Almost a third of working women nationwide now out-earn their husbands. It was inevitable, really. With more women than men going to college, with women taking less time out from careers to raise children, with more women choosing careers that only a few years ago were the province of men, better jobs and better money have become available to them.
There are no “rules” for managing this change. At the present time, every couple in which the woman is the primary wage earner is very much on its own, inventing a family life that is radically different from that which they knew growing up. Often, the partners are surprised to find that each clings to their “traditional” role, even when such roles are no longer practical or even humane; a woman who puts in a 13-hour day at the office simply can’t come home and do the laundry too.
And yet, redistributing roles and responsibilities in a family is not as simple as saying, “you take out the garbage, I’ll sweep the floor.” It often gets down to people’s core beliefs about who they are and what they need to be doing to be a real grown-up man or woman. The reactions people have to such things are often distressingly irrational, even to themselves!
People who study relationships are, of course, studying this phenomenon as well. They are finding that, although men with working wives are taking on more housework than ever before, they still lag behind by five hours a week! In families where there are children, the gap is even wider, with women spending 17 more hours per week doing childcare and home chores.
It is only when a woman’s paycheck approaches an equal dollar amount to her husband’s that the husband pitches in more. Curiously, some researchers have found that once a wife’s income is actually greater than her husband’s, he tends to be less and less involved at home and that couples are more likely to reassert traditional roles if the balance between earning power is tipped too much toward the woman. Perhaps women still need to think that they can rely on men to take care of them. Perhaps men need to feel that they are still the “head of household” to feel like a man. The issue merits further study.
Whatever the reasons, if you are the first couple in your family’s history in which the woman out-earns the man, here are some tips to give you a hand:
- Remember that you are pioneers. Few people have been raised in families where Mom out-earned Dad or where Mom was a CEO while Dad stayed home with the kids. As a matter of fact, most people presently in the work force were raised in families where Dad not only made most of the money but also made most of the important decisions. It’s true that a man’s ability to single-handedly support his family was a point of pride a generation ago. It is also true that a perk that came with making the money was an assumption that the husband therefore had the right to a greater say in family life. However unhappy people were with the arrangement, there was a certain sense that Dad was supposed to be the head of the household and everyone else’s roles fell into line behind his.
Not so today. Even the most entrenched traditionalist knows, on some level, that such rigid ideas about who does what have to be reconsidered when the woman is slugging it out in the workplace just like her spouse. As a culture, we’re still working this out.
- Keep in mind that the workload, not the players, is the problem. The most important attitude for a couple to maintain in this situation is that they are in it together. The problem is trying to manage the crushing load of two jobs, two kids, and a mountain of laundry. The problem is not who is making what salary. Work together to figure out what needs to get done each week to keep the children safe and happy and the household orderly and running smoothly. Get beyond what each of you thinks the other should be doing and focus on how you both will get everything done in a way that is fair to everyone.
- Keep money out of chore talk. Face it — it doesn’t matter if one partner is making $22,000 a year and the other is making $220,000. You are both working and you are both putting in 40-plus hours each week to get your paychecks. Hopefully, you are both doing something that matters to you. Probably neither one has more free time than the other.
- Keep talking! These problems don’t get solved in a single conversation. Nor can you assume that the distribution of household chores, money, and decision-making power will just work itself out on its own. These issues are fraught with emotion. Each partner is consciously dealing with old role models, their own and their parents’ expectations for what it means to be successful, and their own and generations’ worth of opinions about what it means to be a real man or a real woman. This isn’t easy stuff. And it often comes out in frankly weird ways. You may think you are only talking about who is going to stay home with Junior, who has the chickenpox. But if the discussion gets heated, it becomes a forum for who is the better parent, who cares more, who has the less important job, or who is indispensable at work. Take a deep breath and try to own up to those more complicated feelings. Partners need to be friends who provide comfort and support as they both explore such deep and emotional territory.
- Talk about financial decision-making. In prior generations, moneymaking dictated who would make financial decisions. Pioneering couples need to discuss how financial decisions will be made — preferably when there is no pressing decision on the table. Talk about how decisions were made in your own family of origin and the consequences of this approach. Take the time to outline some policy decisions about who has say about what kinds of decisions and about what kinds of dollar amounts. What money belongs to whom? What bank accounts do you need? Who has access to what funds? How are bills to be paid? What kinds of decisions are left up to the individual and which need to be discussed by the couple? Again, if the discussion gets emotional, know that you aren’t talking about finances anymore. You are talking about much deeper issues.
- Don’t hesitate to get professional help. It is indeed very sad when money issues erode what is otherwise a good relationship. Good relationships are certainly hard enough to find. Know that the issues around money and power are old and deep for most people. If you find yourselves getting into repeated and heated arguments about money, decisions, and household tasks, don’t leap to the conclusion that the problem is your partner (See Tip #2). You may need an objective counselor to help you sort out the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors that you each bring to the situation. A good therapist can help you get back on the same team.