when you’re the breadwinner in the family

June 30, 2011 |  Category:   family life me nyc rambling

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.

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  • le petit cabinet de curiosites July 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Very inspiring post . I needed to read these kind of words.

  • dp July 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Interesting. At 23 I was immersed in a passionate relationship with a thrilling young man, but I was constantly lending him money to pay rent and I was buying most of his groceries. When we called it quits for other reasons I vowed not to date anyone who wasn’t already established in a reasonably well-paid career. This wasn’t because I was looking for financial stability — I knew that I could and would provide for myself. It was because I never wanted to be locked into a relationship where someone was so financially dependent on me that I couldn’t back out without really screwing up his life. Twelve years later I am still with the man I met as a result, happily out-earning him after he kept us comfortable through my five (well-paid) years of grad school. No kids, but a thriving hobby farm to support. We are very compatible and content, and that vow was a big part of it. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but financial stability provides a nice foundation from which to explore the world.

  • mina July 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I really appreciate this post. I recently became the breadwinner of my family after my husband accepted a new job, where we had made equal salary the last few years. I’ve had to re-allocate my shopping and going out with friends budgets to pay more bills and at first I felt a lot of resentment. Most of our couple friends already own homes and have no student loan debt (thanks to wealthy parents) and my husband and I both struggle with jealousy from time to time, but we’re learning to deal with it and appreciate the lives we have made for ourselves. It’s refreshing to hear other women talk about these same issues and to know I am not alone.

  • Sarah July 14, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    your candor was amazing and so refreshing! i’m an almost-27-year-old law school graduate who, through my own experiences as a child of divorce and being raised by a single (and fabulous) mother, long have held on to the idea that i want to be able to support myself and be dependent on a man for nothing other than the emotional connection and partnership. i’m not going to lie, i want money and financial stability – not for a new louis vuitton bag (not that i’d turn one away!), but to be able to have experiences with family (traveling, etc.) and to ensure that my children will have opportunity to pursue whatever it is in this world that makes them happy. now, approaching my late-twenties, i am single, unemployed, and facing a huge amount of student loan debt. and as i watch so many friends get married and go to work and have children, i struggle all the time with wondering if i am making the right decisions. i don’t even have a husband! or children! yet! but i find myself wondering all the time how i am going to balance it all and how much i should factor into the decision to marry a man his own ability to provide the life i want for a family. in all honesty, i wonder occasionally if i shouldn’t have aimed to marry an attorney instead of be one, but i know that that is a shoe that just doesn’t fit who i am and i feel shame every time a thought like that does cross my mind. i know myself well enough to know that if i am the sole breadwinner, and make a trade-off of time with my family to make money i will struggle with resentment. but on the other hand, i am unwilling to ‘marry for money’ and know i would also struggle with resentment of never knowing where my career could have gone. it is an emotional, hard struggle. and brings up so much self-questioning and self-doubt. i am so thankful that you posted this where i, along with all of these other wonderful and open gals, could have a place to share and empathize! and my wish is that eventually we all can find that balance where we are fulfilled both family and career wise and be at peace with any and all of our decisions without any resentment or ‘what-ifs.’

  • Susie July 14, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    My daughter sent me this post because I am stressed because I am the sole breadwinner supporting me my partner and my 11 year old step son. I get so resentful; I get angry and ashamed of myself for not being more gracious about what I pay for. Everyone says I am a superstar but I don’t feel like one. My partner is trying hard to get work and I know he feels guilty.Your blog just made me feel normal and that I’m not the only one with secret feelings of resentment, jealousy etc and that things will most likely get better. It’s just a mindset that I have to try to adjust.

  • Anna July 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    This post is so great. And I feel what blogging should be like. Your honesty is extremely admirable will inevitably be a way to bring other readers and bloggers together. Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong blogs, but I feel like I’ve been looking for a blog like this for some time. Thanks for posting!

  • janet July 15, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    Like so many others, I have really enjoyed & appreciated this post & the related comments.

    I recently watched the Sheryl Sandberg TED talk on youtube that is going around (on why there are so few women leaders) and my opinion was that although I feel like she made some great points, I found it a bit lacking, a bit ‘textbook’, and a bit stereotypical. When I read this post, I realized that it was your authenticity and relevance that is what really connects me to what I read/watch.

    Thank you for your honesty & giving me lot’s to think about.

  • Anna July 16, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I loved this post. Honest and real, and took alot of heart to write.

  • toridawn July 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you. I’m in the same boat (well, no kids yet) and it’s such a comfort to read these words…and to know that you’ve been able to add children to the equation and STILL make it work. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Noel July 18, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Hi Jenna,
    Thanks so much for your honesty. It’s refreshing, and appreciated.

  • Arlene August 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Jenna, I just found your blog through another and kept reading post after post until I read this one. How I appreciate your openness and honesty about this topic and what seems to be a more common situation nowadays. I’m pretty much in the same role as your self being the main provider and have experienced your very same emotions.

  • Laura August 18, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Thank you for exposing your heart to us :)

    To be honest I think being in your situation would really help my relationship with my husband. He has “looked after me” full time somewhat begrudgingly since we were married 8 years ago as I finished university and had two children. The youngest is only 9 month so I have a little while yet before diving into work… the problem is that he thinks home schooling is the path we should take for our children’s education… I agree yet I can’t seem to shake the need for some sort of power, to have money that is mine, to make decisions… to bloody buy something without having to ask! (excuse my Australianism).

    I suppose my point is that there are issues that need to be addressed whichever way you live your life. The grass may always look greener on the other side but the fact is that we are just looking through coloured glass… the advantages aren’t necessarily the whole reality but simple that which we choose to see.

  • Jessica December 8, 2011 at 2:38 am

    dear jena, i’ve followed you ever since i read this post on your blog. it’s been a few months since you wrote this, but i found myself wanting to reread this after a recent breakup. now that i’ve given this a second read, i was wondering if you could entertain a question i have. your posts about your girls and mark are so lovely, but did you and mark ever go separate ways at some point in your relationship? did you/he ever think about it? i see the happy ending, but i’m curious about the years leading up to your life now.

  • Jenna December 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Hi @Jessica, Sorry, but that is a pretty personal question to ask (I know I have been fairly open here), but this isn’t something that everyone needs to know.

  • Jessica December 10, 2011 at 12:48 am

    I understand. I’m sorry if the question offended.

  • Joby December 28, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for this post. It is a familiar situation in my life. It is comforting to hear someone else speak brutally honest about it.

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