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THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Becoming a Breadwinner Wife
When Nic and I met, I had just taken the job of public relations assistant at the same theater at which Nic was master electrician. I wrote news releases, handled special events and served as the conduit between the media and the theater's technical and artistic staff, while Nic was in charge of all lighting installations and equipment maintenance for the theater's annual seven-show season. It was 1984 and I would turn twenty-five later that year, while Nic had just turned thirty. My income just barely scraped the $14,000 mark for that season; Nic earned about $15,000 a year.
Nic was unlike any man I'd dated before then. Mild-mannered, excruciatingly polite, soft-spoken and filled with genuine Minnesota friendliness, he was as comfortable dicing vegetables in the kitchen as he was on a catwalk thirty feet in the air, running miles of cable from one lighting instrument to the next. Charming, good-humored and ever positive, Nic stood in sharp contrast to the flamboyant, self-involved men of my past.
Nic surprised me again and again with his interest in my work. He went out of his way to read pieces I'd written years before; he rejoiced when I convinced the media to write or tape feature stories about the theater; he grinned when I took his tuxedo-clad arm on opening night and greeted guests as his date. Nic's delight in just being with me won me over for life. I never gave a thought to his earning potential; here was an intelligent, attractive, charming man who loved me without reservation.
Yet very early in our relationship, Nic made a point of telling me that he never expected to earn enough to support a family. "I'm good at what I do and I've chosen a profession that just isn't very profitable," he said, with the characteristic frankness I had already learned to appreciate. "My wife, whomever she may be, will have to be able to contribute to the household—if I'm lucky, maybe she'll even make more money than me."
At that moment, I had never considered the possibility of earning more money than my future husband earns. When I thought about it, however, I was relieved at how comfortable I was with the idea. Never had I expected a man to support me, mainly because I felt that I wanted a more equitable relationship with my husband. Life experience had already taught me that money is power—so if my husband didn't want the implicit power he would hold as family breadwinner, I might actually have a chance to share some of the power myself. Maybe, just maybe, we would have a true partnership. Maybe our marriage would be something different, something new, something better. That was my fantasy as I moved into this uncharted territory—a journey that would prove to be treacherous.
Marriage would be a long time in coming, however, as Nic and I shared an apartment and struggled to eke out a living in the arts. By 1987 I had reached the upper level of my tolerance for life in the theater—I'd become the theater's marketing director and my income had inched upward to a paltry $18,000 annually. Even in 1987, that was just barely over the poverty line. I applied for and landed a copywriting position at a well-respected downtown advertising and public relations firm—and nearly doubled my income overnight, to just under $30,000.
While we enjoyed an almost instantaneous difference in our combined lifestyle—graduating from fast food drive-through lines to diners, making modest furniture purchases and upgrading my wardrobe to include tailored suits—neither Nic nor I paid much attention to the fact that my income now exceeded his by about a third. Later that year, Nic made the same exit from the theater to launch his freelance lighting business and within a year his income once again matched mine. My breadwinning status had hardly registered as a blip on our household radar screen.
Nic and I married in September 1990. Then, very suddenly and very quickly, everything began to change.
Less than a month after our wedding, my employer took me to lunch and handed me a new set of responsibilities and a new title, boosting me to middle management—with a salary increase to $50,000.
"How much did you say?" Nic asked, dumbfounded.
"Fifty," I replied. "Thousand."
We rejoiced over dinner at a fine establishment we could not afford the day before, swallowing our innate frugality to order a bottle of wine at an exorbitant restaurant price.
Never did I sense any discomfort from Nic because my income was nearly double his own. I immediately volunteered to take over monthly payment of the utilities and other small household bills, expenses we scrupulously had split down the middle during our six years as cohabitants. Within a few weeks, we engaged a real estate agent and began the search for a home of our own.
As we settled into our 1917 American foursquare house on the trendy side of the city, something began to change for me. The more money I made—every year, another promotion would bring me a high percentage increase—the more I resented the fact that Nic made less.
