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?

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.

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