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.

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