Love and Money: Breadwinner Wives

Their careers soared while their husbands’ sputtered. Now at midlife, these high-achieving women can’t help but wonder — who’s that guy in the apron?

Bearing the Burden of BreadwinnerHe’s vacuuming again.I sit at my desk, trying to focus on the article I’m writing and ignore the low drone of the Electrolux in the living room below. I know, I know — who do I think I am, complaining that my husband is sucking up dog hair and popcorn bits from the wall-to-wall? There are women all over this country who would kill to have their spouses help with housework.Let me try to explain. When Doug and I met 25 years ago, he lived in a pigsty. I couldn’t even tell what color the floor tiles in his kitchen were. The window treatments were sheets of newspaper taped to filthy panes. The bathroom… you don’t want to know. That was the man I fell in love with: a musician, a work-late, drink-much, sleep-late, easygoing guy. And the daily buzz of the Electrolux is a dentist-drill reminder of how much he has changed. How much, I’m afraid, I’ve changed him.Back then, we were free spirits. I wrote for alternative weeklies; he played jazz and salsa in nightclubs. We worked as bike messengers to pay the rent. Even after we married and had our daughter, we took turns being the grown-up. He gave trombone lessons while I stayed home and breastfed; I worked as a copy editor (with health benefits) so we could have a second child. We were partners, equals, united by our determination to live life on our own terms.Somewhere along the way, our earning patterns changed. Doug kept playing gigs. I kept writing, and one thing led to another: I became an editor at a city magazine, wrote a regular column there, wrote for other magazines, put out books, won prizes. I made something of a name for myself. Doug stayed home with the kids. I might have thought more about what this meant to our marriage except for one thing: All my best girlfriends were the breadwinners in their households too.Women in Power"There’s a reason we’re friends with the people we’re friends with," says my ex-college suite-mateSharon (her name and some of the details of her life have been changed). She owns a high-powered PR firm in New York City that bears her name. Four of us shared that suite in college, but I stay in touch only with Sharon, who’s 51. She married Sam, a bright, charming classmate of ours whose degree was in botany but who didn’t seem the scientific type. He moved from job to job in the publishing trade while they had two kids. After he was abruptly fired seven years ago, she carried the family along. And she went on carrying them, while he spun out his unemployment benefits, couldn’t find another job, got depressed, got counseling, and kept their house very clean. Sharon understands about the vacuuming.So does Ann Laquer Estin. My friendship with Ann, 50, dates back to junior high. She’s an Iowa professor with a national reputation in family law. Her husband, Jim, is a social worker. "He does a lot of chores," Ann says. "It seems ridiculous how often he reorganizes the basement." They met at Dartmouth College, drawn together by a willingness to chain themselves to fences at nuclear power plants.Ann says she’s fine with being the primary breadwinner. "I don’t think any of us was looking for a meal ticket when we got married," she insists. "It seemed important for financial reasons that I take advantage of the opportunities I got. If Jim had been married to somebody in legal aid, maybe he would have stepped up."The other day, Ann says, they were talking in the kitchen when Jim remarked on the fact that she has "a Dartmouth-worthy career" while he doesn’t. "It wasn’t a surprising comment," she adds. "It’s not far below the surface for him." Or for her: "I sometimes worry he looks a little rumpled," she admits. "I wish he’d iron a shirt. I hang around too much with lawyers. I was buying him lawyer ties for a while. Then it occurred to me what I was doing." People they meet socially often assume, from the way Jim discusses his "cases" (the children with whom he works) that he’s a doctor: a psychologist or psychiatrist. "I correct them — sometimes," Ann says.Head of the HouseholdWhen my best friends and I signed on to the women’s movement three decades ago, we were aiming for equality. What we’ve ended up with is something else altogether. Back before Doug and I were married, when we used to stay up late and bare our souls, I’d ask him: "Don’t you want to be the best trombone player in the world?" He’d always shake his head: "I just want to make a living playing trombone." I guess I thought he was being modest. But Jill, another friend from junior high, reminds me that it was different for her and Ann and me: "Don’t you remember how ambitious we were?" she says of our school days. "We used to bet which of us would be on the cover of Time first. We were driven. We did everything, and we had to be the best at everything. We were real type A’s." We took it for granted that our husbands would keep pace.In our marriages, though, roles have been reversed or, at least, merged and muddied. "We never