In my household, I’m the primary breadwinner. My salary accounts for 70% of the total household income and is double my partner’s annual pay. Additionally, I don’t have any debt or loans to be paying off and that means that more of my money goes directly into our shared lifestyle and our home.
This is it. This is the feminism that I signed up for (at least, part of it). We did it.
Well, kinda. In 1987, less than a fourth of women in relationships made more than their male counterparts. Now, that number has increased to 38%. Progress. But, not without some bumpy patches. Being a female breadwinner (just being a breadwinner) has presented its own array of lessons and challenges. More than that, it has taught me a great deal about being in a partnership and it’s a personal finance mountain that I’m counting as conquered.
1. Honestly, It’s Stressful
When my partner and I first moved in together, he was fresh out of school and on the job hunt. I was several months into my “real career” job and, you guessed it, sole income for our home. Anyone with bills to pay knows that that’s stressful enough, but finding oneself financially responsible for not just their own well-being but the well-being of another person, that’s massive.
Even with us both working and splitting household expenses proportional to income, there is still a great deal of stress. Finance is equal parts freedom and burden. They call it hustle for a reason.
When you’re carrying the bulk of the household financial load, it can be easy to panic and focus solely on that and not on the fact that you’re also an individual with a financial landscape and ambitions all her own. Take a moment to breathe and to understand that part of a breadwinner’s financial health is not just to maintain the responsibility to their home, but to always be looking for ways to grow and maximize their individual position.
2. Control is a Perk
The sweeter side of the stress coin is that being the primary breadwinner affords me a lot of control. Bringing in the bulk of the income essentially means that I set the pace for our lifestyle. It brings strength to household discussions and the freedom to say “I can afford this.” My father, feminist ally and work ethic instiller that he is, once told me a story about reading a 1959 LIFE magazine advice column in which a husband asks a priest whether or not he has to tell his new bride what his exact salary is. The casual sexism of the late 50s was expected, but the part that really struck me was how nutty it was that the information would be withheld from the person who likely will control most of the day-to-day household spending.
Some things never change, as it still rings true that, despite income, women by and large fill the role of household planner. They make the budgets and the grocery lists and probably make more decisions on home décor and other household products and purchases. (If you really want to get your hackles raised over it, check out Gemma Hartley’s work on women and emotional labor.) My household, as much as we try, is no exception. I find myself in the role of planner quite often, and when the duty of planning vacations or considering a piece of furniture or making the necessary shopping list falls to me, it’s a relief that it’s my income that has the most sway in that arena.
3. Gendered Stigma Still Exists
Despite the fact that, in a third of cohabitating households, women bring in half or more of the overall income, and despite the fact that women are gradually making up a higher percentage of university populations and becoming a larger presence in previously male-dominated fields and positions, there is still an expectation that your male partner should earn more than you.
In fact, 71% of adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center list being a good household provider as crucial to being a good husband. Only 32% said the same was true for a wife.
Of course, my choice in partner placed emphasis on whether or not he was intimidated by my ambition, how he could support me in my ventures, and just a baseline of human decency that says “You’re a partner. Not the competition.” I got very lucky. But that didn’t change the fact that when my partner was looking for a full-time job and was taking gig opportunities to help out, that criticisms leveled at him were way harsher than any comments made to me when I was a freelancer.
The expectation looms that, someday, obviously he will earn more than me (maybe, maybe not). Or that I should be careful to safeguard his masculinity, lest I prove too independent (read: emasculating) and he leaves me. Bullshit, but a statistical probability according to some research.
Like it or not, there’s just a societal expectation that men should earn more than their partners. A cognitive dissonance within the same society that prizes the independent female professional (#GirlBoss). It gets really hairy when you start to factor in other major milestones in personal wealth accumulation. More than being the breadwinner, I bought us a house. As exciting as that development has been, some of the reactions and the comments that have been directed to me (never to my male partner) take me aback.
It’s unfair to both parties and, again, has been a lesson in the importance of communication and true partnership. You know what’s best for your relationship. Which brings me too…
4. Valuing All Forms of Household Contribution as Contribution
For the most part, society values “success” by a factor of dollars and cents. This is what you’re “contributing.” Furthermore, it’s the most “valuable” thing you can give. This idea represents the same shit that gives birth to gendered stigma, and the devaluing of emotional labor and the performance of “invisible work,” and the ugly idea that the person who makes more is worth more. Not a foundation for happy relationships with oneself and their loved ones.
Bringing home the bacon is just one part of the overall picture of a successful and equitable home life. The value of a paycheck has no meaning if you are incapable of contributing to the emotional well-being of the home. Who does the cooking? Who does the shopping? Who takes care of kids/pets/plants/yard if you have one or all of the above?
How does the partnership and support of your household help you to become the happiest and best functioning version of yourself? That’s an easy one to forget, but the most important to remember. For every feeling of fulfillment and empowerment that comes with being a female breadwinner, there is an equal part stress and fear of judgment. The big takeaway?
It doesn’t matter.
Because, at the core of it all, you’re still most responsible to yourself. And power and happiness and the ability to bring value to your household starts with you, as an individual and a partner, and not your bank account.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. 9-to-5 marketing genius. Film critic by moonlight. Writer and grammar police, always. When she’s not writing, Caitlin annoys everyone around her with her obsessive relationship with podcasts, movies, and coffee. She has a no-nonsense Twitter and a “business in the front, party in the back” Instagram.
Image via Unsplash