Posted by: Allyson | July 25, 2008

Breadwinning – Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

At the moment, I’m bascially the breadwinner in my marriage.  I managed to secure a full-time, salaried job before my partner and I moved to Austin.  It took him awhile to find work, and when he did it was a part-time bakery job, for which he has yet to receive a paycheck (that won’t happen until next week).  He’s still looking for better work, or at least a second part-time job, but nothing has turned up.  He had a little  money saved up to help out, but he doesn’t have much.  So right now, I’m paying for about 85% of all our expenses.  And until he either gets a second part-time job, or something full-time, I imagine I’ll still be paying more than 50%. 

Being the breadwinner stinks, especially because my salary isn’t really enough to support two people, and things are pretty tight.  It’s not necessarily that I’m underpaid.  If we didn’t have student loan debt, we would  be comfortable on my one income.  But unfortunately, we have close to $100,000 of undergrad debt between us.  And because we have to pay that off in addition to the rest of day-to-day living, my salary just isn’t enough for us to be comfortable.  Now, luckily for us, this is only temporary.  Soon my partner will get a paycheck from his bakery job, so that will alleviate the problem a little.  And eventually, he’ll have a full-time income, and we’ll be okay.  But at the moment, I’m bringing in most of the money and paying most of the expenses. 

Being the breadwinner stinks, at least for me, because I feel a lot of pressure to keep things running smoothly and get everything paid on time.  I’m constantly worrying how I’m going to make rent AND pay for the utilities AND buy groceries without much help.  It’s not my partner’s fault; he’s trying to make an equal contribution.  But right now, things are not equal financially, and it’s very stressful.  Having to basically support someone else when there’s not enough for two people has become overwhelming. 

Now, maybe I wouldn’t feel so stressed if I actually made enough for us to be comfortable while meeting our expenses and paying our student loans.  But I don’t.  And so I’ve been thinking about this cult of the single-income family that seems to persist in America.  Now, I don’t think that even in the 1950s, the majority of families only had one income.  So it’s ridiculous that this ideal of “heterosexual marriage, man has outside employment, woman is a housewife” ideal even persists in the first place.  But the fact is, many people still think that this is the ideal household setup (although I think many people who believe that are not of my generation, so at least there’s hope that this viewpoint will eventually die out).  And there are families all over that have one breadwinner and one partner who stays home.  Typically (although  not always), the male partner has an outside career and the female partner stays home. 

As someone currently acting out the traditional “male” role of breadwinner, I have been thinking about masculinity, providing for one’s household, and the frustrations involved.  I’m struggling to provide for two people with student loan debt.  In many single-income families, there is student loan debt, a mortgage, car payments, and children.  I’m struggling with my income to pay for two of us, and we don’t have that many expenses.  Even if someone is making more money, that person is likely to have many more expenses.  And so I have been imagining that many breadwinners feel this exact same pressure, even though they probably make more than I do.  And I also imagine that this pressure is not a 21st-century phenomenon.  Even 60 years ago, when the United States wasn’t in a recession and a dollar could go farther and you didn’t necessarily need to finance a college education through loans, people still had car payments, mortgages, and children.  And thus pressure, stress, and worry that there is enough to provide for the people who matter to you.

And if men have been feeling this pressure all along, why hasn’t anyone said anything about it?  Why haven’t more men gone to their wives and said, “I appreciate all you do in raising our children, but we need a second income, so let’s divide up the housekeeping and childrearing responsibilities, and we’ll both have jobs?”  Why is there such shame in a wife taking a job in order to help support the family financially?  I wonder how much spousal and child abuse come from the pressure of trying to support a family on one income.  And I’m not trying to blame housewives here for not going out and getting jobs.  I’m not even blaming men for not speaking up.  I’m wondering what is it that prevents them from speaking up in the first place. 

Of course, I know the problem.  It’s our whole concept of masculinity in the first place.  If you can’t provide for your family, you’re not a man.  If you need to ask your wife to get a job and take on some of the housekeeping duties yourself,  you’re not a good provider, you’re not a real man.  Of course, I don’t feel my masculinity is at stake because I’m having trouble providing.  And it helps that sooner or later, the pressure is going to be off.  It also helps that I feel free to go to my partner and say “I’m freaked out, I’m stressed out, I can’t do this forever.”  But I imagine that there are many men out there, even today, who feel like if they can’t support their families, they’re not men, and therefore a crucial part of their idenitites is at stake.

I don’t imagine that, as a society, we’re going to all be able to break down gender constraints anytime soon.  But there also needs to be a way to show that a household needing two incomes is not the husband’s failure.  It’s not anybody’s fault.  Children are expensive, cars need repairs, food prices fluctuate.  If a couple can afford for one partner to stay at home, that’s their perogative.  But neither men nor women should be pressured to fit such a standard, as it doesn’t work, and causes stress.  We need to make it okay for men to not feel threatened.  We also need to make sure that in two-income households, homemaking responsibilities are divided up more equally so women don’t end up doing an inordinate share.

Of course, as I said, I think most of these views about breadwinning are held by an older generation, and so sooner or later are going to fade away.  Still, I’d like to get to the point where we can change concepts about gender without having to wait for them to disappear.

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Responses

  1. Awesome post. It’s so true that there is such a stigma against men admitting that supporting their families is hard work and a lot of pressure.

    I have a female friend who is in the same breadwinning position right now while her husband is going to law school, and she confides in me all the time how hard it is, and how much she looks forward to when he graduates and they can become a two-income family.

    It seems that men aren’t socially allowed to have the outlet of talking about it, and that pressure manifests itself in other behaviors, from merely being distant to being unfaithful or even abusive.

  2. And I’m not trying to blame housewives here for not going out and getting jobs. I’m not even blaming men for not speaking up. I’m wondering what is it that prevents them from speaking up in the first place.

    exactly.

  3. […] Breadwinning – Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be from Feminicracy: “And I’m not trying to blame housewives here for not going out and getting jobs. I’m not even blaming men for not speaking up. I’m wondering what is it that prevents them from speaking up in the first place. “ (tags: economics housework work br) […]

  4. I know where you’re coming from! I’m our sole breadwinner right now too, while my husband is in school, and with a child as well it’s not easy living on my single non-profit org. salary!

    I definitely feel the pressure, and I’m now looking for a job which makes it even harder because I fear the risk of taking on something new and putting us all in the poorhouse.

    I did a post about women and the current economy over on the CA NOW blog: http://www.canow.org/canoworg/2008/07/its-still-the-e.html
    but I was too embarrassed to admit that it’s hit me hard enough that we have to get a box of low-cost remaindered food each week from a local charity or we wouldn’t even be able to afford to eat!

    Sigh…

  5. Tiggrrl-

    That is tough. I’m making a nonprofit salary, too, and I don’t know what we would do if we had a child. Probably get food from charity, as well . . . Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, I know, but you know it’s bad when you can’t even get food from the grocery store.

    Good luck with your job search! I hope things improve for you soon!

  6. […] a career and a salary, and therefore subsidizing most of their relationship for another year.  (It seems like nobody actually enjoys being a breadwinner.)  Out of solidarity, I reminded her that she was not alone – my partner may no longer be a […]


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