whiz past in this way.
Its counter-intuitive in today’s world to be advocating a simpler lifestyle. The message we are bombarded with is everything should be ‘more, bigger and better’. Today as soon as couples think of starting a family, they plan to move to a neighborhood that has a school which gets good results and allows the children to get into reputed universities, which in turn will help them land well-paying job offers. Its all about money. Success is measured in terms of one’s bank balance and the size of one’s house and car. One is considered well-situated in life if one can afford to have their annual vacation in exotic foreign locations half-way across the globe. In such an environment, one feels like there’s no choice but for both husband and wife to work, for how else would they be able to afford to give the best to their children.
But scriptures point towards an entirely different way of life. The Vedas are a vast collection of Sanskrit verses containing ancient wisdom applicable for every age. It is explained that material possessions actually entangle one into a web of constantly wanting more and this robs us of our peace of mind. The Bhagavad-gita 2.62-63 states: “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.” Having a long list of demands to be fulfilled leads to anger, bewilderment, disappointment and often sheer exhaustion.
The Srimad-bhagavatam 1.2.10 states: “Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.” One should have a higher goal in life than simply wanting the best facilities for eating and sleeping. The human mind is capable of fathoming so much more than devising ways to own a big house or a private jet. One certainly needs to have income to have a reasonably comfortable life, but depending on the level of comfort we are seeking we can either be consumed with the need to be working more to be earning more, or be satisfied with less and have enough time and mental space to ponder on deeper questions of life.
The world applauds ambition and determination. But why must this be only in relation to work-related goals? What about the ambition to have a happy and satisfying family life? What about the determination to raise healthy, God-conscious children? Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse involved in pallative care, who spent several years taking care of patients in the last few weeks of their lives, notes in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying that one of the most commonly expressed sentiment was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
As I write this article, Corona virus is sweeping the world and forcing people into self-isolation. Among all the negative news pouring in, a video that caught my eye had the significant (albeit somewhat cheesy) message ‘Thank you Corona for showing us what things really matter’ and had the image of a family of four walking in a field of flowers. We’ve all seen similar images and captions such as ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’ or ‘All Good Things in Life are Free.’ We believe in them; we’ve experienced similar sentiments at various points in our lives. But such messages are quickly forgotten when we are back in the rat race, in the familiar setting of being blitzed with Facebook images of what everyone else is doing; news of friends and relatives climbing the corporate ladder, buying a beach house, going on a luxury cruise, buying the latest I-phone for their child and so on and so forth.
It takes courage to go against the flow. It takes resolve to take a look at things that truly matter and decide to forgo luxuries in lieu of living a more meaningful life. You will definitely have to make sacrifices – you may have to visit thrift stores, you may have to use the public transport more often, you may have to do more chores around the house instead of hiring cleaners, you may have to teach the children to be creative instead of being busy on the latest device, and you may decide to visit their grandparents during vacation instead of going to Disneyland. But you may find that additional time spent as a family will be a reward no amount of money can buy. And you may find that you will have less regrets at the time of death.
Supplementing the Family Income
Despite trying to live frugally and putting something aside for a rainy day, there may be unexpected expenses which may require women to pitch in and bring some money in. One way of accomplishing this without effecting the responsibilities they may have taken on at home would be to either work from home, work part-time, or freelance. The internet has opened up several career options which can help people work from the comfort of their home, at their own time.
Holly Reisem Hanna was inspired to develop the website ‘The Work at Home Woman’ after her dismal experience of wading through scams and sifting through information on the web to find something suitable when she was looking for an option to work from home. The website offers several home business ideas as well as remote job options. In India, the website ‘Ghar Se Naukri’ offers similar options. They have job posting such as openings for work from home content writer, proofreader, technical customer support, and travel agent.
Other options for working from home that do not involve the Internet are catering, babysitting, freelancing as a health/beauty/interior decoration consultant and being an Airbnb host. Women can conduct music, art, craft or cooking classes at home. Depending on one’s interest and inclination, one can come up with an option that doesn’t take up too much time and yet generates an additional income. With time as one’s clientele builds up it can be a steady source of income without the added stress that goes with having a full-time job.
Looking Beyond Monetary Value
Despite the challenges they face, one of the reasons that women opt to work is not for the money per se – but the associated respect that comes with it. The women who choose to stay are home are disparagingly referred to as ‘just housewives’ because as a society we have come to attach worth only to that work results in a tangible economic gain. Movie stars or businessmen are admired due to their lavish life style, but a person working selflessly at a charitable organization is not given much importance.
But it is up to us, as individuals and as a family, to chose not to accept the materialistic value system around us. It is up to us to be role models for our children and show that we value character over assets. This means that both husband and wife should understand that the woman’s contribution at home is as valuable as the man’s who is bringing home the money. Traditionally the man was the head of the family, not because he was going out and earning money, but because he was guiding his family spiritually and inspiring them to be closer to God. If we live by the instructions given in the scriptures, we can understand that being in a family means working as a team to advance spiritually and that each member is important in their own way. As such, neither husband nor wife should think in terms of ‘my money;’ no matter who is actually earning it, in a family the total income should be considered ‘our money’ and both husband and wife should have equal access to it. For practical reasons, the husband may take on the responsibility of managing the finances, but the wife should not be made to feel that she has no right over it.
For women, serving one’s family and working diligently at home may not bring us accolades from the outside world; it is unlikely that there will be reporters queuing up outside our door asking us the secret of our success; but if in our hearts have the satisfaction of living a life according to the word of God, it will bring us fulfillment that no pay check can match.