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

If Mom earns more than Dad, who changes the diapers?

By Nell Casey |

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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About Nell Casey


Nell Casey

Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (William Morrow), a national bestseller, An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family (William Morrow) and the forthcoming book, The Journals of Spalding Gray (Knopf). She has also written for such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Elle and was a columnist for Cookie magazine.

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

  1. MB says:

    This is a great article. Too bad the author didn’t include (because she couldn’t find?) any examples of men who stepped up and did more around the house and with the kids after realizing they were the secondary earner.

  2. xMaureenx says:

    I think too much time is spent dividing up roles and what “you” should do and what “I” should do. There a laundry list of chores and things to get done, just divide it up and do it! Not all tasks have equal weight, but it will work itself out.
    Husbands might not be lazy, they just may need a push or a gentle reminder.
    If one person does dinner, the other cleans. If one parent took the
    kids to the doctors last week, the other takes them to the dentist the
    next month. If one person took out the trash, the other starts on
    laundry. This could go on and on, but just GET IT DONE. Stop squabbling
    over it and just divide and conquer!
    Maybe my husband is just one of a kind, but we’ve never had issues in the equal parenting department. When I was a SAHM mom, he worked 50 plus hours a week so I could stay home. I felt like it was my duty to make sure the house was clean, dinner was made, and he didn’t have to do anything house related- yet he still wanted to.
    Even now that I am back in school full time and working. Everything balances out still. I’ll come home and make dinner and while I’m cleaning, he’s giving baths and doing the night time rituals. On his days off, I’ll go to class and he’ll have dinner made and the laundry done, without having to say anything. He makes more than six times what I do but he never lets it become an issue. We share everything, one bank account which is filled with “our” money.
    Personally, I feel like he has to deal with a more stressful job so I don’t mind being the one that does the school drop off and pick up or making doctors appointments. And if I were the one making more money, he would feel the same way.

  3. poorboy says:

    My wife earns more than I do and it definitely changes the dynamics — I have less leverage in certain kinds of family decision making. Which I don’t mind, I consider it a good problem. But I do think a biological reality remains that she is fundamentally more nurturing than I am, which means that she is more likely to cave in the period games of “chicken” over who will go in to rock the crying baby. Or who will take the kids to the doctor (I wouldn’t mind having the babysitter go to the doctor and call us on the phone). My guess is that some marital dynamics are affected by income and others are not, and this can quite legitimately lead to frustration on the part of the high earning mom.

  4. jealous says:

    Now there is a high class problem. I would love to struggle with this one :)

  5. a similar but slightly different says:

    Evil does not reside in any particular ratio of sharing – be it 50/50, 60/40, 90/10 or 73/27. Beancounting or scorekeeping is a separate problem, which can arise in any relationship whenever parents approach a hot-button chore as adversaries rather than as a team. This can happen whenever a couple doesn’t communicate their individual expectations, or take the time to get down to the bottom of what isn’t working by taking the time to communicate. There is a world of difference between keeping track of how many dishes you’ve washed vs how many your spouse has done, and working out a solution that allows you to share in this neverending task (if you consider it important to share this particular duty). Mathematically, you will end up with some ratio whether you plan for it or let it happen naturally. No need to tally things up. If the way you handle dishes, or laundry, or any other chore, is working well – hooray! If it isn’t, however, coming up with a solution together is a loving approach (even if involves spelling out which partner will typically sign up to wash the dishes on Tuesday)…and actually prevents that awful and toxic beancounting mentality.
    Considering our children when deciding how to share the household chores is obviously important. One of the best parts of becoming a true team in sharing the burdens is that you also share the joys – your wonderful kids! And they get to experience, up-close, two different and equally valid ways of handling various situations – and get intimate bonds with both of you. Yet considering the children in the equation is not an argument for avoiding an equitable sharing of the housework. No more than choosing to serve peas vs carrots at dinner. Both are lovely, healthy options that put our children’s needs at the heart. And as a bonus, happy parents make good parents – and secure children.

  6. authorresponse says:

    Hi All,Thanks for the many responses to the piece. (I am the author of the article.)I think MB’s question about interviewing men who have stepped up around the house because their wives earn more is a good one. I was really so focused on the feeling for women, and since this is a relatively new phenomenon, I only interviewed women. But it is a crucial perspective and Poorboy gives interesting insight in this regard. I agree that it is often the mother who is on high alert with regard to the childreni.e. caving to go in to rock the baby in the nightand a more deeply ingrained sense of guilt. Two mothers in the article, in fact, say they had a harder time with their high-powered careers and big earning power because they couldn’t, in turn, let go of their maternal instincts enough to make room for their jobs sometimes or for their husbands to parent in their own style.Poorboy, do you do more domestically –cooking, cleaning, arranging drs appointments, etcto compensate for your wife’s higher salary? Keep the comments coming. This is such an interesting conversation!Best,Nell Casey

  7. Minnesota says:

    I was unaware that men who make more than their wives get a get-out-of-diapers-free card, either. In fact, I don’t get how salary has any bearing on parenting duties at all. I’d understand if the question were about hours required by the job: I work 40 hours a week while my husband’s employer expects 60, 70+  so obviously I do more with the kids and around the house. But “I earn more so I get to sit on my ass and watch you vacuum?” No way.

