When Mom Brings Home the Bacon
In nearly 40 percent of American marriages today, the wife earns more than the husband.
And according to Sandra Tsing Loh’s new piece in The Atlantic, “The Weaker Sex,” this means trouble — for both spouses. After all, notes Loh, “One 2010 study showed that when a woman’s contribution to household income tops 60 percent, the couple is more likely to divorce.”
And why is this? Well, because apparently while we women have evolved into 21st-Century Don Drapers, our husbands have yet to transform themselves into at-your-service Bettys. “When a woman supports the household, she becomes quite sensitive to how the man spends his downtime, particularly when laundry baskets overflow,” says Loh. She mentions one high-powered friend who is so fed up with her writer husband that she forces him to enter emergency marriage counseling for forgetting to change a light bulb.
As a result, the happily divorced Loh wonders whether women who earn more than their husbands have any use for a partner—period. The problem with her analysis is that it relies on an exaggerated version of a power imbalance within a relationship. In Loh’s world, it seems, type-A breadwinner wives pull down big salaries, their sad-sack husbands are bumbling “B-minus housewives” and any sense of equal partnership (not to mention romance) has left the building.
But in the real world, most of those 40 percenters who out-earn their spouses aren’t flush CFOs — they’re middle- or working-class women who still rely on their partners to provide an income, even if it doesn’t match their own. And I’d also hazard to guess that not all lower-paid husbands are pathetic loafers: They’re smart, competent men whose wife happens to cash a bigger paycheck. Plus, what about the husbands who choose to be full-time dads? (Would any stay-at-home-mom stand for their working spouse calling them a “B-minus housewife”? I doubt it.) And what about the husbands who have lost their jobs (since the start of the recession, the unemployment rate has been higher for men than for women), and are still trying to contribute to their families in whatever way they can?
My own husband falls into this last category. In the three-plus years since he was laid off from a longtime position in the music industry, he’s gone back to school, held various freelance gigs, and taken great care of our two-year-old daughter. Has our relationship suffered at times as a result of his unemployment? I’ll be honest, yes. This is largely due to the unexpectedness of it—his becoming a stay-at-home parent wasn’t a decision that we sat down and made together; it just happened. And while I always assumed that I’d be responsible for contributing to the joint bank account — or even being the primary breadwinner — I never really thought that I’d be the only earner for this long. It’s a little scary sometimes.
But it’s also an incredible luxury to have my husband at home, especially being a working mother. I know my daughter is being cared for by someone who loves her every bit as much as I do. If a meeting runs long at work, I don’t have to bite my nails watching the clock tick toward five o'clock. And we’re able to spend weekends having fun as a family rather than packing Saturdays and Sundays full of errands and chores. Is our apartment scrubbed to gleaming perfection 24/7? Uh, no, but I can say with full certainty that I would make an even crappier 1950s-style housewife. At least my husband can cook.
And as far as his financial contribution goes, full-time child care ain’t cheap. As someone who is most definitely not pulling down a CFO’s salary, I breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for daycare or a nanny each month. In fact, we’ve been talking about having a second child, and ironically having one parent at home would make it easier financially — otherwise our child-care bill would double with the arrival of Child Number 2.
Neither of us wants our family’s single-paycheck status to go on indefinitely, but we’re making the best of it. I love and respect my husband, regardless of how much money he makes, because he earns it by being a supportive partner, a great friend and terrific father. Had the roles been reversed (after all, for all I know, 20 years from now my husband could be bankrolling me) I’d certainly want him to treat me the same way — no matter how many burned-out light bulbs I might forget to change.
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