The Breadwinner Complex: Are Women Feeling Guilty?
Increasingly women are finding themselves the primary earners.
Posted Jul 22, 2013
Before Lori and James’s second son was born last fall, they devised a plan. After her short maternity leave, Lisa would return to work as a tech consultant while James would quit his job as a lawyer to stay home with the boys. “We knew that we wanted one of us at home with the kids,” Lori said. “I was earning more, my hours were more flexible, and I also loved my work more than he did at that point, so it seemed to make sense that if one of us was going to stay home, it’d be him.”
For a while—and logistically, at least—the new arrangement worked out great. But slowly, surely, Lori began to notice a growing feeling of uncertainty. She found herself working 10 hours days and returning home to face a pile of dirty laundry and kids looking to her to make dinner. She got defensive when friends described James as “out of work,” as if they considered him a slacker husband. But the hardest part, she reported, was how she very often felt like she had to downplay her own economic contributions to the household and be supportive and nurturing while offering her husband reassurances that she still valued his masculinity. “I wanted him to feel important and valued because I loved him,” she said. “But I had to ask myself: Am I really apologizing for making more money?”
As more and more women enter—and remain in—the workplace, an increasing number of them have found themselves the primary earners for their households. The Pew Research Project reports that the share of wives whose income topped their husbands’ rose from 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2007. But while men seem to welcome the existence of dual income households, and marriages marked by (mostly) shared responsibilities, there’s a hitch: The guys still want to be the primary breadwinner. That is, she can bring home the bacon, so long as it’s not all of it.
Or even most of it. A study in the journal Sex Roles found that although the younger generation of men tends to be more accepting of women’s work roles, they are reluctant to accept her role as co-provider, which echoes a study by the Council on Contemporary Families that found that although the social pressures that once discouraged women from working outside the home have fallen, the pressure on husbands to be the primary earner remain. A 2008 report by the Families and Work Institute, meanwhile, noted that traditional clear-cut gender roles are giving way to a “new normal” that is both more egalitarian and challenging: One study conducted by the center found that 60 percent of men in dual-income marriages report work/family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977.
The fact is that even among the most liberated, 21st century couples, there remains a hardwired expectation that the man will earn more money than the woman. When he doesn’t, tensions can arise between alpha women and beta males. Nicole, a high-powered magazine editor, found this to be the case with her husband, Peter, an artist who worked part-time at a coffee shop. (“Mostly for the camaraderie and free coffee,” she told me.) When he lost that job and decided to focus fulltime on his art, Nicole struggled with being understanding, supportive—and concerned with his feeling emasculated when he had to ask her for extra cash—and believing that he could likely find a job if he’d only try. She also found herself relying on Peter’s attentiveness. “I did want dinner waiting when I got home. And for the bills to be paid. And the sink to not be piled with dirty dishes,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily want a thank you for going to work—I loved work, and I could not imagine giving it up—and I never took his attentiveness for granted, but I did expect it.” On a rational level, Nicole knew it was a positive thing that she had the opportunity to earn as much as she did, and to be a part of the move toward gender equality in the workplace. She did not choose to marry Peter because she expected him to be her meal ticket, and loved that he was passionate about his art. On an emotional level, though, she wanted him to out earn, or at least match, her. “I didn’t want constant validation,” she said. “But I did want occasional validation.”
Peter, on the other hand, grew increasingly depressed. He tried not to resent Nicole’s income—it was, after all, what afforded him the ability to survive without a job of his own—but he couldn’t help but feel like a second class citizen in his own home. This is common: In Breadwinner Wives and the Men they Marry, Randi Minetor writes that many unemployed or under-earning men feel wounded by what they see as their diminished status. Their self-esteem can suffer. Through her Bread and Roses Project, which tracks couples in the U.S. and Canada in which women are the primary breadwinners, Carleton University professor Andrea Doucet found that men can struggle with the social expectation that husbands should always be the breadwinner, and that “you can’t just reverse the genders.”
Which is why for many women, financial power hasn’t quite created the balance they were hoping for. Many breadwinning women report feeling serious financial pressure—something men have been feeling for years. At the same time, it’s likely that as time progresses, we’ll see a tendency of spouses to pass the primary breadwinner title back and forth—the manifestation of true equity in marriage. Until then, Lori summed up the current state quite well: “Just as I struggled with how to go back to work after kids and still feel like I’m fulfilling my maternal duties, he struggles with what it means, as a man, to not go back. We’re both asking the same question—who are we?—and looking for the same validations. But we’re the same people we always were.”
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com