said to our husbands ‘You’ll be the one who stays home; I’ll be the breadwinner,’" Sharon says. "We expected they’d be able to do what we did: to have both those identities." We changed diapers and made PTA meetings while charging full speed ahead with our careers. Yet by chance or by choice, none of our husbands have really prospered. After years of unemployment — and treatment for his depression — Sam, unable to find another job, went to work for Sharon in her PR firm. "He cried the other night," she says. "He said, ‘Do you know what it’s like for me to work for a company that has your name?’" She sighs. "I feel like I’m living the life I was supposed to lead. I don’t think Sam is."Like 1950s housewives, our men have become diminished and unfulfilled. We are the heads of our households, not only monetarily, but also in terms of power, because money is power. Once, we argued that contributions like vacuuming and taking care of children should be valued equally with paying the bills. Now we’ve realized, uneasily, why it’s so easy to denigrate those contributions’ worth. "Jim and I have a long history of negotiating the household-chore stuff," Ann says. "At a certain point, it became clear to me that I could say, ‘Yeah, but I’m earning more money than you.’ "Jill knows that feeling. She’s a high-profile financier in London (I’ve changed her name and some details too), and when she first met her husband, Boris, he was in finance as well. When they reconnected a year later, his wife had died, and he’d changed to a less demanding career to spend more time with his two children (he took up painting). They married and had a child of their own; Boris’s work had made an initial splash, but the interest (and income) has since died down. He now paints at home and tends to their kids, freeing Jill to deal with the time demands and international travel her job requires.Every so often, when she and Boris fight — usually about who has done more and how the load is balanced — Jill has the urge to vocalize the "get a real job thing," as she puts it. "But that would be like going to the nuclear option," she adds quickly. My other friends and I tiptoe similarly. Our guys aren’t stupid, though. Even when we don’t play that card, they know it’s in our hand.When the Act Gets OldThat the live-music business has tanked in this new age of deejays and downloads isn’t Doug’s fault: The world changed on him, just as it did on steelworkers and coal miners and Freudian psychiatrists. He recently trained to be a bus driver. When he broached the idea, I cringed, picturing Ralph Kramden in a stained T-shirt with a pack of Tareytons in the sleeve. Doug was puzzled by my classist disdain. "It’s just a job," he said. "Why is it any different from when we were bike messengers?" I wanted to scream at him: "We were bike messengers when we were 25! We’re 50 now. A life should have some forward motion, some accomplishment arc. There should be striving. The reward for that is success."Staying home with the kids served to mask our men’s lack of ambition, and even earned them props for being such liberated guys. And, hey, the kids are all right, or at least no more messed up than any other kids I know. But now that they’re leaving the nest, Ann and Jill and Sharon and I are worried. The other night, my son had a cavalcade with his high school marching band; my daughter drove off to a movie with friends. It was just Doug and me at the dinner table, and I was afraid. Would we have enough to say to each other, coming as we were from such different places in our lives that day?Sharon understands my nervousness. "I made Sam be in the town play," she confides. "I said, ‘You’ve got to get out of the house. I need you to come home with stories.’ I need him to have experiences." We women can’t bear all the burden of having a life.In the end, my dinner with Doug was okay. He even told me a story about hitting a tree with his bus.There’s an old joke about how many musicians marry nurses — because nurses can always find work. Doug was always straight with me about his goals in life. "I have tons of friends with fine degrees who are housewives," Jill says. "They dated guys who said they wanted women to be strong and independent, but once they got married, it became all about him — his career, his needs." On the other hand, our husbands’ willingness to defy stereotypes freed us to defy them as well. Why aren’t we more grateful to them?Maybe it’s because we worry what messages we’re sending our children. How will growing up in such matriarchal households affect their marital expectations? Doug’s willingness to take on this role helped expand my kids’ definition of what it means to be a man, but they still poke embarrassed fun at his vacuuming obsession. Sharon’s children are bewildered by the way she’s always in charge — of vacations, household purchases, even restaurant choices. "They say, ‘We always do what you want to do,’" she says. "But I’m not making the decisions because I’m a bitch. I’m doing it because someone has to."Or maybe it’s because we’re looking forward, all of us, to a time when we won’t have to be in charge. We’re pondering midlife dreams of reinvention and eyeing the oasis of retirement in the distance. And we’re finding that the men we married don’t really have any plans for the future, except to keep on keeping on. Ann, the law-school professor, longs to spend summers writing and doing research in a house she and Jim still own in Boulder, Colorado, where they lived during the early years of their marriage and she was happiest. "We could rent it out just for the academic year," she says wistfully. "Of course, Jim’s job isn’t on an academic-year calendar. But this may be where I’m thinking… ‘You know, you don’t make that much money anyway.’"Sharon finds herself wishing Sam would start pulling his weight: "I ask him, ‘Why don’t you go to law school?’ He says, ‘I’m not interested.’ And I want to say, ‘You’re not fucking interested? Why don’t you sit down and figure out how you could actually make some money?’"It’s not just about the money, though. It’s about the fact that we operate on all cylinders, all the time. That despite the vacuuming our men do ("See how evolved I am?"), we’re the ones buying the Christmas presents, looking after our aged parents, doing the college tours. And we’re tired. Eternally tired. We long for our men to step up and rescue us, do the Prince Charming thing. Sure, we wanted them to support our dreams, but not at the cost of abandoning their own. So our resentment slowly builds. "I feel," Sharon says, quietly, "like Sam’s not bringing enough to the table."Bending the Gender RolesI’ve never stopped loving Doug. I still work hard to evoke his laughter, save up stories to tell him, lie in bed longing for his touch. I feel, though, that I have been emasculating. That I usurped his natural position in our family. And I don’t always remember to ask how his day has been. This is why I treasure my best friends. When I tell them that Doug has taken up trout fishing, they chime in: Jim has become a beekeeper; Sam is taking voice lessons; Boris has started gardening.But mostly, you know, when we get together, my girlfriends and I don’t talk about the guys. We catch up with one another, reel off accomplishments, spout triumphs, boast without blushing, free in one another’s company to be ourselves — an opportunity that, for all our worldly success, we don’t often get, even at home. Doug was so threatened by the subject of this article that he asked me point-blank: "Are you going to leave me?" "Never," I told him, and I meant it. Sharon and Ann and Jill aren’t walking out either.But our joy in our own fulfillment is always tempered by that nagging fear that it has come at the expense of our husbands’, and impatience with the life choices they’ve made. This is reinforced by the experience of another friend, from high school, Laurie Bayon, a project manager with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. After graduating from Bowdoin, she visited Spain and fell hard for Tono, an auto-factory assembly worker and wannabe soccer pro with killer looks but not so much as a high school diploma. They returned to the U.S. together, and she paid the bills while he earned his GED. Through 18 years of marriage and two kids, she supported the family while he got a degree in biomedical engineering, worked as an engineer for a while, got an MBA, opened a sporting goods store… "All he ever really cared about was soccer," she says ruefully. It cost her dearly when the marriage broke up, what with no prenup, money she’d inherited and a great house she’d mostly paid for herself. What’s worse, he’d never even vacuumed. "He didn’t do the househusband thing," Laurie says bitterly.But something odd happened after the divorce became final. Tono found his footing, dug in, got serious, became a sales manager (and eventually a partner) for a medical equipment servicing firm that did well. He sold his shares in it and started another firm. Today, Laurie says, "He makes as much as me. And he’s a happy guy."Throughout their marriage, she controlled the purse strings. It wasn’t until Tono was cut free that he discovered his forte. If Ann and Sharon and Jill and I had been more dependent — or less controlling — would our men’s lives be richer? Have we held them back by insisting on being all that we could be?Perhaps all along we’ve been subconsciously disparaging or discouraging about our husbands’ goals and careers. After all, the fact that our kids were at home and in good hands freed us to work the long hours we needed to get ahead without worrying that anyone would think we were bad moms. Plus, we got to be the family stars — and who doesn’t want that?Sharon believes there’s masculine energy and feminine energy, and which you’ve got has nothing to do with gender. "To have a successful relationship," she says, "you have to be paired up with the opposite." She, too, has told her husband she will never leave him — though not the truth about why. "I’d just end up with someone else like him," she says.Sandy Hingston is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine.Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:10

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