The Breadwinner Wife

The Breadwinner Wife

Is the role becoming more acceptable or simply inevitable?

In a 2018 Business Insider article, “Breadwinning Woman Explains What It’s Like to Out-Earn Husband,” former Silicon Valley sales director Susie Moore noted the irony of women supposedly being embarrassed at being paid more than their mates. “It’s a celebration to be the breadwinner—not an apology, ever,” she argued. Moore, who says she made half a million dollars a year by the time she was 30, observed, “Have you ever heard a man say, ‘Oh geez, I really don’t want my wife to see my big bonus and feel bad about herself and get in a weird mood all weekend?’ or ‘How am I going to break this promotion news at home?’ I doubt it.”

Despite never-ending statistics about American women still making only 82 cents on the dollar of a man’s earnings, the American workforce is increasingly composed of high-earning females who are their family’s main—or only—source of income. The speed with which this phenomenon surfaced is aptly illustrated by comparing two self-finance books for such women. When She Makes More, by Farnoosh Torabi, was published in 2014, and Think Like a Breadwinner, by Jennifer Barrett, was released in April. Torabi’s book attempts to navigate “love and life for a new generation of women.” Barrett, however, subtitles her book, “A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less).”

Both authors offer concrete assessments of the breadwinning/spouse/mother roles. But a mere seven years ago, Torabi focused on overcoming the pressure that everyone in the family, sometimes an extended family, places on a female breadwinner who just wants “her relationship with her husband to feel equal.”

Barrett takes a totally different angle in 2021. She argues that a woman should always “think” like a breadwinner. “Every single choice you make with your money and your career should be based on the assumption that you—and only you—are ultimately responsible for your future,” she writes. Whether through greater ambition, superior education, more careful investing, divorce, or simply fortuitous timing, expecting to be the breadwinner in your life, with or without a supportive partner, is paramount to personal and financial success.

About 38 percent of wives earn more than their husbands, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In an oft-cited TD Ameritrade “Breadwinner Survey” published in 2020, men from all age groups most often reported feeling “neutral” when their spouse/partner made more than they did, with a significant number saying they “loved it” and were “proud” of their female partner. (Men make the investment decisions two-thirds of the time, even when they aren’t the breadwinner.)

Yet disturbing statistics emerged from a 2018 report of the U. S. Census Bureau. MarketWatch cited the numbers: When a wife makes more than her husband, the income the couple reports for the wife is 1.5 percentage points lower on average than her actual income, but 2.9 percentage points higher for her husband than his actual income. Perhaps husbands generally fill out most census forms. It bears noting that centuries of societal expectations about men as “providers” remain in the American psyche, for both men and women.

Barrett and Torabi attack the myth that women can “have it all” in their work and personal lives. Barrett is particularly scornful of the phrase “work-life balance,” saying essentially that there really is no such thing, but rather a sort of equipoise at any given moment for a female breadwinner.

The “princess” concept comes in for a barrage of hostility from Barrett. If you’re striving to be a princess, you are perforce always looking for a prince, rather than working, saving, investing, and planning for yourself as your own breadwinner.

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“Balancing” and “princessing” also were explored in a recent podcast, The Life Coach School, hosted by Brooke Castillo. She comes right out and says, “It’s not a task for the [high-earning] woman to make the man feel less emasculated.” She correctly notes that for the breadwinner wife and mother: “At any given moment, you will be disappointing someone. Make a vow to disappoint yourself the least.” Castillo’s mantra, a classic life coach tidbit that would make some female breadwinners blanch, is, “I am at peace with people thinking I’m selfish.” 

Selfish or not, breadwinning wives are no longer rarities in the United States. Yet during the pandemic, remote schooling led some mothers, high-earning or not, to temporarily exit the workforce. Who will return to work, in what capacities, and at what locations are open questions.

The last major economic downturn may give us a clue. Many women became the main earners by default during the Great Recession of 2008. Men lost more than double the number of jobs that women lost. Barrett observes that the average male today is “earning less in inflation-adjusted terms than his dad made at the same age.” That’s a depressing statistic. Yet it may be alleviated by female breadwinners who can, and often do, make more than enough “dough” to cover the slack. 

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