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Are You Humming the Breadwinner Blues?

The number of families where the woman is the big earner is growing, creating tension and breakdowns in communication.

by Elaine Pofeldt

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“This isn’t working for me,” Julie de Azevedo Hanks declared as she and her husband Jeff wiped down the kitchen counters one morning after their kids left for school. “Something has to change.”

Throughout their marriage, Jeff, 48, an accountant, had been the main breadwinner until funding for the start-up where he worked dried up a couple of years earlier. Julie, 45, a licensed social worker, had ramped up her practice, Wasatch Family Therapy, which has three locations in Utah, to bring in most of the family’s income, and took on writing projects. “Our thought was that it was going to be temporary,” she says.

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Jeff found work at another start-up, but Julie remained the family’s chief earner. Meanwhile, she began pursuing an additional degree in marriage and family therapy. Though Jeff helped with carpooling, cooking and shopping, Julie continued to run the house and the kids’ schedules. When she broke into tears confiding how stressed she felt to a close friend, Julie knew it was time to ask Jeff, who works at home, to take on the main responsibility for running their household. “I was overwhelmed,” she says.

Blindsided by his wife’s distress, Jeff assured Julie he was grateful that she worked so hard, allowing him to pursue entrepreneurial ventures. He immediately agreed to take charge at home. “I was surprised at how wholeheartedly he embraced the nurturing and caretaking role,” says Julie.

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With 40% of households with children under 18 now including a mother who is the sole provider of the family income or earns most of it, according to the Pew Research Center, conversations like this one aren’t as rare as they once were. Among dual-income couples, 15% of women out-earned their husbands in 2011, according to Pew’s findings, up from 4% in 1960.

“Until we openly talk about it, it’s going to be a private struggle for many of us,” says Farnoosh Torabi, author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. That is not always so easy. Like Julie Hanks, many women, concerned about how their husbands feel about their nontraditional roles, hesitate to ask for more household support—even though their mates might be happy to pitch in. Life Reimagined spoke with Torabi about how women can thrive in the role of breadwinner.

What challenges do women breadwinners confront?

Farnoosh Torabi: When women make more than their husbands, there’s more divorce, more infidelity, and she takes on more of the housework. Emotionally, there are a lot of complexities. He may feel he is stripped of his masculinity. His ego is bruised. For her, no matter how she got to this point, whether she got a promotion or her husband lost his job, it is easy for women to feel overwhelmed, perhaps resentful.

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There is a shame that is associated with making more than your husband. I found this in my own study of over 1,000 women who are breadwinners. Many admitted they sometimes wished they didn’t make more than their husband.

Why are so many women breadwinners secretive and ashamed?

Farnoosh Torabi : Society has not embraced this. Money has forever been a taboo subject in our relationships. Add to that something that is unorthodox, and it’s not a comfortable topic to discuss.

Is it a generational issue? 

Farnoosh Torabi : Younger couples and those who married later in life and are more independent financially might have an easier time navigating this. It’s less about generation than how comfortable you are throwing gender roles up in the air.

Does it serve women, in terms of salary and bonus, to make it known at work that they are breadwinners, the way men sometimes do?

Farnoosh Torabi: My philosophy is to keep your personal life personal and your work life at work. Especially after the recession, companies want to make sure you’re bringing value to the bottom line. You should just think, “I’m going to do the best I can at work.”

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Some women I’ve interviewed think telling their bosses they’re breadwinners will work against them. They assume their boss will think they have a great support system at home and will be able to put in 110 percent at work, which they may not be able to do. At the same time you should not let a crisis at home impact your work. Your income is vital. Have plans in place with your mate so your work doesn’t get compromised.

Do women who have always been the breadwinner face different issues than those who become breadwinner after a husband’s job loss?

Farnoosh Torabi: The accidental breadwinner could feel stuck and disappointed, knowing she has no choice but to continue working hard at this job that she may not love. She has different challenges compared to someone who has anticipated it and whose partner isn’t surprised by it.

How can the accidental breadwinner handle the situation?

Farnoosh Torabi: Couples have to realize in every marriage there are going to be fluctuations in who does what. This is just a phase. If they want their relationship to succeed they need to come up with a plan. If he was the breadwinner and lost his job, he’s probably feeling pretty down. Men suffer from depression and don’t talk about it. You need to understand that when his source of income gets cut off, he’s feeling very unneeded. He needs to replace that sense of identity somehow.

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I recommend that couples talk about what he can take ownership of in the household. It’s not enough to ask for help. Men would rather be accountable and “own” domains. He could be responsible for food and nutrition—planning the meals, shopping, making sure the kids get fed. It’s far more significant than saying, “Help me make the kids’ lunches.”

And don’t overlook the benefits of outsourcing one thing a week, like the lawn care, or getting two hours of babysitting.

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a website for freelancers who need to make a good living.

Photo Credit: E+/Getty