Actually, it’s all I’ve ever known. My mom was always the breadwinner of our family and the one who made all the financial decisions. Maybe on the exterior it appeared like my dad was the head of the family, but in truth, my mom quietly ruled the household finances behind the scenes. It made for an uncomfortable dynamic, a reversal of roles in a culture where traditionally, the man is seen as the patriarch. It became even more magnified when my mom started earning big money when she switched careers to real estate from nursing. Nobody was fooled after that into thinking my mom wasn’t the money maker. As a girl growing up, my parents’ relationship was confusing and difficult – a reversal of roles, yes, but in all other ways falling into the stereotypical gender roles of Asian families. It comes as no surprise to me then, that I would end up as the breadwinner and decision maker for our family. It’s not that I didn’t necessarily want this role, but I’ve always known since I was a teenager that I would want to support myself – man or no man – because I’ve seen how volatile relationships can be and I never wanted to rely on anyone else.
Meeting someone at 20 is a lot different from meeting someone in your 30s. You’re not thinking about the future or having babies and maybe not even thinking about careers at that point. You’re certainly not worrying about whether or not the person that you’re with will end up with a good paying job in 5 to 10 years. I know I wasn’t at that age. We didn’t care about that kind of stuff back then; we just cared about having fun and making art. Maybe this shouldn’t have come as a surprise seeing as we were both music majors in college, but it didn’t really matter back then because we were both making crappy salaries in our mid to late 20s. It wasn’t until I graduated from grad school that I would start out earning Mark by earning 3x his hourly rate, and it wasn’t until we had a baby that I started thinking about what it meant to be the breadwinner, because I knew so few women who were. Soon after we became parents we met other new parents in our neighborhood, and our circle of friends expanded for the first time to include people who weren’t artists or chefs, musicians or internet geeks. For the first time, we knew people who were homeowners, who wore suits to work, who had grown up things like mortgages, investments and cleaning ladies, who had a stay-at-home parent, and who lived in apartments that looked like it was inhabited by adults and not college students. I understood for the first time what it meant to “keep up with the Joneses” and we, by any definition of that phrase, could not keep up with the Joneses.
What I’m about to say is the honest truth and I realize that it might seems a bit harsh, but…
I would be lying if I said I never wished Mark had chosen a different career that earned more money.
I would be lying if I said I never got jealous of all my stay-at-home mom friends because the choice to stay home or work was never mine to make.
I would be lying if I never said that sometimes I felt it was unfair that the burden of lifting our family out of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence always fell on me.
Jealousy can be shameful. Feeling resentful can be just as bad, which is why I have admitted this to only a few close people, but I have felt all of these things when I felt stressed, depressed, crying and paralyzed with fear because I didn’t have jobs lined up, or when I crammed 16 hour days working on deadlines while scrubbing the bathtub during work breaks. Being the breadwinner didn’t put much of a strain in our relationship, but it did make Mark keenly aware that I was having these feelings sometimes. It made him feel guilty that he couldn’t solely support our family through his career choice and so he overcompensated by doing everything else around the house. To be clear, I never believed that it was the man’s job to support the family. I have talked with some dads about feeling the same kind of pressure and stress as the main breadwinner so it’s not even specifically about gender roles. I didn’t grow up expecting to be taken care of, after all, my mom switched careers solely because she was faced with sending 2 kids to college soon and my dad’s business wasn’t earning the money that we needed. Like my mom, I felt a huge amount of pressure to be the one, self imposed or not, because I had more earning potential.
But you know what? Looking back from where I stand now, I don’t think I would have changed a thing. As stressful as it was and still is, I’m grateful that our situation pushed me in survival mode to work harder. I’m certainly happy that I kept my career. I realized early on, even in the baby years, that I needed to keep that part of my identity to stay sane. In the end, who was earning what didn’t matter. The money didn’t matter. What did matter was that we were both equal partners in parenting and home life.
I wrote this post because some of the comments and emails written by some readers expressing the uncertainty of their future with their partners sort of broke my heart. Marriage is a complex relationship. Throw in parenthood and it gets even more complicated. Mark and I don’t have a perfect relationship, but we’ve known each other long enough to know where to pick up the slack from the other person to make things work. Some aspects of our personalities have not changed from the time we met as kids in college. Other things, like our ability to problem solve and navigate through life as parents, wasn’t something that we could have known about each other until we found ourselves in that situation. And other things just came as a complete surprise. I guess this is what happens when you grow old with someone. But I will say this: last year was the first year that we both pulled in equal salary. Things can always change; What was in the past isn’t always forever.
2013 update to this post: When you’re not the breadwinner anymore
These photos were taken at the High Line Phase 2. This is the stretch of the old railroad tracks that my friend and I snuck up on 12 years ago before it was developed into a public park.