I Feel Guilty for Not Being the Breadwinner

One writer went from making more money than her boyfriend, to making less. And she found the shift has more to do with power and independence than dollars and cents.

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When I first started dating my boyfriend in January 2012, I made more than him—and I liked it that way. My cobbled-together freelance income, comprising anthology royalties, freelance writing, cupcake blogging, and teaching writing workshops exceeded his steady startup 9-to-5 salary, not by a huge amount, but by enough to set me at ease. I didn’t realize how much that power differential mattered to me until two years later, when my income plummeted. It wasn’t just personal to me; I felt like a bad feminist, a traitor to the movement that had lobbied for equal pay for equal work and for married women to get their own lines of credit. It made me realize how, for me, money isn’t just a side feminist issue, but the most important one, because in so many ways, having it buys independence.

In her new book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay writes, “I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.” I relate to that statement, but my feminist fears are less about what other people will think, and more about what I perceive as my own failings.

But let me back up. I was raised largely by my mother; my parents split up when I was two, and while I saw my dad regularly, his income wavered, so much so that my mom had to pursue legal action to get her child-support payments from him. My mother earned a master’s degree while I was in junior high; my dad graduated from college just a few years ago, and his income was commensurate with his education level. My mom’s mother, who often babysat, was widowed three times, and seemed, to my mind, often to subsist on the largesse of her husbands. I never wanted that for myself, yet I’m starting to feel like I’m sliding into financial dependence, and that worries me.

Having a precarious income feels like I’m failing at being a modern woman, the kind who is strong and powerful and, most importantly, can support herself. I’d feel that way if I were single, but being partnered exacerbates the sensation and adds a dangerous edge to it. I’ve known far too many couples who’ve split up after five, ten, twenty, and even thirty years to take this issue lightly. While neither of us has plans to end our relationship, it’s not the kind of thing you plan. I’m not trying to earn feminist brownie points by comparing numbers, but simply to feel secure in the life I’ve chosen.

Of course our ideas about income are affected by gender. It would be foolish to think they wouldn’t be. Laura Silverman feared “sounding like a 1950s housewife” for admitting that she’s more comfortable when her husband brings home the bacon. “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.” Feminist Kate Tuttle says she’s “a little bit ashamed to call myself a housewife.” The truth is, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’m sometimes jealous of women like them, who have a partner who earns enough to support them and their kids, but I’m pretty sure that even if I were ever in a position to become a “housewife,” I wouldn’t take it. The stakes feel too high and nerve-wracking; I’d always wonder when the other shoe would drop.

There are also plenty of smaller ways that earning my own money and using it for whatever I want empowers me. I love to travel, and do so at least once a month. Often I travel to speak at a conference or teach a writing class or do a reading, because these events are easier to justify with such an up-and-down income. Sometimes I take actual vacations, usually on my own since my boyfriend doesn’t like to fly. I can’t imagine any scenario where I’d feel comfortable asking him to give me money to go on a trip. Even if he wouldn’t mind, I would; I’d feel like I owed him something in return. At the grocery store, when I’m the one paying, I feel more justified in buying random little indulgences—a jar of garlic-stuffed olives here, a fancier cheese there—than I would if he were paying.

I want to emphasize that he is not some paternalistic Neanderthal who tries to control me with his money; in fact, he’s the opposite. He repeatedly tells me, “It’s our money,” meaning whatever financial ups and downs we each face, we’re in it together. I want to believe that’s true, but that idea also sets off all kinds of alarm bells for me. What if we commingle our money and there comes a point when we don’t want it to actually be “ours” anymore? In practice, we each have our own accounts, and split our joint bills evenly. I’ve loaned him money and he’s loaned me money. Yet the idea of “our money” doesn’t sit well with me; it requires a leap of faith I’m not sure I’m able to take.

Last month, we had to borrow money because I didn’t have my share of the rent, due to various clients taking longer than usual to pay me. Whereas he saw it as a practical matter of a short-term loan, it threw me into an existential crisis. What am I doing with my life? I wondered. How can I hope to be a good role model to my future children, should I be so blessed, if I can’t at least pay my half?  

There have been times when the situation was reversed, when he was out of work, and my income was on the higher side. I’ve always said that if I should suddenly write a runaway bestseller, I’d be happy to have him stay home or work part time, and I’m pretty sure if he came into a windfall he’d be more than happy to support me in my creative endeavors. It’s me who would feel uncomfortable with that scenario.

In her book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, finance expert Farnoosh Torabi details the ways female breadwinners can disrupt relationships. She writes, “The struggles don’t stem from the logistics of managing money. That’s the easy part … It’s much more about the mental game and emotional forces at play than the coordination of who pays for what and how to make sense of the dollar signs.” She serves up the example of letting her husband pay at restaurants—with the join credit card that she pays in full every month. Her book explores the not-always-fun side of earning more if you’re a woman partnered with a man, but I would rather that than my present situation.  

Maybe there are no easy answers; even if both partners earn equal incomes, there will probably still be financial issues that crop up in highly gendered ways. For me, though, I’m doing everything I can to get back to being the breadwinner. It’s not about the actual income amount, but the feminist peace of mind I can mentally buy with it.

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