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?

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.

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