Secret lives of breadwinner wives

MP Dunleavey

Every time you turn around it seems there's another rah-rah story about the rise of the "alpha earner" wife -- women who bring home most of the bacon while their husbands happily shuttle the kids to and from soccer practice.

I am just such an alpha female, apparently -- as are all of the married members of the Women in Red -- and I'm tired of the pep rally.

What gets left out of the Norman Rockwell portrait of the new nuclear family is a muddy little truth no one wants to discuss: It's not easy being the breadwinner, and many women are having a hard time in that role.

Despite knowing that the man they were choosing to marry was not likely to become the primary earner, some women secretly harbor the wish that their spouse would start bringing home the bucks and support them for a change.

That's a problem. While I can understand feeling ambivalent about being the primary earner, especially when kids enter the picture, women who nurture Cinderella dreams put themselves in a financially precarious position.

The rise of the alpha earner
Take Anna. A hard-driving Washington, D.C., lobbyist who knew from the moment she met her struggling-actor husband that she always would be the breadwinner, she is still finding it hard to sort out her own expectations.

"The great thing about him is that he really doesn't care about money," says Anna, 42.

"On the flip side, the problem is that he doesn't care about money -- so I have to," she says. "That's a big burden."

It was a relief to hear Anna's unsparing take on what may no longer be a trend but a new world order.

It wasn't so long ago that my heart would race with pride and excitement when I heard upbeat statistics about women's earning prowess:

* According to a 2003 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a third of wives earn more than their husbands.

* According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in New York, women overall bring in 43% of household incomes.

I'm over that now. As the mother of a nearly two-month-old son whose husband is leaving his job to take on most of the child care and prep for graduate school, the title "breadwinner" has come to feel an awful lot like "albatross."

"We're in a significant transition," says Ellen Galinsky, director of the Families and Work Institute, acknowledging the difficulties many women face. "Women increasingly define their roles as both emotional provider and economic provider."

And yet it's hard to feel comfortable in that role when you're not sure what the rules are -- and neither is the person you're married to.
Where the girls are
I was surprised by how many women are grappling with this issue of role reversal and reversed expectations on the Women in Red message board.

What seems to work within the traditional male-as-breadwinner model doesn't translate when the family relies more on the woman's income.

As one reader wrote: "If you were paying all the bills, and when you got home your husband had the house clean, dinner ready and the kids all dressed/sleeping/whatever, maybe you wouldn't feel so badly about being the breadwinner. When you have to financially support your household … but then come home and cook/clean/take care of the kids, then it becomes too much to handle."

Of course, not all women feel that way. Of the Women in Red who are married -- Anna, Beth, Stephanie and I -- all are or were the primary earners. (Read more about each of them in "Meet the Women in Red.") But each woman brings a very different attitude to her situation.

Beth: Like Anna and me, Beth, 40, was the primary earner in her relationship from the start -- and she enjoyed it. It has been hard for her to depend solely on her husband's salary during the year she has been in school studying massage therapy.

"It may sound weird, but I always felt that I needed to earn more in order to feel equal," she says.

When she gets her license early next year, Beth is looking forward to regaining her breadwinner status.

Stephanie: On the other hand, Stephanie, 28, is fighting the whole idea of being a breadwinner. She's thrilled that her career in marketing has taken off, but she hates the fact that her salary has outpaced her husband's.

When they started dating in college, it wasn't something she anticipated, but she knew when she agreed to marry him that he was working for a nonprofit organization.

Stephanie knows that she is more ambitious than he is, but she resents the fact that she bears the burden for most of their household expenses. "I wish he would earn at least $50,000 a year," she says.

Anna: Since their daughter was born two years ago, her husband has become the main caregiver. "I feel lucky that we can afford to do that," she says.

At the same time, she admits, she covers all the household expenses and cuts him a check for his needs, "and that part is uncomfortable," she says.

While Anna hopes he'll start working again once their daughter is in school, they haven't discussed that.

Right now, she's trying to cope with a more immediate issue -- one that preoccupies many women, especially when your income is larger: Who is responsible for the household chores?

Quoting the 1970s perfume commercial that featured a do-it-all working wife singing, "I can bring home the bacon/And fry it up in a pan . . . ," Anna points out: "They never told you that you end up serving the bacon and cleaning the pan, too."

MP: And then there's me. Despite the fact that my husband does the lion's share (or is it the lioness' share?) of the domestic duties -- and I count my blessings that he doesn't resent the fact that my career, right now, is more lucrative -- I am a conflicted mess of gratitude, pride and steaming resentment.

To the outside world, we probably look like the storybook version of a spunky female career gal who falls for the supersmart artsy guy -- and together (cue the harps and a nice big sunset) they make it all work!

But in reality, I guess I was kinda sorta hoping this arrangement would be temporary.
The high cost of financial-emotional turmoil
And as we all know -- or at least, those of us who have been writing and reading the WIR columns faithfully know -- the only trouble with having really huge unresolved emotional issues is that sooner or later they're gonna cost you.

So while you could argue that there's nothing wrong with feeling ambivalent about being the major source of income in your household, the peril for women is when the confusion, resentment, uncertainty, hostility, anger, denial or Prince Charming fantasy causes women to fumble the financial ball.

1. In wishing, even for one stupid second, that my husband earned six figures, I'm dodging the fact that if anyone is going to earn big bucks, it's going to be me. And, as they said in "Cool Hand Luke," I'd better get my mind right about that, or I really will dig myself into a big ol' hole by waiting and hoping that it's not really my job.

2. Although Anna is the most matter-of-fact about her breadwinner status, she hates being the one to initiate all of the difficult money talks. Alas, She Who Earns usually ends up being She Who Plans. And unless Anna is OK with her husband remaining unemployed after their daughter starts school -- and what that unemployment might mean for their retirement savings -- she will have to put on her chin guard and insist on a clearer career strategy.

3. As much as Stephanie would like her husband to be on an equal financial footing, or close to it, she'd do better to insist that the two of them get more in sync about how they spend and save the money they earn now.

Keep these fundamentals front and center
We could spend hours debating the emotional nuances of what it means -- for feminism? for the family? -- that the male-as-breadwinner species may be as endangered as the two-toed sloth. But in order to find and keep your financial sanity as a female breadwinner, you have to accept a few basic laws of nature:

1. You're in charge. This doesn't mean you and your partner can't share equally in financial decisions, but you need to accept the fact that you will probably be the one to initiate most discussions, monitor how your money is organized and orchestrate your financial future.

2. Clarify roles and expectations. Given that female breadwinners lack for role models, you have to start with what you've got -- and improvise. That means sitting down with your spouse and expressing what your ideas and expectations are for everything from spending to laundry -- and likewise listening to his.

3. Squash those fairy tale fantasies. You can't be CFO and Cinderella at the same time. If you are the main provider, it's unlikely your mate will be taking care of you financially anytime soon. After all, how many men marry women hoping they will switch roles as breadwinner at some point?

4. Ask for what you need. You don't have to be superwoman. Just be clear in your own mind what you want from him -- emotional support, a little more help around the house, more time with the kids -- and ask for it. You may not always get it, but you'll never get it if you don't ask.

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