Breadwinning, and stories we tell ourselves

photo-123Women 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.



11 Responses to Breadwinning, and stories we tell ourselves


  1. Cara Marcano says:

    I’d like to read more about this … I love to earn and I wouldn’t mind outearning my spouse… I do have a lot more trouble taking time out for myself outside of work and kids than my spouse does… I think that folks would be better at marriage if there were more honest writing and info about what marriage and family is and how to work on it within it etc. A lot of it is scripting from childhood and some things are just preference. I actually do not care if toys are picked up and want to encourage free play .. so as long as toys are not in my areas (my bedroom or office) I do not really care.. whereas my spouse wants toys picked up … one is not right or wrong but all are pretty loaded etc. what I do in these situations is either try to be supportive or leave the room while say discpl about toy pickup is going on… more honest writing about this where people can say admit to a preference or weakness — sharing info about one’s marriage or work or deeply ingrained scripting is kind of an intimate thing to do and what is hard is to get folks to say share this info without being attached or that there is one right or wrong way to do it .. I find it shocking that many women would prefer their husband like make more than them etc. I don’t really like cooking or cleaning and I work really hard when issues of cooking or cleaning come up to be like, “please engage someone else in the household about this” as this is outside areas I handle. first you have to figure out what works for you or not and then you have to make it fit with both spouse, family and society’s expectations of you… so this is sort of complicated and interesting and evolving .. and would be good to support with specific data . like hey.. if you want x,y and z statistics are clear about x,y, z being part of that …

  2. Cloud says:

    I outearn my spouse, and always have. It took someone pointing it out to me to make me realize I am technically the “breadwinner,” though, because we both work hard and contribute money to the family’s well-being. I just didn’t think about it as one of us being the breadwinner. I’m not sure which category that puts me in- I didn’t really choose to be the breadwinner, and I don’t care that I remain the breadwinner (as long as I get to keep doing interesting work and the family as a whole has enough money), but I am not sure I’d say it happened by chance, either. After all, I went and got a PhD and pursued a career!
    ******
    I’ve been working on getting time for yoga in my schedule. I have come to the conclusion that the only way it will happen is if I go to a class after dinner some night. I’ve identified a couple of options, but was surprised that my husband pushed back. I don’t know whether he isn’t getting the space he needs for his hobbies, or just hates soloing on bathtime/bedtime (which I agree is hard to do in our house right now) and the idea of having to do that once a week is making him push back. Our routine is also needing to resettle after my company moved and made my commute much longer- so maybe it is just that there is too much change right now. Whatever it is, I was struck by how hard it can be to get a schedule that really works for everyone, particularly when long commutes suck a lot of time off the table. I have a better understanding of why some people just decide it isn’t worth the effort and have one partner quit paid work. I’m nowhere near that point, yet, but I am definitely considering a big change in work so that I don’t have to do this commute. Right now, my scheduling problems feel overconstrained. I should probably write a post about this….

  3. omdg says:

    I will most likely eventually out-earn my spouse. We are both happy with this arrangement since he doesn’t have as much job security, and both of us are quire risk averse.

    I will say that while i am generally very happy with the care my husband gives my daughter, two things REALLY ANNOY ME (can you tell??).

    1) the fact that he takes no initiative whatsoever in arranging childcare. I do literally everything with respect to finding nannies, daycares, and schools, setting up interviews/meetings, deciding what we should do, and enacting the plan. The work can be substantive. The thing is, if i ask him, he’ll just drop the ball. I yearn for the day that he’s supposed to arrange the sitter, where he finds out something has come up with childcare after i’ve left the house, and he is left with a steaming pile of poo to deal with. Someday…

    2) I have to tell him what to do with respect to household chores (mandatory ones like grocery shopping), or else he will lie on the couch all weekend while i do work. Some initiative would be awesome.

    • Laura says:

      @omdg- I hear you on the childcare one. I guess the most sympathetic version of this is that he thinks it’s more efficient to have one person in charge so there’s less possibility of dropping the ball but…yeah.

      • Jenna says:

        My husband and I don’t have kids, but I am the schedule maker in our house, from doctors appointments to social things. And my husband used to never to do chores without prompting.
        *
        The way we worked it out was he got all the regular chores – dishes, picking up around the house, groceries. I got the irregular chores – things like scheduling the car for maintenance and organizing what we do socially together. He doesn’t have to remember — he just does them pretty much continually.
        *
        Money as an example- we don’t lump it together. He pays the bills (regular), but I research our investment options and put together a strategy (irregular).
        *
        We’re each assigned these chores and I don’t do his chores. Even if all the dishes are piled up in the sink.
        *
        We’ve negotiated this several times, but in the end, we are much happier. At first he didn’t see the planning aspect as work. Once we clarified this, it helped.
        *
        The negotiation part is key — it’s important to be happy about this! It’s a big deal. Some people finding it unromantic or keeping score. I find it makes us happier.

