Women as primary breadwinner: the struggle

March 5, 2014

Money w indianWomen in my age group  are carrying the majority of the financial burden in their families more often than before, or so it seems to me.

At least half a dozen women I know either are the sole support of their families or the primary breadwinner. Their husbands and partners either don’t work outside the home, work minimally or work at a far lower rate of pay. One is a house-husband with child care responsibilities. Several have varying degrees of chronic illnesses, combined with burn-out. Some have made bad business and life decisions that impact their financial stability. In each case, it’s the woman who has stepped in to make things whole.

What are we to make of this?

I wish I could say that this reflects a more equal society and the women in these cases are embracing their power, but it’s not true. These women are struggling with the role of primary wage-earner.  That’s because our generation is really a bridge generation. We’re old enough to have incorporated some of the role values of our parents’ generation–after all, that’s what we saw.  But we lived women’s liberation and are young enough to have seen a different model, one in which the woman is the achiever.

And yet, many of us are uncomfortable with the role of primary breadwinner.

gender_Symbol_5A while back I was with an underemployed man whose earnings were significantly less than mine–maybe 10 percent.  A big gap. In addition, his motivation to earn more just wasn’t there. When he was without a job, he was perfectly comfortable on unemployment and ran it out until it expired before finding another job.  It was his choice–he wouldn’t even look for a job until unemployment ran out  It was also his choice to remain underemployed.  Very different from my attitudes and values.

Partnering up with him long term was on the table and I had to go through significantly rationalizations about gender roles etc. to even consider that possibility.  My justification was this: “If the roles were reversed, no one would think twice. It’s a modern age and I’m a progressive woman.”

Most of the people around me, men and women around my age, disapproved.  And to tell the truth, as much as I rationalized, the earnings gap would have been a wedge in the relationship, which ended for other reasons.

The women I know who make more than their men struggle with this.  I’m wondering what you think.



25 comments on “Women as primary breadwinner: the struggle
  1. Jacqueline says:

    I am the sole income provider in our household since downsizing to a simpler life 12 years ago. Granted, we have been with each other 25 years, so we have a strong history to sustain this, but there are issues that arise from inside and what the outside world thinks. I couldn’t do what I do without his support and if this was the 1950’s and roles were reversed no one would bat an eye.

    • admin says:

      Your history is absolutely key in my opinion but I also agree that the outside world always has to weigh in and it’s not always supportive, at least it wasn’t in my case. But in my case, well, there were “issues.”

  2. It was definitely a factor in one relationship I had. He was unhappy with his job and it was awkward that I made significantly more. I think it’s one of the reasons I ended the relationship. In some ways it shouldn’t matter–all other things being equal. But in the story you shared I might have been resentful of his unwillingness to share/contribute–that’s the where the issue lies for me, a willingness from both parties to make the finances work.

  3. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I agree with you, Carol. It would be an issue for me as well. Actually the bigger issue is his becoming complacent on unemployment. That doesn’t jive with me very well.

  4. I’ve always made a good bit more than my spouse so I can relate. I would draw the line at someone who was willing to be complacent on unemployment as, like you, that doesn’t sit well with me and I wouldn’t respect them in the long run. It’s an interesting line to walk, and it brings up some very interesting and often difficult conversations. I hope the next generation of families are more comfortable with it and that it becomes less of an issue. Now if we women were just paid as much as men this whole thing would be a whole ‘other discussion.

  5. Diane says:

    It definitely can be a problem!

  6. Robyn says:

    I agree with several of the comments above. For me it isn’t about the actual dollar amount but about having initiative and striving to reach one’s full potential. My earning more isn’t a problem. My always striving to better myself by helping others do the same while he sits on unemployment/not trying to work? THAT would be a problem a problem.

  7. I don’t think this need both women and men feel for the man to make more money comes just from cultural upbringing. I think it is biological. In a natural world, pregnancy, childbirth, and babies incapacitate women from taking care of themselves, and without birth control and the ability to control when or if a woman became incapacitated it is obvious why women sought out men who would take care of them.

    And down deep in our genes we women still want to know our man can take care of us.

    You can’t erase biological in two generations. We’ve been naturally selected to be that way because desiring to be cared for, and craving a strong capable man who can and will take care of you was necessary for our survival and the survival of our offspring (which genetically is the only reason we exist in the first place).

    Men have been naturally selected to be care takers. The ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of their women and the progeny they produced didn’t create offspring who survived (unless you were really virile like Genghis Khan who supposedly is the great, great great granddaddy of 1/4 of Asia)

    As far as a man who is content sucking off the government teat? Well, that man might as well live with his mother, and no woman really thinks a man who lives with his mother when he’s full grown is worth much. No woman really respects that, and you can’t sustain sexual contentment with a man you don’t respect. Or at least I can’t. And apparently neither can you. Which isn’t a bad thing at all.

