What do you do when you earn more than your spouse but society thinks you shouldn't? And worse--that a marriage like yours can't last?
For many years we never talked about it to anyone. The fact that I earned more than my husband, by a wide margin, felt like a shameful secret. Even discussing it with my close friends would have seemed like a betrayal of our marriage.
Within the marriage, we discussed it all the time. Or, more accurately, I brought it up all the time. Usually with some combination of hostility, guilt inducement, and a demand that he try to earn more.
In retrospect, I was being unfair. My career as a self-employed writer has proceeded in a straightforward fashion. His as a musician, computer tech, and newspaper columnist, has been more of moving target.
It wasn't that we desperately needed the money. More is always nicer, but I earned enough to cover our needs. It was more my sense of resentment at a situation that felt unfair, coupled with a healthy trepidation about supporting us in a notoriously uncertain profession. And it was something else that I don't like to admit. I had internalized society's idea that the man is supposed to be the breadwinner. Or at least a half-breadwinner. This from such a committed feminist that I once tried to register for the draft because I thought it was unfair that men had to and women didn't.
I'm not the only one.
As a female breadwinner with some qualms about that arrangement it turns out I have a lot of company. I learned just how much while researching a recent column about the "Mommy Wars." Wives out-earn husbands in 38 percent of US marriages. Not only that, in a 2011 Pew survey, half of respondents said that the growth in women's employment has made it harder to have a successful marriage, even when the wife doesn't earn more.
Those who believe a female breadwinner puts a strain on a marriage have statistics on their side. Couples where the wife out-earns the husband are 6 percent less likely to report their marriage as happy, and also 6 percent likelier to have discussed splitting up. I'm happy to say that's something Bill and I never did.
That research provided another finding that's more of surprise. We all know that, on average, women do more housework than men. In female-breadwinner households this is more true, not less so as you might expect. Researchers theorized that wives who earn more than their husbands do extra housework to make up for stepping outside of traditional gender roles. Eventually, the theory goes, that extra effort wears them down and threatens their union.
A better solution?
Ultimately, that question of who does what around the house helped get Bill and me at least partly out of our impasse. Over the past few years, my earnings have increased and my free time has decreased as I got busier and busier. And our standing practice where I was, by choice, in charge of the housework and most of the cooking simply stopped working.
When I complained about my increasingly overloaded schedule, Bill insisted that I let him take over more household chores. It began with running errands to the post office and bank. Soon he was also doing the grocery shopping. More recently, he's taken over much of the housework, almost all the cooking, and pretty much anything else we need, including dropping off dry cleaning and dealing with customer service people over the phone. (He's much more effective at that than I am, anyhow.) As I've come to depend on his being there to handle more and more things so that I don't have to, how much he does or doesn't earn seems less important. The truth is, he helps our partnership more by taking on all these tasks than he likely would by making more money.
Can we talk?
I feel like we're living the new statistics because the wife is the main breadwinner in many of the couples we know. It's usually wrapped in the same sense of secrecy and shame that would have stopped me from writing this column as recently as a year ago.
Some breadwinning wives pour out their frustrations and hopes to me, knowing I'm one of them, as if we were members of Female Earners Anonymous. That right there is a big part of the problem. If we all keep treating the fact that our incomes pay the mortgage as a deep dark secret, most of us will never know how completely normal that has become. And the proportion of higher-earning wives will continue inching toward the 50 percent point with each of us thinking that we alone are an aberration.
Once we can step into the light of day and talk about being a breadwinning wife as though that is a normal thing to be--which it is--we can dig deeper into what that means for each particular partnership. We can ask ourselves what we really need from our spouses.
In my case, I need a support system to handle day-to-day tasks while I focus on work, a sounding board to talk out my problems, and a cheerleader to boost my confidence when challenges arise.
And that's exactly what I have.