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Money Changes Everything: If Mom earns more than Dad, who changes the diapers?

Last year, I made more money than my husband did. The difference wasn’t enormous – only 20% – but it was meaningful. At first, I felt pride – I had made a career of my writing life; I was helping to get my family back on our feet financially (after buying a house and car we’d been knocked around a bit) – but, over time, this morphed into a sense of thwarted power. When I cut my work days short for school pick up, or when I loped down the aisles of Target trying to find a pair of elusive “water shoes” or when I simply called the pediatrician, I would sometimes find myself thinking, Have I not bought my way out of this? How can I make a full-time salary and attend to its full-time pressures if so much of my day is stolen away by the responsibilities of parenting?

Certainly, it was this same righteousness that allowed businessmen of the fifties to return from the office, kick off their shoes and throw back a martini. When Ali Edwards, a 33-year-old Oregonian with her own scrapbook design business, started to make more than eight times what her state senator husband made, her expectations shifted. “I’d say, ‘I make the money, why do I have to do all this?’ It was my end-of-the-rope card, the most hurtful thing I could say.”

Now that mothers have increasingly become more powerful in the workplace, how do they not resent their husbands for not becoming cozy homemakers in return? The first step may be, ironically, to stop striving for equality. Much has been made of today’s 50/50 marriage – husband and wife striving to perform the demanding tasks of work and family in equal measure – but Kyle Pruett, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center and co-author of Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strenghten Your Marriage, says that “once you start keeping track of how many diapers are changed by which parent, your relationship and your energy are being squandered because it will always be about disappointment.” Not all high-earning women feel this sense of entitlement; in fact, many feel guilt at not being able to be as active of parents as they’d like to be because their jobs are so demanding. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics says about one woman in four now earns more money than her husband, a quick survey of my female friends revealed six out of ten who did, yet all of these women considered themselves more involved than the men in the running of their families.

Monica McNeil, a 32-year-old C.P.A. in Dallas, lives with her husband (a software designer), and their five-year-old son. Her salary is 40% higher than her husband’s. Amy Landecker, a 39-year-old actress in New York, tends to make ten times what her writer/photographer husband makes. Both of these women hesitate to hand over the reins of parenting to their husbands. “There is this catch 22: I’m the moneymaker but I also have the guilt,” says Landecker. “I think I’m a crappy mom if I’m not the one to pick my daughter up from school.” McNeill made a similar point: “I want to be the strong caregiver in our house, but I also feel because of our financial situation, I have to be on my top game at work. That puts more pressure on me than on my husband.”

Both of these women feel, as I have, the pull of traditional motherhood in conflict with their being the primary earner. “It’s like the re-submission of women,” says my mother, whose own marriage came of age (and fell apart) in the feminist-era seventies. But the women I interviewed didn’t want to see their relationships as a form of oppression; they were searching for an answer to the riddle.

When I explained this tug-of-war feeling to Pruett, he suggested we consider the unwitting parties involved in this dynamic: our children. Women’s newfound financial power may demand that fathers step up more at home, but this also requires some letting go by the mothers. And that can actually be a good thing for, as Pruett points out, when a child has strong relationships with both parents, they are getting more of their needs met because they are interacting with two different people and, therefore, two different sensibilities.

But most importantly, he stresses: “The focus needs to be on your child, not on bean-counting. That is a dead end road and, at the end of it, is a giant pile of resentment. If what you want is a solution, you need to be talking more about what is good for your children than what is good for you.” The main point that Pruett makes is that our endeavor as parents, both financially and emotionally, is to support our children. We need to see beyond our personal grievances and instead see the needs of family. He has also found in his practice, interestingly, that children don’t ask for more time with their parents as much as they ask them to be less stressed and distracted when they are present.

Families today seem to be in the midst of a generous improvisation: women taking on men’s roles, men taking on women’s roles, and many of us reverting back to tradition when needed. If we are able to acknowledge this and leave behind idealized notions of equality, we might actually strike the balance we’ve been searching for all along.

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