Eilene Zimmerman was ripped apart for an article she wrote that was published last week in Salon.
She is a journalist who described her transition from total reliance on her husband for all things financial … to taking full control of her finances at the time of their divorce. Called “I shouldn’t have left the finances to my husband,” I shared that article with you last week.
She was lambasted in the Comments section below her article for having “lived the good life” while her husband toiled away late into the night and handled the family money. The critics misread the message. The article was about how she had finally taken responsibility for herself after having spent far too many years in the haze of what she was taught was a woman’s role.
And that “lesson” knows no boundaries. Wealthy, struggling, educated, functional illiterate, city slicker, country bumpkin … you’ll find women of every shape and size who are raised to believe that their role is a supportive one and that finances are a man’s domain. Even today.
Parents are not intentionally creating dependent women. But the effect is perpetuated, from generation to generation. For example, just think about the fairy tales little girls hear as bedtime stories. Little boys hear “The Little Engine That Could,” and little girls hear about how the Prince sent out his servants with the glass slipper and saved Cinderella from her life of toil and disdain. And, oh yes, she was the pretty one.
By the way, in case you think Cinderella is a recent tale, its origins reach back to the 1st century BC, in the tale of the Greco-Egyptian girl Rhodopis. A Chinese version involves magical fish; a Philippine one has her mother reincarnating in a crab. Bits of the story appear in the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s King Lear. A Neapolitan soldier wrote a version in 1634 and the German Grimm Brothers in the 1800s. But our version derives from Charles Perrault in 1697. Not exactly yesterday. So this stuff goes way back.
Back to unhealthy messages. These childhood messages stay embedded in our subconscious, quietly affecting every one of our daily decisions, unless they are somehow addressed … and dispelled. We can “unlearn” a belief by experiencing some event that contradicts it. Or our parents can be enlightened enough to be sure we understand that those were fairy tales and that real life functions differently.
But the majority of little girls grow up with vestiges of Prince Charming in their memory banks. And as long as he is there, they do not take full responsibility for themselves … because he could show up any day and save them from the drudgery of life. Besides, in many cases he does show up … in the form of a husband.
Add to that dynamic the messages little boys are raised with: you have to be the provider, you have to bring home the bacon, and you have to protect your wife and children. In short, you will have a yoke around your neck for the rest of your life as you “clock in” every day to ensure their financial and physical security.
Can you see how this can be a formula for disaster? Can you see the potential for enabling? Can you see how disempowering this can be for the woman and how exhausting for the man?
And what gets lost in this dynamic? The sense of personal responsibility.
The sense of personal responsibility is being eroded from all sides. First, half the population is told it will be taken care of by handsome men in white riding britches and bright red jackets … on gorgeous white horses. Then the other half is told it will support this fantasy by pretending to be that handsome guy on the horse.
Enter the rest of society’s messages, to both men and women:
• everyone is entitled to a house that looks like it came off an HDTV show;
• everyone deserves to dress like the latest celebrity on the front of the tabloids;
• no reason to wait until you can afford something if you can buy a houseful of furniture and pay nothing for 24 months;
• you can spend until your plastic card no longer acts like an ATM on steroids;
• if you’re upside down on your mortgage because of the lousy real estate market, you can let it go into foreclosure and just walk away;
• you can have as many children as you want, and not worry about whether you can afford to raise them, because you can always fall back on assistance to get you through the rough patches;
• you can go to whatever college you want because the government will subsidize a student loan (even if you’ll be paying it off for 20 years and can’t write it off in bankruptcy);
• no need to own a car when you can lease the latest model for small monthly payments;
• they say Social Security won’t be there when you’re ready to retire, so no reason to bother saving anything at all (“it’s okay, we’ll all be in the same soup so someone will bail us out”); and
• banks and corporations that get “too big to fail” are bailed out, so why not rack up tons of debt to become “too big to fail” as well?
And we wonder whatever happened to personal responsibility?
There is a quiet, but angry, mass of people who have lived within (and often below) their means, spent and invested wisely, saved diligently, and made calculated decisions. These people have indeed lived their lives by taking personal responsibility. And they have a right to be angry because the burden of the irresponsibility of all the others is seeping into their lives from every side.
Angry or not, what they realize is this: without responsibility … from the personal level through the government level … the chances of resuscitating the American Dream are pretty slim.
It’s time to look at everything we take for granted and everything we feel entitled to. It’s time to do CPR on personal responsibility.
Each of us has some aspect where we can improve. How about we all start today?
Sharon O’Day is an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret ‘weapon,’ if you will, behind many individuals in high places. At age 53, she lost everything: her home, her business, everything. Since then, Sharon has interviewed women and done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.
The surprising answers will be shared in her upcoming book “Money After Menopause.” Today her focus is to show women how to reach financial security for the long term. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve.