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.

 

Shouldering the mental load

Since I split from my husband, my “happily married” friends seem more willing to share their frustrations about their husbands with me. I suspect they don’t feel the need to pretend their relationship is all rainbows and unicorns with someone whose marriage has failed and isn’t going to judge them.

So recently I’ve noticed these stories slipping out. Most have a similar flavour and speak to a deep, underlying dissatisfaction with the division of labour in many modern marriages.

They involve husbands not identifying (or choosing not to identify) when they need to step in and share the load… until it is too late and their wives are royally fucked off.

Husbands or partners needing to be told to entertain their children/bring in the shopping/get the dinner ready suggests these roles are still considered to be a woman’s domain. Even when both partners are working.

 

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Working mothers continue to shoulder more than their fair share of the “mental load” (described brilliantly here by French cartoonist Emma, illustrator of the above image), according to the Modern Family Index, a study commissioned by Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

And these household responsibilities only increase when it’s the woman bringing home the dough, with breadwinning mothers:

  • Three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for them getting to activities and appointments (76% vs. 22%)
  • Three times more likely to volunteer at school (63% vs. 19%)
  • Twice as likely to make sure all family responsibilities are handled (71% vs. 38%).

It’s the little things that seem to add to women’s mental load, things that we often don’t even question doing: organising play dates and activities, packing school bags, buying gifts, organising holidays, sorting through clothes drawers. Even trimming fingernails and toenails (which is more challenging than it sounds) and regular bathing.

Much of the most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well

 

Even though my ex is more liberated and hands-on than many men I know in my circle, post-split I continue to feel unfairly lumbered. However, life is much easier now we have a shared care arrangement and both children are in school.

I don’t miss the daily grind of jumping straight from my home office desk into homework/meals/bedtime routine with barely a pause for breath. I did all this partly out of a sense of duty, a smidge of working mummy guilt and because once my working day was over, my ex assumed I would step in and relieve him.

After all, he’d had a busy day attending toddler groups, drinking coffee and chatting to other parents. Well that is how it felt, if I’m being brutally honest. It felt as though as the “stay-at-home parent” he had cherry-picked all the best parts of raising our little darlings, while I was left to do the grunt work… after I’d paid the bills and spent half the night breastfeeding!

Overhauling outdated stereotypes

I don’t have all the answers for how to overcome these issues. However, I have stopped trying to be superwoman and learnt how to ask for help. I pay a cleaner to come once a week, do my supermarket shopping via an app on my phone, never iron any clothes and (shock horror) sometimes send the girls off to school in the pinafore they had on the day before and shoes that haven’t been polished.

I prioritise and communicate. I’m learning a few mummy “hacks”, I cut every corner possible and empower my children to do simple chores themselves (although I am not beyond yelling at them to open their mouths whilst I frantically swish the toothbrush around before pushing them out the door to go to school).

I make fish fingers for tea, rather than something more ambitious/nutritious that my children will turn their noses up at. The school makes excellent cooked meals for their lunch so a straightforward, crowd-pleaser at dinner time is fine.

Ours unfortunately is a pioneering generation and hence, it is our marriages being put to the test. Not that this is an excuse for the dinosaurs out there. Working fathers need to step up to the plate, and parents raising boys need to teach them (through doing) that men and women are equally responsible for running a household.

Change is also needed in the workplace. The Modern Family Index blames outdated workplace cultures and stereotypes for failing to keep up with women’s professional strides. It suggests employers could do their part to ease the load.

“The fact is that for most employers, much of their most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well,” notes Bright Horizons CHRO Maribeth Bearfield.

“By creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports as well, workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands.”

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