When I announced my pregnancy to my friend Sophie, her first response wasn’t breastfeeding advice, choice of birthing centres or whether to buy the all-wheel-drive Bugaboo or the one with optional deep-sea diving attachment.
Ever pragmatic, Sophie’s thoughts turned immediately to money.
“Make sure you negotiate yourself a good ‘mummy allowance’,” she advised.
“‘A mummy allowance!?”‘ I thought. “What the F… irstborn?”
My first reaction was to check the date on my iPhone to confirm what century we were living in.
The idea of asking my husband for an allowance while I took time out of the workforce to care for our daughter seemed too regressive, vulgar and infantile to even contemplate. I’m an adult; I wasn’t about to ask for pocket money.
Yes, my husband would be earning the money. But I would be caring for our child. The idea of me negotiating access to money because he earned it seemed as ridiculous as him negotiating access to our daughter because I gave birth to her.
But in reality, things are not so straightforward. After seeing the problems my other mother friends encounter with money, and the lengths that they go to to access it, I have to at least give Sophie credit for her forthrightness and transparency.
For example, I know several mothers who curse recent changes in the Medicare rebate that mean the money is now paid directly into a bank account.
The rebate from doctors’ appointments and other medical expenses used to be paid in cash, from which these mothers used to accrue a small slush fund that was secret from their husbands. The change in the payments has meant that the source of their disposable income has dried up.
Another friend regularly skims off small — and so far, undetected by her husband — sums of money from their shared bank account and stashes it in a PayPal account so she’s free to spend it without her husband scrutinising her purchases.
“It’s not that he wouldn’t let me spend his money,” my friend says. ‘It’s just about privacy and independence. I don’t want to have to account for every purchasing decision.”
Of course some husbands are more controlling than others when it comes to family finances. But in most cases, it’s not that my friends’ husbands won’t allow them to have access to the money they earn. It’s that my friends don’t feel entitled to it because they didn’t earn it.
On an intellectual level they may agree that the money their husband earns should also be shared. But when it comes to money and the value we place on it, it’s very much emotional.
All of these women have grown up in a world where money is the key to independence, identity and power. For them, being financially dependent on someone else is disempowering. It’s a denial of agency.
Critics might say that we’ve internalised the lessons of economic rationalism: that money has become the sole arbiter of what’s valuable and important. And in a certain regard, they’d be right. When we aren’t earning any money we feel like we are not “pulling our weight” or fully contributing to the family.
It doesn’t matter that we’ve never worked so hard in our lives and the work of caring for children is undeniably important.
Even our most intimate relationships become exchanges, little different from traders in a market bargaining over prices. Caring for our children is unpaid so our work doesn’t count. Money is the only currency accepted.
Even though I still cringe at the idea of a mummy allowance, squirrelling away money suggests that women don’t have a right to it; that their only option is through deception and artifice.
If the only way to ensure that motherhood is valued in our economic rationalist culture is to put a dollar value on it, then we need to have that conversation with our partners. And we need to remind ourselves that the job we do as mothers is important to our families and to society, and we deserve more than the financial scraps.