Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Wife Bonus

I don't even know.

And then there were the wife bonuses.
I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.
Women who didn’t get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

There's a certain "you do you" aspect to this; the writer is dealing with college-educated women who have chosen to undertake lives involving no professional career, just being stay at home moms with particularly wealthy husbands who can support them in ways few of us will ever even glimpse, much less experience.  Because there were other paths open to these women, and they embraced these futures with eyes open, the fact their lives resemble a high-class version of Leave It To Beaver isn't as problematic as the expectation of women living as mothers and caretakers.

I'm sure that part of what squicks me out here is the pre-nup/post-nup aspect.  In my wildest fantasies of fame and wealth, I still don't reach a point where this sort of thing seems like anything other than a relic, an aspect of a lifestyle I find incomprehensible.  It's a personal reaction; I know these agreements are often quite rational, since hyper-rich people are unlikely to meet and marry someone equally hyper-rich, and a self-protective pre-nup is hardly the sole unromantic thing people do leading into their supposed happy lives together.  So I'm doing my best to set that aside in my perception of this phenomenon.

And let's be clear: as backwards as this setup seems to be in many ways, this is a relatively rare instance of a stay at home parent being given something as tangible as hard cash for the work of keeping the household running.  Millions of words have been written by smarter and more knowledgeable people than myself on the inequity of stay at home mothers not being paid for their labor, so I won't banter on about that.  The fact that this is an artifact of wealth, not something the bottom 99% of families (maybe more) could even dream of doing, doesn't change the fact that this is measurably better than the stay at home wives of wealthy men not receiving anything except what hubby feels like doling out at random intervals.

The bothersome thing here is the fact it's a "bonus".  Being paid by your spouse under any circumstances can be weird or problematic, but consider the difference between being told your husband/wife is going to pay you based on what schools your kids get into, how smoothly the house runs, etc., and being told, "Since your working effort is being spent on home and kids, I'll give you (fifty grand a year/a thousand bucks a week/a hard percentage of whatever I make) for you to use however you like.  That's your money, no questions asked."  The former setup is based on performance or metrics or whatever the fuck all that is called; the latter involves trusting your partner to hold up their end of the bargain.

I admit another small bias here: I think performance-based stuff usually sucks.  In most jobs, those "bonuses" become your basic income, which screws with your approach to the job.  Salesmen who are paid directly based on their sales have every motivation to bullshit, or at least elide the truth, to get you to buy whatever junk they're pawning off.  Likewise, if these "wife bonuses" are the only real way for these women to have their own money- which they clearly would like to have- it can skew how they approach the tasks that lead to receiving said bonus money.  That's especially troubling in cases where it involves, say, getting Junior into some high-end school.  What if, in Mom's judgment, it's not a good fit for him, for whatever reason?  Creating a situation where even the slightest possibility of tension exists between the best move for the family and Mom's profit motive is fucking crazy- these things can and do affect people subconsciously, or get them to rationalize things they otherwise wouldn't in order to believe they're doing right by everyone.

And it's your goddamned family.  How the shit are you going to marry somebody who you're not confident is going to do right by everyone to the best of their ability?  If it was because these guys keep marrying women due to their superficial qualities, the women being interviewed wouldn't consistently have degrees.

Thing is, I would be surprised if these contracts are set up as bonuses because the husbands doubt the capacity of their wives to be good stay at home moms.  I'm betting this occurs because these guys, who according to the article often work with hedge funds or other financial institutions, are probably most used to performance pay structures.  On the one hand, that makes it somewhat logical, but on the other and much more troublesome hand, it creates an unbalanced power dynamic where none need exist.  The problem with SAHMs not being paid for their work isn't solely about the lack of income; the correlated issue is that women in such a situation often wind up in thrall to their husbands because they have neither their own money nor a career to fall back on if things go south.  The kind of wealth involved in these "wife bonus" relationships could eliminate that type of dynamic altogether; instead the husbands remain, to some degree, the arbiters of what their wives receive even though they both agree she should get something.

Maybe it's not something which should trigger a lot of sympathy.  Again, these women agreed to these sorts of terms, and because of their education and general proximity to wealth, the thing most likely to trap them in a subpar relationship is being accustomed to luxury rather than lacking the logistical capability to leave and start anew.  But it's bothersome in a broader sense: the fact these women, probably the ones most capable of creating level playing fields in relationships with wealthy men, don't (or can't) do it could indicate just how far off that mindset of equality we are across the board.

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