I paid the household bills while we continued to split the mortgage. I socked money every month into mutual funds and retirement savings, while Nic's earnings seemed to be "fun money" for his own personal use. I worked long hours every week, while Nic had entire seasons off when his business was slow. I did what I considered to be my wifely duty and managed all the cooking, laundry, dishes and most of the gardening, while Nic puttered in his workshop and played games on his computer. Nic had the life of Riley, while I smoldered like Vesuvius. Real life was very different from my early dreams about pioneering a new, fairer version of marriage.
Six years into our marriage, the volcano finally erupted. By this time, I'd become a vice president; I managed six people and led the company's new business prospecting efforts. Business had never been better—until one winter day, when one of our biggest accounts abruptly fired us and hired a top New York City firm with global connections. The sudden disappearance of this account cut my workload by two-thirds. Almost instantly, my ability to bury my personal problems in overwork vanished. No longer could I suffuse my anger over my home situation in long hours at the office. I had to face my distress head-on.
Face it I did, nearly tearing my marriage asunder in the process. I railed over the drudgery of monotonous, repetitive household tasks. I chafed against the drastic imbalance between Nic's free time versus my own and the inequity of our responsibilities at home. I fumed as my savings—our savings—grew and Nic contributed little. Deciding that his comparative lack of ready cash signaled a lack of respect for me and for my contribution to the household, I felt used, unappreciated and taken for granted.
Our battle for change and consensus lasted three tense months, during which Nic moved from bafflement at my unchecked rage to a new understanding. Over this period, he began to participate in housework, taking over the daily dishwashing and the weekly laundry. Gradually, he absorbed the substance of my argument: It's not the task or the chore—it's the attitude. I was angry over Nic's assumption—a direct result of his upbringing in a traditional home—that everything involved in maintaining our lifestyle was my job, requiring no active participation from him.
We established a truce, but my bad days and restless nights continued. Despite Nic's increased contribution to household chores, I burned with the injustices of life as a breadwinning wife.
At the time, I didn't fully realize Nic was not the problem. Ever the loving and dutiful husband, Nic had not changed a hair throughout our twelve-year relationship except to become even more supportive of me and even more considerate as a husband. I, on the other hand, had changed considerably. Always the driven, career-focused achiever, I found myself approaching my late thirties and desperately frustrated at work, pulled taut by the rigors of managing people, exhausted by the constant quest for new business and farther away from the writing I enjoyed. I had not yet recognized that what I felt was not only anger, but also jealousy—because Nic could make choices in his life, choices I made possible for him by earning a high income. I, on the other hand, felt utterly trapped by that big paycheck, locked into a job that seemed destined to destroy me.
Never had I felt so alone as I did then. I didn't stop to notice that Nic and I had formed a circle of friends and coworkers in which many of the women earned more money than their husbands. I didn't look around to see that I was not alone at all; in fact, I was part of a growing population of women who had the opportunities to shine, but were hiding their own lights for fear of overshadowing their men or were struggling to find their ways in what had become a new relationship dynamic.
One day I found myself sitting across the desk from a woman of considerable corporate power, as she described her own nontraditional marriage as if it were the most commonplace thing in the world.
It was a blustery December morning and I'd arrived slightly early for a 7:30 A.M. meeting with Janice, a vice-president of a Fortune 100 manufacturing company. She had engaged the services of our agency and I had just become her speechwriter.
When I arrived, Janice was nowhere to be seen. I waited a full twenty minutes until she blew in, flustered and disheveled, unwinding a huge challis scarf from her head and neck and shaking snow from her long, black coat. "I'm sooo sorry," she gasped, still catching her breath, "but I had to get things straight at home. I really blew it last night with my husband."
Janice and I were hardly on intimate, personal terms, but sometimes a speechwriter is like a stranger on a train to a client. I said nothing and waited.
