When I was growing up in Brooklyn, most families in our middle-class neighborhood had just one wage earner. The dads were the breadwinners, responsible for financially supporting the family while the moms took care of the house and kids. Very few mothers had paid jobs. One exception in my parents’ circle of friends was a neighbor who lived across the street. Mrs. Fine had a much-envied civil service job working for the City of New York. She would retire with a pension and she was one of the first people we knew of to have health insurance.
Families did okay with only one income. The moms’ unpaid work consisted of running errands, cleaning the house, making the beds, doing the laundry, mending, cooking the meals, caring for sick family members and going to P.T.A. meetings. That’s just a partial list of everything that needed to be taken care of to keep a household running as smoothly as possible. Even though there was only one earner, most parents, mine included, managed to scrape enough money to pay for their children’s college education. It was expected that nearly all the children would go to college.
Nowadays young families struggle to get by, even with both parents working full time. Today’s working families still need to take care of everything involved with running a household and raising kids, including paying for preschool, childcare, afterschool classes and sports. All this is even that much more challenging for single-parent working families. The economic shifts we have experienced during the past 40 years have had a tremendous influence on the way we think and how we live.
I started working full time for the federal government in 1956, right out of college, and I retired 34 years later. I was 55 years old, still young enough to work and I thought it was time to make a change. I had been the breadwinner of our family during my marriage. When I retired, I was eligible for a federal retirement pension that provided me with health insurance and an income equivalent to half of my salary. I became a full-time mom for the first time to my daughter, who was just turning 17. Her father and I had divorced nine years earlier. We divided our community property as determined by California law. I stayed in the house that I had purchased in 1975 when we moved to Woodacre.
I took two years off from work while my daughter finished high school; when she went on to the University of California, Santa Cruz, for her bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology, I returned to the paid workforce. I wanted to have enough money to pay for her college education without her running up a lot of student debt. I began working again for the next 20 or so years, and accumulated enough work experience to be eligible for a reduced Social Security benefit.
I never had a lot of money—really just enough to get by. I’ve learned to be pretty careful with my spending, I look for bargains. I have enough money to support myself and help a little with grandchildren’s college. The cost of going to college is not what it used to be back in my day.
When large numbers of women entered the labor force during World War II, they took the places of their husbands and brothers and sons, who had been drafted into the armed services. Employers paid these women workers much less than they were paying the guys. Employers, companies and corporations could hire two workers in a family, but they paid their women employees two thirds of what the men were being paid for the same work. This was the beginning of what we now think of as the pink-collar ghetto and the impenetrable glass ceiling.
The unbalanced distribution of wealth in this country is deepening and scary. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is disappearing and homelessness is on the rise in most American cities. At the same time, the stock market keeps going up and up and up. For the people who have a lot of money and political power, the system is working just fine. But for most working people, trickledown economics hasn’t worked at all. Young people today who are entering the work force are burdened with huge amounts of student debt and most can’t afford to rent a place and live on their own.
No wonder many women post-pandemic are not returning to work—unless they have high-paying professional careers. Many women have come to realize that they are better off staying home, perhaps getting jobs where they can work remotely, or trying to get by with less, rather than coming home exhausted at the end of the day. It’s just not worth it. The old proverb “Man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done” rings true today more than ever.
Suzanne Sadowsky has lived in the San Geronimo Valley since 1975. She is a founding board member of Gan HaLev, West Marin’s Jewish congregation, and she is on the board of the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association.