An illustration of a man cleaning thinking of going back to work. A woman is at work thinking of being at home.

Gender Issues

The Flip Side of Being a Female Breadwinner

Swapping gender roles is not as simple as it looks.

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In her recent book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Our Culture, author Liza Mundy writes:

“In a world of female breadwinners, there will be very happy couples, and very fulfilled men, and wives who, thanks to the support they get at home, are able to take their careers to important new levels. At the end of their workday, these wives will come home to find the house clean and dinner cooked, and they will relax and enjoy the company of their family over a game of Uno and a bracing drink.”

Really? It’s a lovely vision, but I’m skeptical. I’ve had it both ways – I’ve been the primary breadwinner while my partner ran the home, and I’ve run the home while my partner was the primary breadwinner. We operate much more smoothly, and get along a lot better, when it’s the latter scenario. I don’t often admit this to people, for fear of sounding like a 1950’s housewife. But the fact is, my partner likes supporting our family with the money he’s earned. It makes him feel good. Not me. I like socking my money away, and, try as I might, I somehow can’t stop thinking of it as my money.

As for the home front, my partner cooks and cleans, and is a great dad. But I’m always right behind him, making to-do lists, arranging play dates, repacking lunches to make them more nutritious, putting a hat on my son before they head out the door. I suppose I could cede control – that’s what Liza Mundy advises – but I don’t think I could live with the results. It sounds awful, I know. Yet most of the mothers I know feel this way, though we only tell one another, and only after several drinks.

Then New York magazine ran a cover story in March called The Feminist Housewife – about smart, educated women who are opting out of their careers in favor of a traditional domestic role (which most of them, too, felt not just drawn to but naturally gifted at as women). And I began to wonder whether all the media cheerleading about changing gender roles, and all the couples crowing about their evolved, 21st-century partnerships, are drowning out the rest of us, the largely silent majority, the average men and women who are finding it difficult, at best, to fill each other’s shoes.

“You’re certainly not alone,” says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, explaining that we’ve had 10,000 years of men being the primary providers and women being the primary caregivers, and a few decades in which to adapt to a completely different reality. “It’s called cultural lag,” Fisher says. “What people do evolves faster than what society believes people should do. Everybody understands the situation intellectually, but the emotions get all twisted up.”

Do they ever. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, and my partner’s a pretty modern guy, but a dinner out is so much more relaxing for both of us when he’s the one paying the check. Cheryl,* a 41-year-old HR executive in Chicago, has been the primary breadwinner in her relationship for 13 years. You’d think they’d be past this stuff. Yet she still lets her partner pull out his credit card at restaurants – on the joint account she pays for. It just makes things easier.

“Money is how guys keep score,” says Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business. “For a lot of guys, it’s extremely hard to have a healthy sense of self-esteem if you don’t have that sort of economic utility in a relationship.” Plenty of recent research supports Miller’s assessment, including a 2010 study that found that men who are financially dependent on their wives are five times more likely to cheat.

Meanwhile, women are learning the hard way that taking on the traditional role of men does not necessarily relieve them of the traditional role of women. University of Maryland sociologist and time-use expert Liana Sayer notes that in dual-income homes, women are still doing twice as much housework and childcare as men. And in homes where women are the sole breadwinners? “The men are more involved,” says Sayer, “but it’s not like there’s a swap of roles.”

The female breadwinners I spoke to for this article seem to bear this out, not only continuing to help with housework and food preparation, but also taking over the childcare as soon as they get home from work. “At the end of the day, I’ve been away for 10 hours, he’s tapped out,” says Rachel, a 43-year-old psychologist in Queens. “He needs to disengage from parenting.” One can’t help but wonder if housewives of yore would have felt so trapped had their husbands been so considerate.

But it may be that 21st-century female breadwinners have little choice. “I think there are very few men who can truly take on the role of the woman in everything she does,” says Kelly, a 34-year-old teacher in New York and now a single mother of two (her ex-husband, a stay-at-home dad for their first child, had an affair while she was pregnant with their second).

It’s a provocative statement, and yet numerous studies indicate that women are more detail-oriented, better multitaskers, more intuitive, more empathetic, more patient – all the skills that make for clean houses, well-adjusted children, bills paid on time, doctors’ appointments made, social obligations met, and so forth. On the other hand, there’s a whole body of research on “maternal gatekeeping,” which suggests that women, possessive of their traditional role in the home, may be preventing men from getting the practice they need to do these things well.

Either way – whether it’s that women have to do it, or that we think we have to do it, or that we just want to do it – the end result is the same. On some level, we feel the need to be in charge of our homes and our kids. Obviously not all of us, but many of us. Even Mundy, that irrepressible proponent of role swapping, admits that women are terribly conflicted about the economic changes taking place.

“Lots of women don’t think of themselves as permanent, full-time providers,” she writes. “Lots of women cling to the hope that it will be temporary.” Mundy’s prescription is to get with the program: “You are a provider, so act like one,” she scolds.

But I’m also a woman. Is it so terrible to act like one of those?


* names have been changed

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