Women are earning more degrees than men. While the top ranks of companies are still predominantly male, more women are advancing into leadership roles. This eventually starts to affect the composition of families and their economics. Consequently, lots of people have been pontificating lately about women who earn more than their partners. How do people feel about that?
The answer is that people feel lots of different ways.
“Breadwinner moms” is a broad category, even among two-parent families that might consider themselves (at some point) upper middle class, and with both partners at least somewhat attached to the workforce. The dynamic is different in a family where mom earns $80,000 and dad earns $70,000 vs. one where mom earns $200,000 and dad is taking on the occasional freelance project when it suits him. These families are both different from one where dad was earning $100,000 and mom earns $60,000, and then dad lost his job and is having trouble finding a comparable one — making mom the breadwinner, but in vastly different circumstances than the family intended.
So I was interested to see a Working Mother and PwC poll, which is being released today, which attempts to segment breadwinner moms by circumstance. Did mom choose to be the breadwinner? Or would she prefer that her partner support her family?
A lot of women are in the latter category. Working Mother found that only 29% of moms surveyed became the breadwinners by choice vs. 59% of the dads. These two categories of women (choice vs. chance) turn out to have quite a gap in everything from how satisfied they are in the support their spouses give them in meeting work demands to the level of respect they get at work and home. But some of the biggest gaps in satisfaction happen in those core, gendered issues of “how at-home tasks are divided” and “spouse/partner’s contribution to caring for children.” While 75 percent of women who prefer to be the breadwinner are happy with how tasks are split at home, only 48 percent of women who’d prefer their partners be the breadwinner are. And while 89 percent of women who prefer to be breadwinners are happy with their partners’ contribution to caring for the children, only 58 percent of women who want their partners to out-earn them are.
A number of the women I’ve interviewed for Mosaic have partners who are primary caregivers for their children. Again, this is not the same situation as a family where both partners work full time and mom just happens to earn more, but it’s been interesting to see the various stories people tell themselves that don’t need to be true, but can still influence happiness levels. Here are some that bubble up when gender roles are in flux:
1. When someone gets home from work, dinner should be started (if not finished), and the house picked up. I interviewed Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother magazine, and she mentioned having this story going on in her head. When she was growing up, she took care of her much-younger brother every day after school. “The deal was, dinner had to be started, and the house picked up when my mother and stepfather got home,” she says. Now, she and her husband split nights that they pick up the kids. “In my mind, when he says he’s on the way home, I should go around and pick up the house. It’s ingrained in my head that he should come home and the house should be picked up.”
Her husband does not subscribe to this same narrative. On her late nights at the office, “I come home like, 9 or 10, the house is never picked up,” she says. “He’s gotten all the kid stuff done but the house is never picked up. Part of me goes, seriously?”
She’s realized “I have to let it go,” because house care and kid care are not the same jobs. Indeed, even dinner is not part of the same job as taking care of kids. Some women make their peace with this, and plan on take-out, or get meals delivered, or hire a personal chef, or cook on weekends, or cook when they get home. Others realize this must be negotiated separately — they aren’t bundled jobs as people assume with moms in caregiving roles. Dad may be willing to cook or clean, but he isn’t going to do it automatically. That has to be worked out. He may also have vastly different notions of what a good job looks like. This brings us to point #2.
2. Mom is always caregiver-in-chief. This belief becomes evident in complaints from dads who are primary caregivers. Their wives race in the door and act as if the children have been neglected when not in their care, pointing out things not done to their satisfaction — e.g. the kid’s face is dirty. Because they’ve been playing in the backyard right until she got home! (And hence not making dinner).
While many moms who are primary caregivers might appreciate their partners taking over more in the evenings, evening care can be negotiated too. Some breadwinner moms hesitate to even take an evening off to, say, take a yoga class. They think they need to spend every minute they’re not working with their children or…something will happen. But as long as you’re giving your partner space for his hobbies, the kids will be fine. The kids are probably getting a lot of parental time.
3. Men draw their identities mostly from work. Another mom was quite concerned that she support her husband’s professional development, his exploration of career choices, etc. Which would be great if he wanted to go back to work. But he didn’t. Given that she earned good money in a perfectly reasonable job, instead of fretting about her husband’s career, she’d probably be better off if she accepted him at his word. It’s really not that complicated. While no one has to stay home, if one party wants to and the other enjoys her job and can support the family, there’s no reason to tell stories about how men should think about work that they don’t, themselves, believe.