"I had to work late last night and I forgot to tell Hal," she said, dropping into a chair. "I didn't get home till half-past nine. Man, he was angry! He's home all day, every day, with the kids and he had dinner on the table right on time—and I just didn't show. I didn't remember until I was on my way home that I hadn't called him. So I stopped at the supermarket and got flowers—but it didn't help."
"Your husband is ... home all day?" I immediately assumed he was disabled or between jobs. I was wrong.
"Oh, yes. It is important to us to have a parent home with the kids until they're in school. I can certainly support us all. So he stays home and he takes care of the house and the kids." She smiled ruefully. "Usually it's great. But sometimes I really screw up."
Janice supported her husband and children. I gulped before I spoke. "I know how that is. I'm the breadwinner in my family, too."
"Really?" Janice leaned forward, suddenly a co-conspirator. "Don't you just feel like such a man sometimes? Like you just want to go home and sit in front of the television with a cold beer and let them do everything else? But that's exactly what women hated about men supporting them—so we have to do better. We have to be participants, too."
It was as if she'd opened me up and read the writing on my soul. Janice knew the constant struggle for balance in the relationship, the conflicting need to compensate for our success by succeeding as a homemaker as well, the minimizing of our achievements so that other people (not necessarily our own husbands) would not see us as unfeeling or overconfident or, God forbid, ambitious.
If she knew and experienced all these conflicts ... how many other women did, too?
I spent a Saturday in the library and perused endless magazine articles on-line, searching for some evidence that the media had discovered a trend. What I found stunned me. Only two short articles, "Women, Men and Money" in Fortune and "The New Providers" published in Newsweek nearly two years earlier, even acknowledged that some women's earning abilities might exceed their spouses'. "Couples attempting to adjust to a shift in economic power often find it too touchy to talk about honestly," said the August 1996 article in Fortune. "Men don't talk about it when their wives earn more, because they're afraid other men will sneer at them and women don't talk about it, because they don't want to embarrass their men."
These articles supplied the statistic that made my head spin: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 1996, more than 29 percent of all married, working women in the United States made more money than their husbands. By 2000, the Washington Post would upgrade that statistic to a whopping 33 percent. That's one in every three married working women in America—an estimated 10.5 million wives.
Who are these women? How do they deal with their situations? Such a high percentage can't all be the wives of unemployed men—especially with the rate of unemployment relatively low throughout the country. And only a tiny percentage can be "powerchicks" as defined by Matt Towery's book of that name, the women who have shattered the glass ceiling and risen to the top of major corporations and professions. No, the rest of them are the rest of us—women who work hard, earn the rewards we deserve and apply ourselves in such a way that we secure a comfortable living ... one that happens to be larger than the income supplied by our husbands.
That night, I described all of this to Nic. And it was he who said it: "There's a book in this somewhere."
Here is that book.
This is a book for us—the women who do well professionally and who deserve to enjoy the rewards of this success with their husbands and families. This also is a book for men who find themselves husbands of achieving wives and who want to be as happy, secure and open about the situation as they would be if the tables were turned and they shouldered their traditional role as principal breadwinners.
Can such a marriage work? Certainly! But it's a balancing act—and in this book, we explore that balance. We'll talk about everything from who pays for dinner to who does the dishes; from sharing the child care responsibilities to praising each other's accomplishments.
The more I learned from the wives and husbands who shared their lives with me, the more ideas I could apply to my own marriage. Now, I want to share the enlightenment this quest brought me with the 10.5 million breadwinning wives in America who face the same challenges, doubts, discoveries and resolutions I did, the husbands of breadwinning wives and those men and women who are contemplating embarking upon this twenty-first century relationship dynamic. The perceptions and ideas of my interviewees and respondents worked for me. They can work for you.
The couples profiled in the pages that follow are real people. Names, locations and situations have been changed to preserve their anonymity. The women range in age from twenty-three to seventy-three, while the men range from twenty-three to eighty-four.
