Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a workaholic. Romantically, I’ve always been almost exclusively attracted to artists. It should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve ended up the breadwinner in my relationship.
That hasn’t always been the case — but right now my husband, Jacob, is freelance, while my salaried job as the head of content at a startup has become our main source of income and health insurance. When we got married in 2017, the situation was reversed. I was working from home as a communications director for a remote agency while Jacob’s career as a creative director was taking off, and he was significantly outearning me for the first time in our six years together. But the balance of financial power is a pendulum, and five months later it swung back in my direction. Jacob decided to leave his agency job rather suddenly due to a toxic work environment –– his female boss was abruptly let go for no reason. How could I not totally support this decision? He was miserable, I was making plenty of money to pay our (thankfully reasonable) rent, and he had been turning down freelance work left and right in his full-time position. We both thought it would be an easy transition.
What I didn’t expect was that he wouldn’t really find work for a while, and resentment grew on both ends. I was frustrated the house was a mess when I came home from work. He was upset that I wasn’t able to see how hard he was trying to find jobs. I was angry that I was still doing most of the grocery shopping, and that I couldn’t splurge on shoes even though I worked so hard. He was feeling unappreciated. I was jealous of the time he had that I didn’t, because I was busting my ass at the office all day, while also picking up freelance gigs on nights and weekends. I was scared that on bad days at work I was trapped in my job because one of us needed a stable income and health insurance, and that responsibility fell squarely on me. Though my feelings were valid, they weren’t always necessarily fair. After all, we made the decision together.
I was frustrated the house was a mess when I came home from work. He was upset that I wasn’t able to see how hard he was trying to find jobs.
This is all to say, assuming the role of primary earner during the first year of our marriage has been an interesting exercise in communication, familial roles, and much to my chagrin...math.
Of course, I’m not the first female breadwinner to struggle navigating the topsy-turvy reality of playing provider: a 2014 Pew Research study found that women in America were the sole or primary financial provider in four-in-ten households with children younger than 18. Yet media coverage would lead you to believe that these kinds of relationships are doomed. Everyone is quick to cite the 2013 study that found in relationships where the woman outearns the man, the couple has less sex. Late last year, Tucker Carlson drew Twitter ere when he claimed that “there is more drug and alcohol abuse in areas where women outearn men.” And in 2017, Ashley C. Ford wrote an article for Refinery29, where she surveyed more than a 100 millennial women about their breadwinner status, many of whom expressed their unhappiness of being put into role they found to be stressful and burdensome.
I’ve got to believe that breadwinner status is hard for everyone, regardless of gender. But I’ve learned is that it’s especially fraught for straight women. Even as more of us step up to support our families financially, it’s not really a popular topic of conversation. Jacob and I are incredibly communicative about everything, and yet, when it came to this new dynamic, it often felt like we weren’t speaking the same language.
Feeling frustrated and alone in my new role as breadwinner, I wanted to know more. Which is why I interviewed more than 20 female breadwinners, both straight and queer, of various ages and place in their lives, to figure out how exactly they manage the challenges. I wanted to know how they cope, if they embrace the mantle, and how we can move toward a new reality where everyone — male or female — can feel good about the roles they assume in their marriage. From business owners, account directors, and social media coordinators to university lecturers and freelance writers, the women I spoke with spanned a diverse range of industries, with one thing in common: their breadwinner status had dramatically affected their relationships in ways they had never imagined, both good and bad, yet most wouldn’t have it any other way.
While all of them share a variety of frustrations and silver linings, one thing that is clear is that the old adage is true: money is power. And when a woman assumes the traditional male role as provider, it can be confusing — it’s hard to shake society’s gender norms. We tend to put these relationships under the microscope and scrutinize every single dynamic. It’s almost as if we overhype the worst stereotypes about men (see every sitcom ever featuring lovable goofs incapable of loading a washing machine) and women (see those same sitcoms featuring overbearing nags).
Eleanor*, a 39-year-old business owner, blames her husband’s “shitty attitude about household chores” on his upbringing, and she doesn’t connect their conflicts over household responsibilities to her position as primary earner. In fact, I was a little surprised to find that only a third of the women I interviewed indicated that fights over domestic responsibilities increased alongside their salaries. After all, women typically take on more domestic responsibilities regardless of how much they’re contributing financially because of societal norms and expectations. In fact, the more a woman outearns her husband, the less housework he performs: It’s been noted that many female breadwinners pick up the majority of domestic responsibilities in addition to their professional workload to assuage their husbands’ feelings of emasculation.
