>On February 28, 2004, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a father’s anguished query:
Question: I find myself between a rock and a hard place. When I was divorced 14 years ago, my son was 3. I remarried and have three daughters with my second wife. I have always paid my child support in advance and have even agreed to increases over the years because I knew my son needed it and because I wanted to avoid a fight. Now my ex is demanding that I make arrangements for our son to attend a premier, out-of-state college with a price tag of more than $40,000 per year—plus travel, spending money, etc. I don’t know why I, as a divorced father, can be required to make these kinds of payments when, if my ex and I were still together as a family, I could tell my son—who has a B average—to attend a state-supported school.
The newspaper’s advice experts (one of them a lawyer) agreed that the boy’s father faced a problem. They strongly encouraged him to negotiate a solution by discussing his financial constraints with both his former wife and his son. If peaceful strategies failed, the private dispute could end up in court: “depending on where you
live, it may well be that both parents, as well as the child, are part of the equation by which [the courts determine] who pays what when it comes to financing post-high school education.” If fortunate enough to live in Pennsylvania, however, the father could “take solace in the fact that the Supreme Court of that state has ruled that laws treating divorced parents differently than married parents when it comes to ordering them to pay for post-high school education violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.” The experts closed with their own judgment and final recommendation: “With all due respect to your ex-wife and son, a “B” average may not justify a $40,000 per year school under the circumstances you describe. But don’t take it from us. With a $160,000 potential obligation staring you in the face, hire a good lawyer.”
As the San Diego Union-Tribune advisers suggested, disputes over children’s college tuition often bring divorced parents into court. Take the case of Troha v. Troha (663 N. E.2d 1319 (Ohio Ct. App. 1995)). When Hanna and William A. Troha divorced in 1992 after twenty-six years of marriage, their separation agreement stipulated payments for the college education of Kristofer and Shaye, two of their three children. The provisions were detailed: the monies would come from Mr. Troha’s $3,850 savings bonds; two certificates of deposit in the names of Kristofer and Shaye, respectively; plus proceeds from the sale of three vacation properties owned by the couple. If additional funds were needed, Mr. Troha agreed to make up the difference.
By 1994, Kristofer was studying at Clemson University while Shaye was still in high school. In March of that year, William Troha went to court. He accused his former wife of violating their separation agreement, among other things, by refusing to turn over Shaye’s certificate of deposit. Since Kristofer’s CD had already been spent for his education, Troha argued that before dipping into his own funds, Shaye’s CD should be cashed to subsidize her brother’s college expenses. Claiming it had no jurisdiction over either child’s CDs, the court responded that it could not enforce the monetary transfer. Troha’s appeal the following year again failed. The court acknowledged “the well-established principle in Ohio that parents generally have no duty to provide support, including payment for college expenses, for emancipated children” (1,324). But since the Trohas had agreed to insure both children’s college education, the appeals court concluded it was unfair to subsidize one child’s expenses by drawing from his sibling’s fund. The fact that most of the funds in Shaye’s CD had come to her as settlement for a dog-bite injury when she was a young child further dramatized her rights to the contested money. By rejecting Mr. Troha’s claim, Ohio courts imposed their own legal frame on household obligations.
Disputes also arise over the educational expenses of married couples. What happens, for instance, when a couple divorces but still has outstanding student loans incurred by the husband or the wife during their marriage? Consider, for example, the Tennessee case of Varner v. Varner (2002 WL 3118327 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002)). Both husband and wife, divorcing after less than two years of marriage, had significant student loans, the wife over $11,000; the husband more than $16,000. Rather than treating the total of $27,000 as shared household debt to be divided equally, the court ordered each of them to pay their own separate debts.
In similar cases, however, courts make distinctions based on the duration and character of the marriage. Note the Nebraska divorce case of Schmid v. Schmid (2003 WL 21397862 Neb. Ct. App. 2003)): during the couple’s twenty-six years of marriage, the wife had taken out student loans over four years to subsidize her bachelor’s degree. She testified not only that teaching was her vocation but that her
work contributed to the household’s economic welfare. The lower court ruled that the debt was indeed marital and divided the outstanding loans equally between the former spouses. An appeals court confirmed the fairness of the judgment (see M. Momjian 2004).
More surprisingly, children in some circumstances successfully bring legal action to extract payment for college expenses from parents. In 2004, for example, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that Ronald Houston had established a binding agreement with his daughter Allyson when he promised to pay half her tuition if she attended a historically African-American private college or university. Once Allyson had actually incurred the expense of enrolling at Clark Atlanta University, the court ruled, Ronald no longer had the right to renege on his repeated promises (Houston v. Houston, 600 S. E. 2d 395 (Ga. Ct. App. 2004)).
These conflicts over parental or marital responsibility to pay for educational expenses translate household disputes into legal cases. Most disagreements over similar matters never reach the courts. Members of households are constantly negotiating responsibility both for accumulated debt and for expenditures on such consequential matters as education for household members without resorting to the law. In the cases at hand, disputed issues include what claims household members have on other members’ resources, who has an obligation to pay for what, and which of these obligations continue after a household breaks up. Family obligations, legal responsibilities, and routine household economic life intertwine. Their intersection calls up demanding, continuous, consequential relational work.
