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Have you ever dreamed of a prince on a white steed who would ask you to marry him and you’d live happily ever after?

Kamila Rowińska: It has never crossed my mind, although I used to dress up as a princess when I was a child.

But it’s so romantic.

Is it? I think it’s time we wrote new fairy tales for girls, because the ones with the prince on a white steed can get them into trouble. Life is not romantic. It’s not a film or a fairy tale. And if you think that way, it’s time to wake up.

I just refuse to believe that you’ve never heard that it’s best for a woman to find a rich husband.

Of course I’ve heard it. I was always quite popular with the boys, but being a mistress was never an option.

A mistress?

This kind of advice suggested that I shouldn’t be so precious about my career and take care of it the easy way. By hooking up with a man who already had money so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

I would create a home and take care of it, and my husband would support me. What if, for various reasons, we don’t feel comfortable with our relationship? What if our relationship is miserable? What if we break up? He’ll make it on his own or he’ll find someone else, but what about me? Should I go husband hunting again? I don’t need this desperation. For me, it’s a modern form of women’s slavery. Can’t I just find a job and be in a relationship out of love and wanting to build a future together, and not because I won’t make it financially without him?

Do you know any such modern slaves?

I sure do. I’ve been meeting them for years, although usually when it’s already a bit late. Ever since I wrote “Independent Woman”, I’ve been receiving hundreds of e-mails asking me for advice or describing difficult situations to me in which there’s mental or financial dependence.

Recently, a woman came to my training course and wanted to take on a 12-month programme with me. The programme focuses on business building, sales, team management and assertive communication. After returning home, her husband told her that he didn’t agree to her going on training trips alone. So she quit. A grown up woman. First, I found it hard to believe as in my relationship my husband and I support each other in achieving our dreams and goals. In our home, there’s no division into more important members. We always make a single list with our dreams and we support each other in achieving them. 

I am also approached by women who once agreed that “they would take care of the house and children, and he would take care of the rest and start a business”. And after 20 years it often turns out during a breakup that they have children together, but the company is his and his only. The woman is left out in the cold. When it comes to dividing the property, there’s really not that much to divide. Many women don’t even get divorced. Not because they love their husbands so much, but because they won’t make it without them financially. They tolerate humiliation and infidelity. They play along.

Perhaps these are only worst-case scenarios though.

If this were only the experience of myself and my closest friends, I could say that financial violence is bullshit, there’s no physical violence and you only see abortion in films. Yet, the world is not only our surroundings, and I recommend looking at this social issue more broadly. I am a realist. The fact is that in Poland many women live in toxic relationships in which they suffer. They would rather not be in these relationships, but they can’t afford to leave, because they have nowhere to go and no money to support themselves with. Many can’t even afford a lawyer to file for divorce.

A dozen or so percent of Polish women experience financial violence.

Many times in my work I have met women who told me directly how many times and in what ways they had to make up for a family vacation with the children or a new pair of shoes in the bedroom. Some women are allotted money for grocery shopping and have to keep an Excel spreadsheet detailing all the expenses. They have to keep all the receipts and constantly explain what they bought and why they spent so much.

There is this joke in Poland – and it’s not funny to me at all – about women telling their husbands that a new dress is in fact an old one or one bought on sale. Have you ever thought about that?

Why do some Polish women cheat at home?

Because it’s not their money. Because they deny themselves the right to spend on themselves too. Money is taboo in many relationships and it’s better not to discuss it. Some say that talking about money is not very romantic and that it’s a contradiction of love or trust. This is how problems arise and women get into financial trouble. 

How?

In several ways. One is to ignore your responsibility for earning money. Note the implications of the 500+ support programme. Statistics show that many women earning minimum wage decided not to work and to stay home with their children, “because work doesn’t pay off”. Will they find a job in five or ten years with a gap like this in their resumes? They have no chance of gaining skills and competence. If they held the lowest paid positions today, they could still improve and build their financial stability, even if the 500+ benefit would have to be spent on kindergarten and commuting. Who will employ them in a few years? As automation progresses, people performing simple tasks are being replaced by machines.

Another option is to allow men to be responsible for financial matters and be oblivious to them. I met a woman during training who had been transferring her salary into her husband’s account so that he could pay all the bills. Except he didn’t. He developed a gambling addiction and kept losing all their money at cards. She only realised after two years when the case got hopeless and he lost their car. He made debts with shadow banks and vanished. She had to take care of paying off their flat. The bailiff came to see her, because her husband had vanished. Later she found out that he had been working in Germany with no employment contract. She was left with all the debts, because the bailiff couldn’t trace him. A joint bank account for paying bills and being separate in property might have helped.

And that’s why you tell women about prenups, which are considered a contradiction of love.

But it is love. A prenup is associated with a film story in which a wealthy man marries a less well-off woman and protects his assets in a divorce. It’s just a film. The idea is for people to have their property secured on both sides. And not to be responsible for the financial mistakes of one of them with their entire property. You can sign a prenuptial agreement with a 50/50 split and rest easy knowing that the 50 percent is really yours. Hence, a prenup is a form of expressing love. Making sure that the other person is financially secure. There are women whose husbands run businesses, civil partnerships or registered partnerships. These men sign contracts, undertake obligations, hire workers and lease cars. If they make a mistake and have to pay a fine, when there’s no money in the company, the debts will have to be covered from the joint property of the spouses. Lots of women don’t even think about it.

Since when did you know that you wanted to be financially independent?

Ever since I was a child I knew that I had to earn my own money. I spent a few years of my early childhood in an orphanage. It was a difficult time. I remember looking out of the window and crying for my parents. Later, when I reunited with my mum and grew up, the financial situation was difficult. We lived in poverty and rented a room in a tenement house. The toilet was upstairs and there was only a sink in the room. Later, my mother met my stepfather and our living standard improved.