It makes sense when you consider that the stereotype of women keeping homes is reinforced in movies, on TV, in every single laundry detergent commercial, and likely even watching our own parents interact. When men are put it in the same position, they have no blueprint to instinctually follow. Just watch Michael Keaton struggle to “become the lady of the house” in the 1983 classic Mr. Mom. That movie is more than 35 years old, and yet there’s been no iconic update to that pop culture trope. Women’s media regularly repeats the line that girls cannot become what they cannot see. But that’s also true for boys.
For the female breadwinners who weren’t getting into fights over dirty dishes, their relationships were built on the understanding that their partners would actively take on non-traditional responsibilities — whether that's childcare, cleaning, or emotional support — and would be valued for that contribution.
For the female breadwinners who weren’t getting into fights over dirty dishes, their relationships were built on the understanding that their partners would actively take on non-traditional responsibilities.
Sara, 37, a legal assistant, was laid off at the same time as her husband, but she was able to secure a new job first. After she gave birth to their first child, they decided it made sense for her husband to say at home. “The biggest thing has been to trust him to take on the primary caregiver role. I don’t pull second shift at home or expect to run everything while my husband just helps. I’m also not picky about how he does things, dad wise. I concentrate on my part, let him do his part, and enjoy hanging out with my baby.”
But Sara might be an outlier. Even if breadwinner status makes women feel entitled to demand more from the partners domestically, typically it doesn’t always shake out so evenly, especially if there are children involved. While a majority of parents from dual, full-time working households say certain responsibilities are shared equally, about half say the mother does more when it comes to managing children’s schedules and activities. (On the other hand, one of the secrets of becoming a female CEO is having a husband who’s willing to be the primary caregiver.)
Some of the women I spoke to think these feelings of parity can be achieved by alternating breadwinner status throughout the duration of the relationship. When you’re in it for the long haul, unless you’ve decided on permanent roles from the get go, it makes sense that the primary earner would fluctuate over the years as life happens.
“The balance of who makes more has gone back and forth several times in our 20-plus-year relationship. At this point it’s a non-issue for us” says Jamie Beth, a 42-year-old writer and administrative assistant.
“We sort of switch off who has the ‘good job’ (the one that makes the money) and which of us gets to do the creative bit for awhile,” says Julie, 41, a talent agent, describing the give and take in her marriage. “Right now I have a start-up business and so for the past year he's had the good job, but for the previous six years, it was me.”
But there were other women who embraced their ambition and couldn’t imagine another way of life. Jane*, a creative director I interviewed, found the only way she could make her relationship work was by shucking norms. “When we tried to have a ‘normal’ relationship, we failed miserably. But, as soon as we started getting weird and doing what we wanted instead of what we were supposed to do, things got better and better.”
It was stories like Jane’s that I found to be the most helpful. Being the breadwinner is hard, but so many of these women have found ways to make it work and as a result, their relationships have thrived.
“In a way, it puts a microscope over problems that you may not have noticed before,” says Jennifer, 32, a merchandiser. “It's actually a great thing to be able to see these problems clearly and have an opportunity to pull yourselves out of them. And if you do, you'll be stronger than ever.”
As Martha, 33, a biopharma marketer, observes, it can be a gift if you have a partner who isn’t threatened by the dynamic, and you have a clear plan for each person to feel valued and productive. She’s found that she’s more confident, and she likes being able to spend money without needing permission.
It seems as though the real secret to success as a female breadwinner is not letting anyone in the relationship feel taken for granted. Which, let’s be honest, should be the case in every relationship regardless of who earns more. Every contribution is valuable, and no one wants to feel their efforts, whether they be domestic or financial, count any more or less. Plus, there’s something truly magical about finding that someone who supports your ambitions.
“I'm in my professional prime, doing and achieving the things I actually dreamed I would as a child,” Jane, the creative director, shares. “And, it's made possible by my partner who is literally always there for me, quietly replacing the collection of empty cans on my desk with a fresh La Croix when I'm stuck on long calls and reminding me to be a person.”
Still, that primary earner status is scary, and it comes with a lot of pressure. I’ve had moments of feeling trapped, resentful, and burdened with a responsibility I took on without really understanding how it would make me feel. But it’s also made me made me stronger, more resourceful, and more vocal in all parts of my life. I’m proud that I had the power to provide needed financial support when my family needed it.
Even though I’m a self-diagnosed workaholic, this might not always be my reality. But, one day when it’s not, I’m going to be glad knowing that it’s something I’m more than capable of doing, and that my relationship can withstand shifts in balance and power with a few (or a lot) of hard conversations. I’ll also, most likely, be bummed I can’t use my breadwinner status to leverage getting out of making the bed quite so much.
*Names have been changed.