  4. I’m glad my husband and my family life are atypical. DH steps up to the plate and I don’t care too much about stereotypical things. It turns out we both draw our identities from work, not just one of us. (Though work in the sense of what we produce, not in the sense of our jobs.)
    *
    I think I’m still technically the bread-winner until my summer money runs out, and then DH will earn a little more. We’re pretty evenly matched right now. When DH was making nothing he did pick up more of the household stuff, though not as much as either of us thought he would do (he basically stuck to the traditionally female chores and didn’t pick up any of the handyman stuff until suddenly he was employed again and we were back to having no time again).

  5. Ana says:

    I definitely out-earm my spouse and likely always will, unless one of us makes a drastic change. However…one thing I’ve noticed is that in situations like mine, where the women makes more, but not orders of magnitude more, and has a flexible job situation, she still does and feels compelled to do, at LEAST 50% of home/child care. When its reversed, if the man is making more than the woman, I see the women taking on way more of the household responsibilities. Its like the man will meet halfway…but no more (there are obviously exceptions, but those are usually when the woman is making a really really high income and has a lot more work responsibility).
    Did I plan to be “the breadwinner”? Not necessarily. It all came down to the person I ended up marrying, and I certainly didn’t make that choice based on income potential. Do I resent it? No, though I sometimes resent what I mentioned above…and wish we had explicitly discussed this earlier on.
    We tend to get home at the same time. None of those 3 cliches apply to us, thankfully.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana- I’m glad none of those cliches apply. On the men doing 50% — there may be something to this. There may also be different assumptions of what needs to be done. Like, is being out of milk a problem, or is it just something the household can cope with for a few days? The answers are different for different families, and probably different members within the same family might disagree on this question.

  6. Alissa says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. I just read the article in Working Mother magazine last night and immediately thought of you. I am the breadwinner. I do have the expectation that dinner will be ready when I get home from work and am frustrated when it is not done. I am not a good cook and don’t like that aspect of domestic life. I have tried to alleviate this frustration by talking in the morning or the night before about dinner ideas.
    My two struggles as breadwinner are 1. the “caregiver in chief” which is actually more of a “oh mom’s home now and I’ve cared for you all day so now she can be in charge” making it hard for me to do things after work and make plans on the weekends with my friends. I’ve started doing these things and am fortunate my husband hasn’t pushed back. My 2nd problem is that as the chief breadwinner money can be a bit of sore spot. The biggest is the cable bill. I don’t watch tv. Yet I pay lots $$ for cable. I’d rather use that money is some other way. My husband though is a big tv watcher and has to have the movie channel too.
    I became the breadwinner by choice though if I did it over again I would have a done a better job about discussing expectations for chores and household tasks holding each other accountable.

    • Laura says:

      @Alissa- The caregiver-in-chief issue is a big one. In different couples it’s different people who are driving that assumption — that mom is “in charge” and dad is taking over when she’s not there. One woman described it as her husband punching in and out when she left and arrived from work. But in other couples, it’s mom assuming dad is somehow subpar and she needs to take over to ensure the children are properly parented.

  7. ARC says:

    In the last 2 years, hubby and I have swapped being the breadwinner (me in 2012, him in 2013) so this was an interesting read. I think a lot of it comes from the expectation you set very early on when the kids are babies – whether one parent is “caregiver in chief” or whether it’s shared. Which isn’t to say it can’t be changed, but it’s a LOT of hard work to do that.

    We decided early on that it made more sense for us to be interchangeable for house/kid duty (that may also be related to the fact that we are about 50/50 on earning power when working full time).

    I’m not saying it was easy, as I’m the one that researches most kid/parenting topics, screens sitters, etc. because those types of jobs fall under my project management-y strengths and interest. I’ve made peace with it, because the hubby does/notices things around the house I really don’t care about.

    I’ve found we both tend to “hand off” to the other parent at the end of a long day staying home with the kids.

    Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that friends whose husbands used their paternity leave *after* Mom went back to work (ie, husband is solely responsible for kid during the day for that 4-8 weeks) seem to have a lot less of the “Mom as caretaker in chief” vibe in their relationship.