I used to be a bit of a princess. I lived in a big beautiful house with permanent staff members who cooked for me and cleaned up after me and laundered my clothes and turned down my bed.
I worked, but the money I earned was purely for my own entertainment. My parents provided for all the big things – paid for my studies, took me on nice holidays, bought me a car, kept me fed and clothed and groomed…
I knew I was fortunate, but I never thought that I was spoilt – mostly because I demanded very little and was thankful for what I had.
After a beautiful wedding (which my parents paid for) I went straight from my father’s house to my husband’s. In the beginning it took a bit of getting used to – the house was smaller, the cleaning lady only came twice a week, and every so often my husband would lie awake, worrying about money.
I would tell him everything was going to be alright, that we’d be fine, that the money would come from somewhere. Because in my world, it always did. I was happily obtuse about our financial situation and didn’t bother my head about the boring things like pension growth, property investments or interest rates.
It was only when we were ready to have children and I realised, properly, viscerally, that I was going to have to keep on working when we had a baby – that I was going to have to pump breastmilk at work, and do presentations after staying up all night with a sick child, and hand over my baby to a nanny so that I could go and earn money to cover my half of the mortgage – only then did I realise that I had been lied to.
Until then I thought my life was going to be like my mother’s and her mother’s and all the other women I knew. Go to university, travel a bit, get a job, but more importantly, get a husband. A husband who would earn the money and make investments and build a pension while I raised kids and made our home beautiful and dabbled in writing and art and all the other soft pursuits you can pursue when someone else’s money supports you.
To my growing, stomach-flipping horror it dawned on me that, deep down, I held the beliefs of a 1950’s housewife with Stepford expectations.
As a feminist I was shocked to my traitorous core. How did I get it so desperately wrong? What happened to my career goals, and my dreams of success and my sense of responsibility and empowerment?
Of course, it wasn’t entirely my fault.
Growing up in upper-middle class Pretoria in the eighties I, like other girls, was socialised to expect these things. I was taught from a very early age that a man would look after me one day. While boys were encouraged to dream big about being successful, girls were encouraged to dream about finding the right man and living happily ever after.
Boys were building model spaceships while girls had wedding ceremonies with Barbie and Ken. Boys were encouraged to do maths and science and accounting while girls were encouraged to pursue the humanities. Boys were taught to pay for dates while girls were taught to make conversation and look pretty.
And not enough has changed.
Even today financial power is still too often regarded as somehow unladylike or unfeminine. Young women are taught that it’s gauche to think and talk about money and that it’s unglamorous to plan for the future. While the world has changed and women are now irrevocably part of the workforce, it is scary how many women will admit that they secretly feel this is just a stop-gap until they find someone who will take over the financial responsibilities.
Every single one of my friends who are strong, driven, career-focused women have admitted that they sometimes feel cheated and that they sometimes resent their lesser-earning partners for “not looking after them.”
It’s a symptom of the way we were raised, and the unfair roles and expectations we were taught to embrace. And it’s unfair to women and men both.
I never had that baby and that marriage didn’t last. But after a few years of managing my own finances – after the harsh realities of divorce settlements and underperforming pension funds and managing terrifying debt – I finally know that I am able to look after myself.
And I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Photo via unsplash.com.