  8. higher earner says:

    I have almost always made more than my husband, and I don’t feel any guilt for expecting him to do at least half of the parenting if not more. He’s grateful for the security my job can provide (that his just can’t) and enjoys being around our kid. We almost never play chicken for the childcare duties. I thank my working mother and cooking step-father for that (and my husband, of course) and will raise my kid with the same model of equal parenting.
    I will say, though, that once the child work is done, there’s another layer — the housework. Chores like cleaning, groceries, maintaining family (birthday presents and the like) are where we don’t share equally. That was present before the kid, anyway, but with an extra person in the house there’s even MORE mess that he doesn’t really notice…

  9. GP says:

    where is the love?

  10. leahsmom says:

    Just because I love my husband doesn’t mean I don’t get aggravated at doing most of the housework.  I can’t get him to see things that are left undone – he seems literally not to notice that, when he opens the mail and leaves the trash on the table, that’s a chore – someone has to throw it out; ditto dishes in the sink.  I decided since tidiness is important to me, I’d either have to be a daily nag or do it myself. I don’t want the stress and extra work of nagging, and I feel like I’d still do a lot of it anyway – so I just do it myself.  But when I’m exhausted, sick, and tired, and I’ve just gotten home from work to a sinkfull of dirty dishes and 45 minutes of tidying? I still get grumpy, even though I know I signed up for it.

  11. poorboy says:

    In answer to your question, Nell, to be candid I probably do a little less than 50% of the work, but not much less, despite the fact that my wife earns more. I work longer hours than she does (where did I go wrong!), and perhaps in the long run my work will be more lucrative and/or more enduring. Of course we both root for each other’s career success; there is nothing competitive about it.As I said above, I think the work discrepancy has less to do with $$ than personality –my picture of the perfect life probably involves a notch less kids time than hers does, which explains some of the delta. But there is little doubt that I do more, and am more deferential to her on questions of vacation, private school, and so on, because she is the bigger breadwinner.

  12. babyfatty says:

    I agree with Minnesota – I don’t see how money should play a role *at all*. Roles changing based on hours/flexibility/benefits – well, that’s a totally different story. My partner and I are both female, I make about $60k and she makes $35k. I carried our son and I’m now breastfeeding him; we both do what we can to carry the load and make life bearable for the other. I’m a math teacher; she’s a social worker working with mentally ill and chemically dependent homeless folks. When she comes home with job stress because one of her clients died or was raped or one of her co-workers was assaulted – and she can’t handle a screaming baby – I sure as hell don’t tell her that I make twice as much as her so my day at work must have been harder and I deserve a break more.

  13. Chiken says:

    I work fewer hours than my husband (35ish vs. 45ish), but I make more money.  I do more of the housework/childcare, but I did more of the housework/childcare when I was working equal hours to him and making significantly more money, so I guess that’s just who we are.
    I know that this is a solution that only works for people who have relatively high paying careers — but in my experience the way to avoid bitterness over these issues is to hire help.  A nanny and a housekeeper, if possible.  Order in food from a delivery service if you can.  Then there is less to split up.  We would certainly have a nicer house, better cars, etc. if we didn’t have so much hired help, but its money well spent for us.

  14. heyguy says:

    when health runs out and the business closes due to the economy you only have the advantage of being a great money manager albeit left or right handed …in the relationship.. i for one stumbled when i was young and stumbled right off the side of the grand canyon wall!!!over who should do what in marriage…only did it once and watched the world evolve..there is nothing like helping those who really want the scales evenly in life my amigo bumped into this guy who does miracles  he’s going to help me by the master!!!heyguy

  15. Laure68 says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Minnesota. Shouldn’t it be more dependent on how many hours each parent works. I do understand that, if you are getting paid by the hour and one person makes more money, it makes financial sense for the one with the lower earnings to take time off for certain things.