Households introduce new subtleties into our exploration of intimacy and economic activity. By simple virtue of inhabiting the same household, people share in production, consumption, distribution, and transfers of assets; acquire legally enforceable obligations; and fashion intimate relations with each other. Households do not simply combine couples and caring. Chapter 3 left couples at the threshold, about to establish households. Chapter 4 traced caring relations within households, across household boundaries, and well beyond them. As court disputes about educational expenses indicate, however, far more goes on in households than coupling and caring.
Living together produces shared economic problems, opportunities, rights, and obligations for everyone who takes part.
For several decades, intense debates with strong policy implications have swirled around the economic advantages, if any, enjoyed by married couples over single persons and unmarried couples, as well as the differential advantages and disadvantages imposed on men, women, and children by divorce. Competing explanations in these controversies pivot on the dynamics of household life. Management of household assets, maintenance of the household economy, and dealing with departures, breakups, or new arrivals all present household members with serious interpersonal challenges. This chapter concentrates on relational work inside households.
Let us adopt a narrow definition of household: two or more people who share living quarters and daily subsistence over substantial periods of time. This excludes prisons, schools, hospitals, shelters, and military units, despite the fact that those institutions raise some of the same questions about intimacy and economic activity that this book is pursuing. I will examine larger kinship groups only to the extent that common residence at some point creates rights and obligations extending beyond household breakup or departure of its members. Households in this narrower sense still include paid caregivers, foster children, lovers, and relatives, just so long as they share bed and board. They also extend to family businesses in so far as household members work in them.
Whatever pains and pleasures it brings, living in a household almost always engages household members in intimacy. Household relations supply people with information and attention that, if widely shared, could damage the reputations and welfare of other people within the same household. By virtue of their shared living, people acquire understandings, rights, obligations, routines, and property that set household relations apart from those of couples or of parties to care. Once a household contains more than a couple,
furthermore, things get more complicated: relations to third parties such as children, care workers, or aging parents start influencing household dynamics significantly. Inside complex households, relational work never ends. Intersections of intimacy and economic activity within households therefore pose new questions about the purchase of intimacy.
As it happens, discussions of households have often involved extreme versions of the same mystifications concerning intimacy and economic activity we encountered earlier: ideas of hostile worlds and separate spheres, countered by nothing-but reductions that treat households as no more than little economies, distinctive cultures, or separate power structures. In particular, three mistaken ideas have bedeviled the analysis of household intimacy:
1. The vision of households as domains of sentiment and solidarity in which any intrusion of economic calculation threatens corruption of sustaining social relations
2. Dismissal of household economic activity, including women’s and children’s domestic work, as inconsequential for the economy as a whole, except perhaps when it comes to consumption
3. In reaction to the first two ideas, claims that self-conscious revamping of households as rational economic organizations would improve their efficiency and rectify unjust inequalities
We will never succeed in explaining the interplay of intimacy and economic activity in households without recognizing the distinctive patterns of interdependence and coordination produced by shared involvement in these communities of fate (Heimer and Stinchcombe 1980).
The mistaken ideas actually incorporate some correct intuitions but take them too far. As a consequence of shared living over substantial periods of time, for example, household members do commonly develop understandings, practices, rights, obligations, and sensitivities with regard to each other that surpass the complexity, intensity, and durability of most other social ties. Care and coupling do take place disproportionately within households. More so than in most other caring and coupling relationships, however, household interactions with third parties almost inevitably impinge on the quality of caring and coupling. Legally and morally, household members acquire obligations with regard to each other’s behavior that no other settings entail.
Anglo-Saxon law, furthermore, literally fortifies the doctrine of separate spheres. Under the word castle, the Oxford English Dictionary offers references from 1567 onward in the vein of the great jurist Sir Edward Coke: “The house of every man is to him as his Castle and Fortresse, as well for his defence against injury and violence, as for his repose.” Note the gendered principle! American law still insists on the distinction between transactions taking place within a household and otherwise similar transactions taking place elsewhere. Despite more than a century of feminist agitation, the law still bears residues of a time when, legally speaking, if by no means necessarily in practice, men ran their households and represented them in the outside world.
Has commercialization changed all that? Authorities, critics, and professional economic analysts often hold to an illusion: since the decline of family farms and domestic crafts, they say, households have lost their economic function. Households once did important economic work, goes the argument, but now they only consume. The illusion maintains a distinction between separate spheres but now portrays one of the spheres as seriously shrunken. Accordingly, household economic activity disappears from public discussions of inequality and productivity. As we will soon see, however, production and distribution remain alive and well within American households. Feminists may well be right to claim that equal pay for housework and outside wage work would benefit women as much as equal wages within commercial firms would. In that sense, “market standards” can serve as levers for equity. Nevertheless, the way to make such levers effective is not to deny that households have special properties but to identify those special properties and investigate how they work.