There have been many moments since I hit age 21 when I realized that this was “it,” and I was truly an adult. Marriage, birth, divorce, loss of my own parent – each of these life-changing events gave me a fresh sense of being a real grown-up, with real grown-up responsibilities. But nothing, nothing at all has made me feel the full weight of adulthood the way becoming my family’s primary breadwinner has.
I come from a family of working women. My grandmother was a journalist for nearly 60 years, serving as editor of the iconic Hollywood tabloid, Photoplay magazine during my childhood (that’s my grandmother toiling at her Photoplay desk in the photo below). My mother was a newspaper reporter and editor, a wire service bureau chief, and currently serves as the PR flack for a major government agency. So I always expected that I would work. But even with the feminist upbringing I received, I must have somehow always held the thought in the back of my mind that the ultimate responsibility for keeping the wolf from the door would belong to someone else, not me. This wasn’t ever really a conscious assumption. In fact, had you asked, I would have denied it. I actually only realized I held this view after life finally put me in charge of keeping an entire family fed and clothed and housed
For the first decade of my life as a parent, I was the secondary wage earner. Don’t misunderstand, I always, always worked, but most of the time it was on a freelance or contract basis, while my husband’s “real” job assured us a 401K and health insurance and a steady paycheck. My monetary contribution to our family was not insignificant, but it was his job that was the anchor of our financial health.
Then, when I was 34, divorce changed everything, and I suddenly had to get my own real job… really fast. Thankfully, I was able to do that. While the first year or two as a working mother were very challenging, I managed to dig in to the workforce, and I have done better economically each year. I have also been lucky that I have been able to keep freelancing (writing, editing) outside of my full-time day job.
Now, I am remarried to a wonderful guy, and we’ve added a fourth child to our family. And in contrast to my previous marriage, the roles my husband and I play in our family life are flipped. He does more than 50% of the childcare for our one-year-old, taking her to work with him each day at the family business where he works. When one of the children is sick, he’s more likely to take time away from his job than I am. And he does a great deal of the housework, grocery shopping and general household management.
Our arrangement is definitely unconventional, but he does more of the traditionally “female” stuff in our family because as it happens, I am the primary wage earner. I make more than twice what my husband does, and my job also provides us with our health insurance and retirement account. Don’t get me wrong, he’s great at his job, and his financial contribution to our family is very important. However, we both recognize that my career requires our full support – mine as the person doing the job, and his as the person taking the lead in manning (heh) the homefront. So far, this arrangement is working well for us. In fact, we both agree that we would ideally like to expand my wage-earning capacity so that he can spend even more time at home with the children. He’s great at it, and is actually better suited to stay-at-home parenting than I am.
All of this sounds very progressive and wonderful, and mostly it is. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I occasionally have nights when I lie awake, stressed by the role I now hold as the person primarily responsible for financially taking care of the people I love. Never before have I felt more adult than I do when I consider the fact that if I were to screw up and lose my job, or if I got laid off due to the bad economy, everything we have could come tumbling down around us. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and it can feel extremely frightening at times. It’s made me recognize the deep-seated and naive belief I somehow developed in childhood that I would ultimately always be able to depend on someone else to “take care of me.”
Of course, I was wrong. And whatever cultural biases that planted that subconscious belief in my psyche are likely still at play in the way girls – and boys – grow up today. But I’m now trying to give my own children of both genders a different and more explicit message: I tell each of them that they need to assume that no one else will earn the money that will support them and any family they choose to have. Maybe if they hear this enough from me now, it won’t be so terrifying the first time they realize they are actually doing it.
ADDENDUM: I want to respond to some of the comments below. First of all, my husband is not threatened or offended or otherwise bothered by the idea that I make more money than he does – or that I just blogged about the fact that I make more than he does. And of course there are reasons why I currently make more money than he does, and the fact that I’ve been in the workforce longer than he has is certainly among them. But the point of my post wasn’t why I make more money at the moment. The point was that as the primary wage earner, I feel a lot of responsibility. Last, I am well aware that the work my husband does at home and with the children is just as valuable as the work I do at my job for which someone pays me. He’s definitely taking care of me, and our family, in an incredibly important way. But the simple fact is that if one of us forget to do the grocery shopping or laundry, we aren’t at risk of losing our house. If I screw up on the job, we are. And that was the whole point of my post: that finding myself for the first time as the person most responsible for the financial well-being of our family is quite daunting. Oh yeah, and one last thing, my husband adds that he does his share (more, in my opinion) of the housework not because I earn more, but just because he wants to
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