I recently watched a talk show interview on a live set. It was a reassuring story of a diligent woman who lived with an unemployed husband for 7 years. The man in question was not a bum or a loafer. Simply a man who couldn’t catch a break for 7 whole years. He was a college graduate, who knocked on doors relentlessly and even tried to go blue collar. Yet year after year nothing seemed to give. There was something biblical symbolic about his struggle. However, this particular version had a happy ending. All through her husbands’ years out of work, she fought to protect his dignity in the eyes of all those who labelled him a failure and kept believing in him. Then after 7 years, the man nails a plum position and things have been rosy since. In reality, in similar cases, happy ends are far and in between.
We live in a society that has little tolerance for a man unable to provide for his family. Invariably, Kenya produces its fair share of bums who avoid responsibility like the Ebola plague. On the flipside of that coin, are men who find themselves out of work in the prime of their lives. The social scorn can be quite harsh when a man’s status suddenly changes from bread winner to the broke half of the relationship. As men grow older, they become more vulnerable to unemployment. The older one gets, the more resistant one becomes towards change. The Kenyan employment space is in a state of flux and the traditional employment industries such as manufacturing are losing out to new industries. Older men who came of age in the analogue era are finding it harder to compete against a digital savvy younger generation, many of who are women.
In old order, when the system booted the career employee out, the only recourse was retirement to a simple country life as a farmer or as a struggling pensioner. In today’s world where men are judged by their ability to provide, a job is more than just a life line. It is an entire identity. No job means, No security, control, independence, status and purpose. Adjusting to the reality of a displaced breadwinner is tough especially when your loving wife starts getting tired of playing counselor and cheerleader to a demoralized husband.
People talk about infidelity as the Achilles heel of a great relationship. But job loss can really test the better or worse vow. Money is that emotional grenade that can blow up a marriage and yet it remains a taboo subject. In an ideal scenario, a man should make enough to provide for his wife and kids. In the perfect marriage both partners should pool income to sustain their lives. However, in many cases, behind every wife who is a breadwinner, lies a domestically displaced male brooding in her shadow.
Decades of socially prescribed dependency on men has taught women how to fend for themselves as an ingrained survival instinct. Women are also more likely to be democratic in money sharing decisions because they are not as defined by their jobs as they are with their status as good wives. The modern man has to learn to adjust to the reality of unemployment and the idea of dependence on someone else for a living. That means letting go of belief that only way to gain respect is through power and money.
Relationships survive when both partners accept and share their vulnerabilities and roll us a unit. Sometimes, that involves riding the side car and respecting your partner’s ability to steer you through the storm.