  16. higher earner says:

    It depends on hours, yes, but it also depends on career goals, disposition, everything else. I make more money, but I work a JOB. My husband makes less money in far more hours, but he’s working on a career and passion. So my criteria for taking time off of work involves questions like “Can I do this without attracting attention? Will I look like I’m dodging my responsibilities at work?” I’m trying to keep the money and health insurance flowing. My husband, on the other hand, rarely *has* to be at his workplace, but the amount of time he puts in is proportional to his sucess later in life.
    We’ve come up with a basic system when negotiating childcare duties: We start with the assumption that we each COULD make the time/effort/etc. And we just figure out whose work is least negatively impacted. I’d be willing to bet that’s how a lot of dual-earner couples work. I mean, obviously we’d both love to hang out with our kid all day and not have to earn money, but until that day, gotta pay rent.
    And in response to GP, I think “love” is a red herring, when “respect” and “value” are really the issues we’re talking about when we talk about how families divide duties, chores and obligations.

  17. CareerGal says:

    Yah, I’m not sure why you compare based on income.  My husband and I laugh that every Monday is a negotiation – who can get out early and grocery shop, who can make the Dr. appointment, or do drop-off and pick up.  We base it on our work schedules, flexibility, etc.  Some weeks he does more at home, some weeks I do.  But to be honest, the question of someone doing more or less based on money earned never comes up.  Maybe this is because we are both equally committed to our careers regardelss of our paychecks?
    That said, when we are both home, we split up stuff based on what we are good at/comfortable with.  I deal more with fixing boo boos, reading stories, doing art projects.  But my husband is way better at playing pretend, etc.  He loves to cook, and I do more of the cleaning. So we don’t split childcare or housework down the middle, but both tend to gravitate toward certain things. 

  18. cynicorrealist says:

    I think most people would agree that relative income should not drive negotiations between spouses — a point many people above are making — but the reality is that it often does. A cynic, or perhaps a realist, would say that clout is a factor in all relationships, particularly when things are going poorly. And clout basically boils down to who is more dependent on whom, emotionally and in terms of resources. When times get tough in marriages, and they do at some point for most people, relative income is one of the factors that affect negotiations.

  19. yougogirls says:

    One women in four makes more than her husband? Great news! Men’s disproportionate earning power has made marriages lopsided for generations. It’s about time that balance of power gets reset a bit! Good work ladies.

  20. Wanna be at home says:

    I make a lot more than my husband, but I work a lot of hours to do so, even though most of them are at home. This didn’t matter so much when we didn’t have a child, but I’d so much rather be the one home with him now, and there’s certainly a degree of resentment on my part, in terms of his lack of advancement, financial contributions, and the like. That said, he does a lot of the household stuff, probably more parenting than I do, unfortunately, cooks, etc. For us, it’s both an income and a time consideration — he does a lot because he doesn’t think I should have to — after working and doing what I can to be with our toddler, I’ve got three or fours left, and I use these precious few to sleep. There was just never any question about it — I work a lot more hours than he does, so it makes sense that a lot of his “job”, in both our minds, consists of childcare and housework, etc. Considering who’s working more is certainly a pragmatic solution.
    In terms of the income question, however, I have to say that I definitely feel that I have more leverage in terms of decision-making power. While’s he’s a poor decision-maker in general (takes forever, waffles, etc.) I decide what’s getting spent where, and I do the money, partially because I just feel really uncomfortable leaving than to anyone else (and I would if he made 10 times the money I do). I rarely question him about spending money, however, and I don’t tell him he “can’t” spend, etc. That’s just bitchy and belittling. I will admit to occasionally hitting below the belt if I’m feeling overly tired, resentful, etc.
    I think I differ from some of the other responders in terms of desire — I WANT to do a lot of the stuff relating to parenting, the going to Target, the art projects, what have you. And I do do a lot, probably more than the average woman working 50, 60 hours a week. I don’t resent this at all because the truth is, this is what I want to do — I work in this capacity because it’s necessary, and that’s it. I don’t feel like I get a pass or should be able to opt out of childcare duties, even the less amusing or endearing ones; I usually just feel like a shitty parent who’s child really, really, wants her around more.
    I thought I would always want to work, and I do, in some capacity or another, but as soon as I had our son, doing so lost a lot of its allure. I’m a professor; I get a lot out of my job on one hand, but it’s an impoverished bounty compared to what I get from being a parent. I don’t feel like I AM my career, or that it defines my identity, or that I couldn’t live without it. I often wish I had a job or career about which I was so passionate that I felt really comfortable with working full and more than full-time.

  21. Aimee Grove says:

    This article raises an interesting point, but the issue of working mom guilt rears its head no matter how much you are making vs. your spouse (see here for recurring posts about it … I make about half as much as my husband and work much longer hours + have a horrid commute. And yet it’s me that worries constantly about whether I am spending enough quality time with my 3-year-old on the weekends and who slogs through all the crappy bill-paying, financial stuff around the house. The biggest thing that has saved our marriage is the ability to simply budget for a housekeeper and takeout when needed, sad as that may be. My boss (a man) once told me to stop ever shooting for 50-50 because no man has ever achieved this ratio when it comes to parenting and housework and it stuck.

