Q&A with Terry Hekker, author of 'Disregard First Book'
Former stay-at-home advocate had to become financially self-reliant
By Sally Herigstad
In the 1980s, financial self-reliance was not at the top of Terry Hekker's priority list. Hekker became the voice of the stay-at-home mom after she wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she told how, in those days, admitting at a party that you were a housewife was probably more embarrassing than saying you were a loan shark.
That article led to Hekker's first book, "Ever Since Adam and Eve." With her inimitable humor and humility, Hekker encouraged many young women -- myself included -- to buck the superwoman having-it-all trend and spend as much of their children's early years with them as possible. She didn't even feel the need to go back to school or start a career as the children grew more independent, because she didn't think she would ever need to support herself.
At 79, however, Hekker's advice to young women regarding careers and financial self-sufficiency has changed. How much? Enough for her to write a second piece for the New York Times called "Paradise Lost (Domestic Division)," followed by a book titled, "Disregard First Book."
Terry Hekker, author,
'Disregard First Book'
Three decades ago, Terry Hekker was an advocate for stay-at-home moms in her book, "Ever Since Adam and Eve." Today, after finding herself divorced at 64, she has changed her tune, encouraging women to be more financially self-reliant and to be prepared in case their lives take a direction they don't expect.
No, Hekker isn't any less pro-family now than she was in 1981. But she learned a hard reality when her husband left her at age 62 -- and the divorce papers arrived on what should have been their 40th anniversary. She talks more about financial self-reliance now, and she worries about young women who don't prepare themselves for whatever direction their lives may take.
CreditCards.com caught up with Hekker and talked about what she has learned.
CreditCards.com: It's been a while now since the divorce. How are you doing?
Terry Hekker: My divorce was final 15 years ago. I've been living alone for 17 years ... and am probably the happiest I've ever been because I have a loving family -- five children and 12 grandchildren -- all well and joyful and living close by. I am fortunate to be extremely healthy, which is crucial to contentment. No one on earth is more lucky than I. And via email I am in contact with so many women who've read my story and relate to it. These valiant women who share their lives with me are a constant source of support.
CreditCards.com: How did you manage your own finances after the divorce?
Hekker: I gave myself a certain amount of cash at the first of each month and lived on that. Paying cash for food, etc., keeps your expenses in check.
One income property I got in the divorce was a storefront building with two floors of apartments above. Now I live in the third floor walk-up and still manage the building -- rents, maintenance etc. -- but since I continuously handled our income properties, my only money problem, post-divorce, was not having enough money.
All my credit cards bore my husband's name, and he canceled them.
CreditCards.com: What jobs have you taken since you've been on your own?
Hekker: I was elected mayor of my village just after my husband left, which paid poorly -- $8,000 a year -- but kept me very busy. After six years, I took a job doing community outreach for a local Equity theater. Better money and fabulous perks. Then my Times column was printed and writing assignments and interviews, etc., took over my life.
CreditCards.com: If you had gone back to work 20 years earlier, say, when the kids were teens, what would you have done?
Hekker: I had several chances to take jobs while my children were still at home, but they required time commitments I couldn't handle. In hindsight, I should have pursued graduate degrees to allow me to teach at the college level later on.
CreditCards.com: What happened to your credit cards when you got divorced?
Hekker: All my credit cards bore my husband's name, and he canceled them.
CreditCards.com: Was it hard to get your first credit card in your name only?
Hekker: My salvation was a credit card sent to me unsolicited from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I'd been a small contributor in my own name and that card, in my name, was a godsend. I since have acquired an American Express and a Visa, and my rule is to pay them off every month. It would have been easy to run up amounts I'd be unable to pay off.
CreditCards.com: How did you build up your credit history again?
Hekker: By paying bills promptly.
I do hope the divorce laws will change, particularly when stay-at-home mothers/wives are concerned
CreditCards.com: Were you left with debt from the divorce?
Hekker: I didn't have debt directly related to divorce. My husband had to pay those expenses.
CreditCards.com: I remember when people who had been married longer than seven years got alimony indefinitely. Were you surprised by the amount and the short duration of your alimony payments?
Hekker: Divorce court awarded me minimal alimony for five years and after that, at age 68, the judge suggested I go for job training. I was shocked by the terms of the alimony payments from my affluent husband, but I was being divorced from a lawyer whose former partner was the deciding judge.
CreditCards.com: Did you learn anything about Social Security benefits for ex-spouses? Did your benefit amount change when your ex died?
Hekker: Even though my husband had remarried 10 weeks before he died, I was notified by Social Security that I would now be receiving his payments, which meant four times what I'd been getting on my own.
CreditCards.com: Do you hold out any hope that divorce laws will be made more equitable again for stay-at-home partners of long-term marriages, or is this the new reality?
Hekker: I do hope the divorce laws will change, particularly when stay-at-home mothers/wives are concerned. The state of Massachusetts is revising its divorce laws so that the alimony reflects the length of time of the marriage being dissolved and other states are looking at more fair distribution of marital assets. I wish NOW [National Organization for Woman] would put its considerable clout behind this issue.
CreditCards.com: I can't help but think how angry I would be in your situation. Yet you seem philosophical and don't write off the good years because of the bad. How do you do it?
Hekker: Anger is self-defeating. Holding on to resentments is tantamount to dragging bags of garbage behind you. The Irish say resentment is taking poison and expecting the other guy to die. There's no magic ploy to getting rid of anger. But there are tricks that helped me. Every morning when your feet hit the floor, you can choose to be happy or miserable that day. Why choose miserable? I would hope you have the children your ex-husband fathered and supported, who benefited from his care and encouragement. Accept and be grateful for that. For many reasons, it is less painful to be widowed than divorced where people take sides and blame can be hurtful. So you will lose some friends, which hurts like hell, but some old friends will thrill you with their warmth. One trick, taught to me by a psychologist friend, is don't dwell on the betrayal. Don't think about his new wife in your kitchen or her dancing with him on New Year's Eve. When those thoughts come into your head get rid of them however you can. I alternated between ice cream and gin ... whatever it takes. But don't dwell on the hurts. Don't clutter your heart and mind with agonizing depressing feelings. Instead focus on building a new life as an independent woman with more talents and opportunities than you ever imagined.
CreditCards.com: You've done some impressive things since you've been on your own. What do you want to accomplish next?
Hekker: I am now 79, so my main wish is to keep living, enjoying every day. I am consumed right now with writing a book about the benefits of old age. A time of life so dreaded by the young, which can turn out to be the best years of all. Harvest time when all the love and care you've given your children returns to you amplified by their children. My mother died at 51, never having seen most of her grandchildren. I am watching mine graduate from college. A few aches and pains are small prices to pay for pushing 80. And there are lots of perks. I don't need an alarm clock. My time is my own, and no one expects much of me. Since there is nothing is more precious than time, in the lottery of life, when you hit my age, you won. So be grateful and celebrate.
See related: Create a separate credit identity after divorce, Help for bad credit: Relationships, marriage and divorce, 6 financial mistakes to avoid in divorce, 6 money tips for late-in-life divorces
Published: November 23, 2011