I watched many women in my life and knew that I wanted to be in a relationship because I wanted to, and not because a man would give me a better life. I wanted to be financially independent.

How do income disparities between a man and a woman arise?

Well, here’s the usual pattern. They are both ambitious, get married and start a family. She devotes more time to household duties from the very beginning, because, after all, “she’s a woman”. He is more available for work than her. When the first child is born, instead of taking a maternity and paternity leave (even the spell-check stubbornly corrects ‘paternity’ to ‘maternity’) they agree that she’ll stay at home, because she earns less. 

They also calculate that her pay and the nanny’s fee are “basically the same”, so it’s better that she stays at home for the first three years. Sometimes, during the three years they decide to have another child and so the disparity grows. At this point, he says that paternity doesn’t ‘pay off’, because she won’t be able to support the family with her income, and thus the circle is closed.

And then she has nowhere to go back to?

Exactly. Then she has a grudge against her boss for filling her position and not waiting for her. But these are the market laws. The state doesn’t support employers in keeping such workers.

If, as a society, we want more children to be born, we need to create a new system of care or we need to support those who look after children. We can’t allow our society to grow at the expense of women, because in the end they pay the highest price. We want them to give birth to and look after children, but there’s not much to offer in terms of financial security.

There are women who work at home for many years (it is colloquially referred to as “sitting home”), while men develop professionally. When the time of separation comes, she is not entitled to half of his pension contributions. She is left with nothing but nice memories and a sense of well fulfilled duty imposed on her by religion and patriarchy.

And?

She often has to start from scratch. At the age of 40 or 50, she starts her professional life anew. She tries to catch up with a train that is going very fast. It’s extremely difficult.

What you say is brutal.

I have never specialised in comforting people and telling them that it will be all right. Life is not a picnic. I tell women, “Take care of yourself. Take care of your finances. Be independent.”

We still live in a patriarchal country and, eventually, it’s the woman who has to put on the washing machine. There are still plenty of women who are not able to see that a man can sort and do the laundry. Their mothers and grandmothers did it and all the women around them do it. A woman still thinks that she does it best and that she has to do it and nobody else. She thinks that there’s something wrong in telling a man that he has to take care of the house when he comes from work, just like she does. 

Are we to blame ourselves, then?

Change takes time, but it’s happening. Many women have already done it. It’s time for the rest. We have all the means not to be oppressed any more, but many of us still blindly follow the patterns of our families and treat them as our own. We can’t give our lives to someone else. The time has come to question what we hear and to wonder if what someone says “we should do” is really that. And how a lack of concern for money will bear fruit in the future.

As a young girl, I often heard what my role and responsibility was as a “real woman”. Fortunately, I was assertive and didn’t let myself be told what my duties were. I fought for myself. Although, of course, it wasn’t easy.

It is not unusual to see old ladies counting pennies in the grocery store or asking for off-brand pills at the chemist’s.

Have you ever wondered what they did all their life? They most certainly worked, because the older generation is very hard-working, but either they had a very low salary or it was expressed not in money, but in family appreciation. Where is the family now when medications are needed?

I remember these slogans: “Money is insignificant”, “Health is our greatest asset”, “The most important thing is love”.

I believe that money is important, as is family, health, love and friendship. It’s all important. That’s why it’s not worth building your financial stability by counting on it being secured by someone who says so today. Because it might not happen, even without assuming bad intentions. At some point, this person may become ill and may die. Hardly anyone has an insurance that will secure the rest of the family for their lives. 30 percent of people get divorced. Poland is a leader in unsuccessful child support recovery and children usually stay with their mother. She also has less earning potential. The state ignores this issue. Child support debtors are not prosecuted ex officio.

When I hear that money is insignificant, I remember when I was 28 and I felt my first breast lump, followed by more. I called a clinic to schedule a breast ultrasound appointment. The first available date was in three months! I went to a private clinic and paid for the visit. When it turned out that the lump was large and had to be removed immediately, I decided to undergo surgery right away. Also for a fee. When I removed more lumps in the following years, money was also a support for me.

You’ve been training women for 20 years. Where should they begin their changes?

Above all, it’s crucial that they take responsibility for their finances and recognise that money is important. Not because you can buy more shoes and dresses, but because money provides a sense of stability, security and freedom.

Also, if at home family duties rest primarily on women, they should delegate some of these duties to other household members. My husband and sons participate in household duties equally with me. Our teenage boy does grocery shopping, mops the floors, makes breakfast, cleans his room, changes bedding, removes dishes from the dishwasher, and can even cook a few dishes. His life is not only school and playing computer games. My husband is capable of doing any domestic activity equally as well as I can and we do all the housework together. When we’re done, we rest together.

The third important step is to take care of notarial matters and realise what your financial situation really is. Many women don’t know this. They say, for example, that they have a flat. What they don’t know is that they don’t own it, because it was bought by their husbands before they got married, and that for the last 20 years they’ve been renovating a flat that is not even theirs.

Sometimes a woman and her husband live in their in-laws’ house that is not bequeathed to them. They take a loan to renovate and furnish the flat, and their parents say, “One day it will all be yours anyway”.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not.

I tell women that they mustn’t invest even 5 zlotys until they have the ownership title in their hand. What I really want is for women to recognise their actual situation and stop denying reality which gets them into even deeper trouble. I want them to take responsibility and take care of themselves.

Kamila Rowińska – a trainer, coach, author of the best-selling books “Independent Woman” and “Assertive Woman”. She is the president of the Independent Woman Foundation which started a series of meetings for women in September. Find out more at fundacjakobietaniezalezna.pl

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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