Wives interviewed reported incomes from $25,000 to $250,000 annually, while men either had no income or lower earnings, ranging from $5,000 to a high of $90,000 per year. My research couples were of many races and ethnicities; most couples were parents, others were not.
I located these couples by placing my call for volunteers in the newsletters and on the Web bulletin boards of more than sixty professional women's associations across the country. In all cases, wives and husbands were interviewed separately and I endeavored to arrange the interview times so the other spouse was not in the house or nearby. While I always asked to interview the husband, some wives were adamant in their refusal to allow this. Other husbands simply declined to be interviewed. In only two cases, the husbands were willing to talk with me, while their wives were not.
Breadwinning Backlash: Buck's Logic
As I neared the completion of this book, I happened to meet a man in a fairly high-level position in a major upstate New York non-profit organization. I introduced myself to this man, whom I'll call Buck, after a conference in which we were both participants.
I'd received some media attention for my work on Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry, so our brief conversation led inevitably in that direction. "Tell me again about the premise for this book you are writing," he said, raising an eyebrow. Like many men who engaged me in discussion of my work, he was poised, ready to debate. "I don't think I understand."
"It's about women who make more money than their husbands," I began, but he quickly cut me off.
He let out an unrestrained guffaw. "Oh yeah?" he laughed. "I've got the title of the first chapter for you. Chapter one: Marry a Loser."
Unless he reads this—which is highly unlikely—Buck will never know just how much he told me about himself with this one little zinger. I call this from-the-gut reaction "Buck's Logic."
Buck's Logic flows like this: I judge the world based on what goes on in my own home. All women must make less than I do, because I've never met a woman who did otherwise. A man who makes less than his wife must be a low-paid man indeed. Not only does he make so little that his wife must support him, he makes less than a female. That must be astoundingly poor pay. What kind of man would allow this to happen to him? Only some kind of pathetic loser.
It would never occur to Buck that many women are extremely successful and outearn their husbands simply because their incomes are so high. Buck would never understand that some men choose lower income positions, because they love the work they do or because such jobs afford them the freedom to spend more time with their children. Buck would assume that such men don't deserve comfortable lifestyles, because they don't have the drive to get themselves high paying jobs like Buck's.
Buck's Logic can be found everywhere. This book is a guide to repudiating this skewed logic, setting the record straight and bringing breadwinning wives out into the open, where we can shine together.
Breadwinner wives, you are no longer alone.
Excerpted from BREADWINNER WIVES AND THE MEN THEY MARRY by Randi Minetor. Copyright © 2002 by Randi Minetor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Chapter 1||The Road Less Traveled||1|
|Chapter 2||Successful Women, Successful Marriages||9|
|Chapter 3||Casting Against Type||20|
|Chapter 4||Can You Take It?||33|
|Chapter 5||Who Are These Guys?||45|
|Chapter 6||The New Math||58|
|Chapter 7||Buying, Going, Doing||78|
|Chapter 8||Housework: The Great Divide||95|
|Chapter 9||Making Housework a Partnership||110|
|Chapter 10||Guiltless Child-raising for Breadwinner Moms||133|
|Chapter 11||The Daddy Track||155|
|Chapter 12||Breadwinning at Fifty||180|
|Chapter 13||It's Not For Everyone||194|
|Chapter 14||Single and Successful||220|
|Chapter 15||What's Next?||231|
Posted January 15, 2002
My hat is off to Randi Minetor for tackling a subject that's been largely ignored. Breadwinner wives and their husbands need this book -- to better understand the dynamics that make our marriages far more problematic than they need to be. Minetor's advice is both practical and insightful. I'm particularly impressed at the number of men she interviewed, and the fact that so many men are truly comfortable as the husbands of breadwinner wives. This is a new era! I'm so pleased that we successful women have finally been acknowledged by a writer who 'gets it.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.