    • admin says:

      I love this discussion and I don’t disagree that there are biological underpinnings to all this. A discussion for our next lunch date!

  8. Michelle R says:

    I’m a generation behind you, but I see that it causes issues with some, depending on upbringing. Women my age (in my circle) aren’t bothered a bit by it as long as the significant other is pulling his weight in some way. However, I see some men my age being bothered by HIS woman making more — maybe it’s OK for others, but not that person’s ego. One friend’s former spouse simply couldn’t stand not being the bread-winner, but he didn’t have the education or skill set to earn more. I think part of that issue was intelligence — the wife was much, much more intelligent that the spouse (I guess “trophy husband” isn’t something all men aspire to.) With income equality often comes a shift in the division of labor at home — if both people’s time is equally valued and both spouses are equally busy with work, then both people have to pick up the menial tasks of running a household, right? Some folks perceived that because women made less, they’re time wasn’t as valuable and they were expected to do all the household tasks, keep track of bills and kids, send greeting cards, and so on (of course, this has value as well but women were invalidated in so many ways). I’ve seen some in our parents’ age bracket bristle at notion of the man doing these tasks. And I have to laugh — change is happening right now. Women are earning more college degrees than men, so this shift will continue. Seize the day, ladies! Our roles and relationships are what we make them.

    • admin says:

      Great comment. You know when I was with Bob, he had retired early on way too little, but put so much sweat equity into our life together that it was never the issue it was with the next one. Thanks, Mich!

  9. Oh, I think this is so specific to the couple, their situation (what bills they have and what the nonworking spouse does to support the household through other actions) and their history together. My husband and I used to make about the same, and then he outpaced me. I had a problem with that initially, but now I’ve adjusted. I have two friends who are married to attorneys. They both started to earn more than their lawyer husbands. One husband flipped out because he really situated his self-esteem in his earning power. (His wife started doing motivational speaking.) Another is just fine with his wife earning more (she’s a nurse anesthetist which commands a good salary, and he’s an in-house lawyer, which is one of the lower-end salaries for attorneys). My husband keeps telling me that he would be A.OK if I earned more and then he could spend more time writing books. (He’s already written 11, but he’d like to spend more time at that task rather than his day job as a university administrator.) Good question!

  10. Susan Cooper says:

    In my opinion there is a huge difference between men who while hard-working may earn less than their female counterpart, men who may not be able to work due to a long term illness and men that are just lazy, or in your words “His motivation to earn more just wasn’t there. When he was without a job, he was perfectly comfortable.” That last reason is the one that is unacceptable.

    • admin says:

      Let me add one more piece of information: his significant clinical depression. Not garden variety. Significant.

  11. I’ve made more than my husband for about 12 years – we’ve been married for 15. He was down-sized from a position while I was promoted. I asked him once if it bothers him that I make more and he said not one bit.

    BTW – I’ve known several women who make more than their husbands. I think with the state of the economy it no longer matters who makes the money, just that there is money.

    • admin says:

      I think that’s true for those on the edge for sure, but not certain it’s true in all cases. In fact, I know cases where it doesn’t hold true. But that’s in my age cohort.

      • I agree and I also think it may bother my husband more than he lets on. Not in a jealous or chauvinistic way, but in a feeling of inadequacy way. My SIL made more than my brother for a time and I am sure he felt inadequate that he couldn’t provide more.

        As to the depression thing, when I was younger I dated a man who suffered from depression. He was in and out of work and school. I ended up having to pay when we went out. He ended up breaking up with me because he thought I was too controlling – I thought he should get a job. I’m sure it was for the best. I don’t think I really understood his disease and it would have taken a toll on me and our future family which we had talked of having.

  12. Michelle R says:

    Talk about timing…check this article out. I think the author hits the nail on the head when she says women need to press the issue with men. http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/why-male-execs-feel-no-guilt-about-their-families/2168712

    • admin says:

      It’s a great piece. Thanks for calling it to our attention. As a society–We are overdue to talk directly about these role issues, especially as they pertain to families with kids and the inequality of it all. If you scroll up to Chloe’s comment, that may have a partial explanation–that biological drive.

  13. I honestly don’t want to be the prime wage earner… I have been there making a lot of money & was so unhappy with my jobs. If I liked them, it would have been different. My hubby was OK with it too & he worked hard too.

    I think the couples have to decide what is right for them. I know many where the man stays home on purpose vs. out of a job & the woman likes the job – rarer for sure. I see more of the man not wanting to be making less….

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