  22. byumom says:

    If you want men to start helping more around the house, START WITH YOUR SONS. My mother-in-law did and my husband can cook, clean, and change a diaper as well as I can. Hell, he can even sew, and I can’t. Teach your kids that there are no “boy chores” and “girl chores”.
    My son helps me with laundry and dishes. My daughter takes out the trash.
    We did decide that my husband will work full-time, and I will stay home full-time with our three children, so I do the majority of the childcare and cleaning during the week. Saturdays and Sundays it’s about equal. No one likes a bean counter.

  23. kiwidad says:

    Does income really affect the childcare/housework split in this modern day and age? I know two other dads besides myself who have taken over the lion’s share of the childcare/housework; one did it so that he could use the time that kids are at school to renovate his house before selling it, and the other because he runs a home-based business so he’s there all the time.
    I personally became a SAHD because my old profession required me to shift frequently between various locations way out in the boondocks, making it impossible for my equally-qualified wife to find work in her highly specialised career. Sure she earns less than I used to but the kids have a stable home and stable friendships, my wife can finally develop her career, and I have enough experience that finding a good job shouldn’t be too hard once the kids are all at school.
    My point is that in my experience, those dads that DO do most of the childcare are not doing it because they earn less than their partners, they do it for a variety of other reasons.
    And perhaps those mums that do most of the childcare are not doing it because they earn less than their partners either. I would suggest that the tradition handed down from parents and grandparents that “women raise the kids” is a much stronger influence.

  24. Canuckmom says:

    Well, I make no money. I stay home with our little ones while hubby works a typical 9-5 day. But he does more cooking than me(because he enjoys it and mine is inedible) and I do more dr. Appointments, clothes shopping, etc. We share things like dishes and vacuuming. He never has, and never will, say that he should do less because of money. Time, maybe, which is why I do what I can during the day to leave our evenings free for family time.

  25. Aleah Steiner says:

    Regardless of who makes more in our family, I’ve always been the one to organize the bills and budget. During our first year of marriage I was finishing school and my husband was overseas. The next, we all lived overseas for several months (we’re a military family) and I stayed home with our kids- but I still paid bills, budgeted, and decided when we had money for extras (like new golf clubs for the husband or itemsnfor myself). Now I’m working; I earn more, but work less hours. Obviously when he’s gone I have 100% of the parenting duties, but whether I’ve worked or stayed home, once my partner is home he grabs the boys and gives me an hour or two to myself. We’ve never delegated tasks according to who’s home more or earns less, but according to what we’re good at (I cook, he cleans, shopping is done by whoever is going on post that day). Thus far our arrangment works :)

  26. Lorette Lavine says:

    I totally agree with the advice of Pruett who said to put the children at the center of this issue. When you do that it does not become about the parent’s issues of who does what and how much one parent does versus the other. Although there may still be resentment and conflict it will become easier to resolve if the children are the center of these issues. As a therapist I would advise not to ignore your personal feelings but talk them out with your spouse…no one is a mind reader and nothing gets resolved with out good communication in business or in family situations.

  27. Akemom says:

    I’m a nurse & make more than my cop hubby. I also cook better. He does most of the laundry. We split chores really just based on preference or who’s home when it needs to be done. One wonderful quality about our family has been his role as hands on dad. I work 3 twelve hour night shifts a week. Since our 1st was born he has been responsible for baths/bedtime those nights. He also gets them up & going 3 days a wk since he has to leave for wk before I get home.
    I do feel like it’s my place to do dr’s visits & most of the school supply/clothing shopping. But that’s mostly b/c I like having a strong say so in those areas. I tease him that if I die the kids will never go to the dentist & will be wearing shoes 2 sizes too small ;)
    I think our situation works b/c it has been that way since our 1st child was born. I never assumed it was my job or his job to do things. The kids belong to both of us. And they really do have a more rich life from it. I’m anal & more strict. He’s more laid back. The kids definitely pick up on that, but also know that we back each other up. Plus my son is learning that boys do anything around the house that girls do.

  28. Bari Nan Cohen Rothchild says:

    This is thoughtful and well-reported, Nell. Thanks!

  29. Just a regular guy says:

    If the man doesn’t trump the woman, the woman resents it. That’s what I take from this article. If she makes more money than him, HE should make more. If she cleans more HE should clean more. If he gets a larger part of the parenting SHE’s supposed to get more time in. Always more more more. I think men should respond by COMPLAINING MORE.

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