The curse of the breadwinner wife

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There were many reasons my marriage failed. But our traditional role reversal pushed us over the edge.

It didn’t help that I was a resentful breadwinner. Like many women, I’d opted to go freelance before I had children knowing this was probably my best chance of working flexibly while continuing to earn a decent wage.

But I had never expected to be the sole breadwinner. I certainly never expected to have to go back to work so soon after having my children, just to make ends meet.

Rather than building each other up, we were pulling each other down

It didn’t help our marriage that my ex spent eight years out of work (despite my encouragement to find a job), or that his drinking and controlling behaviour became steadily worse.

They were eight years of living within the same four walls, under the same roof, bringing up young children, never getting any space away from one another.

As his self esteem plummeted, it seemed the only  way he could cope with my resentment and his feelings of inadequacy was to criticise me and my parenting.

We stopped working as a team and increasingly, it felt as though we were in competition. Rather than building each other up, we were pulling each other down.

Half of non-traditional marriages fail

Sadly, my story is far from unique. My anecdotal experience and various pieces of research suggest that non-traditional marriages are more likely to end in divorce.

Divorce rates rise to 50% when a woman earns more than her husband, according to a study from the University of Chicago.

It found the percentage of people who report being “very happy” with their marriage declines when a woman out-earns her husband.

One explanation for this, the researchers suggest, is that a wife making more money is doing more chores to assuage her husband’s unease.

But serving as both the primary breadwinner and the primary homemaker may be draining (more on this in my post on the mental load). That, the researchers point out, “may be one of the mechanisms behind our results on divorce.”

Moreover, men who are financially dependent are more likely to cheat, according to research in the American Sociological Review.

Anecdotally, I know of several relationships where yummy mummies in the school yard proved too much of a temptation for stay-at-home dads. Particularly when there wasn’t much sex happening at home.

“I hypothesise that the more economically dependent a married man is on his partner, the greater his likelihood of engaging in infidelity,” writes author Christin Munsch in the ASR. “Extramarital sex allows men undergoing a masculinity threat to engage in behaviour culturally associated with masculinity.”

“Simultaneously, extramarital sex allows threatened men to distance themselves from, and perhaps punish, their breadwinning spouse.”

The research found that breadwinning wives tend to downplay their financial contributions, defer to their husbands in decision making, and do a disproportionate amount of housework.

Meanwhile, economic dependency in men is associated with increased domestic violence, decreased housework and decreased health.

These are not the best ingredients for a happy marriage!

A problem that isn’t going away

Statistics suggest that around 40% of women in heterosexual relationships in the UK are now the primary breadwinner.

No doubt family lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee

With this figure expected to grow, what does this mean for the future of marriage?

When half of all marriages fail – with the average cost of divorce soaring to a current high of £70,000 in the UK – will young couples begin to question why they should bother (for more on this read my earlier post on why marriage is losing its appeal)?

No doubt family lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee, and certainly there is every reason to believe the courts are exploiting these newer sources of marital conflict.

Fathers in the hood

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The cutest video making the rounds on Fakebook this week is the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory. Set up by Phil Morgese and his daughter Emma, they organise hair workshops for fathers and daughters across the US and Netherlands.

In the video, Phil explains that the workshops are as much about learning a new skill – doing plaits and ponytails – as they are about bonding and providing good male role models.

“Gender roles — that’s just gonna have to go. Fatherhood’s evolving,” he says. “It’s more than just about bringing home the bacon.”

The mummy micro-managers

Increasingly, women are bringing home the bacon. This is the situation in nearly half of UK households, a trend that is expected to grow.

For mothers, this is a huge pressure, particularly in a society that has not kept up with these changes. For more on this, read my blog on the mental load.

But I do sometimes wonder if working mums are deliberately making their lives more difficult. Whether they are making a rod for their own backs.

If they are reluctant to let their husbands take on more responsibility when it comes to parenting and household jobs, because they don’t think their partners can handle it.

The book ‘When daddy did the washing’ is all about dad making a complete meal of it

In doing so, is it sometimes easier for dads to shrug their shoulders and just let us get on with it? Get on with all the juggling and wearing ourselves thin, safe in the knowledge that we probably wouldn’t accept their help if it was offered?

I have so many anecdotal stories. Stories that usually involve micromanaging, criticism and frustration on both sides.

There’s my friend who became a reluctant breadwinner when her husband was suddenly made redundant. She’d get home from work and be greeted by chaos and piles of dirty laundry… but the children were happy and cared for.

There’s the doctor who works long shifts but can’t (or won’t) step back and let her husband make even the smallest of decisions. He has to consult her on everything and is under constant scrutiny.

It’s every time we say a dad is “babysitting” his children. Or when we joke about daddy daycare.

I remember telling a friend that my ex was a stay-at-home parent and she laughed and called him a “manny”.

One of the books on my daughters’ book shelf – ‘When daddy did the washing’ – is all about dad making a complete meal of it while his wife is out doing “important things”.

He puts a red sock in with a white wash, dying everything pink in the process. The story has a happy ending as mummy loves her new pink skirt! But the underlying message is that daddy just doesn’t have a clue!

Learning to step back

It isn’t easy when you’re a high-achieving working mother, used to juggling a million different things, to step back and allow your children’s father to parent… and to do it in a way that may not meet your exacting standards.

This goes for grandparents as well. We might not want our kids getting all those treats, to be napping in the afternoon or watching too much TV, but we have to remember that they are doing us a favour!

More importantly, that our children are benefiting from time spent in their company. After all, nobody cares for your children as lovingly as devoted family members.

There is so much to be gained when we relinquish control. More time for ourselves, less stress and a lightness that comes with letting go.

Empowering fathers to father their children is good for men’s self esteem, offers better male role models for our children and brings that elusive and all-important balance to modern family life.

This has never been so important. The Modern Families Index (MFI) 2018 warns that the stress and strains of juggling work and home are causing more arguments (28%) between spouses.

A third of parents surveyed said they felt burnt out all or most of the time.

Flexible working and parental leave encourages dads to be more involved. MFI argues the creation of a properly-paid, standalone period of extended paternity leave is needed.

“Tackling gendered assumptions about who works and who cares is crucial to broadening parental choice,” it concludes.