when you’re not the breadwinner anymore

July 17, 2013 |  Category:   art + design life me rambling


*The image above is the homepage of a recently launched project that I designed earlier this year. See the full website here.
On Facebook the other week, I threw out on my status that I was looking for a new career and that any and all suggestions would be considered. I didn’t have any revelations on the new career of my dreams, but it did spark some interesting conversations with some friends who shared similar thoughts. Technology and industries are evolving so fast these days that we’re needing to adapt and reinvent ourselves every 5-10 years in order to survive. Plus sometimes we just need a change. With the way things have been gone this past year with work, I decided that I was going to quit being a freelance designer.


And I did. Well, for about 3 months. I didn’t design, I didn’t do any work for clients and I didn’t dwell on it too much in terms of what it meant for the future. It didn’t feel like a temporary break either because it possessed a certain air of finality that it never had before, but it also ushered in a sense of relief that I didn’t quite expect. What surprised me the most, however, was how calm I was. No plunging into depression or crippling anxiety like in years past when I had nothing lined up. No fatalistic thoughts that my career was over while lying paralyzed, face down on my bed wondering how I’d pay the bills. Sure, there were a lot of questions swirling around and I gave some thought to each and every one of them, but not in a panic. Believe me when I tell you that it was weird to feel this calm and rational about something that was nothing short of a career identity crises. Maybe I was finally able to separate my self esteem from the ups and downs of freelance, something that has been so inextricably intertwined in the past.

Incidentally about a month ago, I got a call from a producer from the Katie Couric show inquiring about my participation in a discussion about women breadwinners for a TV segment. A Pew study had just been released that revealed that a record 40% of breadwinners were now women, and she found my blog post from 2 years ago while doing research online. After giving it some thought I declined, partly because I realized at that moment that as of last year, I wasn’t the breadwinner anymore. The producer was actually very keen on exploring that angle, but this realization was just too fresh and I hadn’t processed it yet. I certainly didn’t want to sort out my feelings in front of a TV camera and a national audience. For the first time in our relationship, I felt a trickle of guilt creep in. I was so used to being the breadwinner for all these years, the one who carried our family through both tough and more prosperous times, that the sudden reversal of roles caught me off guard with feelings I had never felt before – feelings of inadequacy twinged with feelings of guilt that I wasn’t pulling my weight. Suddenly, I found myself on the other side.

But…wasn’t that burden being lifted what I always wanted? Didn’t I often find myself envious of those who were on the other side of the breadwinning equation? Turns out, it was a little more complicated than that.
The truth is, despite my declarations that I was “quitting the business!”, the reality is I can’t – not yet anyway. I still need to work and bring in a paycheck aside from the business that Mark and I share. But those stretches of down time in between gigs have gotten longer over the past 18 months and it gave me enough of a taste of what it felt like to be that person in a relationship earning less than the other for the first time. I discovered that instead of feeling relieved of the burden of carrying the family like I always thought it might, it made me reevaluate my role. Suddenly, we weren’t just talking about a career identity crises here; it dug a little deeper than that. “But, I was always the one! The one making the money!”, I thought. So now what? Who am I now?
The reversal of the breadwinner role isn’t just black and white; there are a thousand nuances at play here. Although I’ve always believed that this isn’t necessarily a gender issue because either gender can take on that breadwinner role (and all the baggage and emotions that swirl around it), I can’t ignore that it is, in fact, a gender issue because of societal expectations and how we still perceive gender roles in the workplace and family life. For me, it also relates to the debate of whether or not women can truly have it all. I knew that staying home wasn’t an option for me, but I also didn’t want to choose between my career or my family. As a woman, I resented the fact that it was often the mothers who had to make that choice, mostly because of the way the corporate American workplace was structured, so I decided I wasn’t going to choose, but instead figured out a way to make both work. I guess it was like sticking my finger up at corporate America for making me feel like I had to choose in the first place. We were rarely apologetic in the fact that many of our decisions about our career paths were influenced by our determination to put family first and we were often transparent about our reasons why. Some aspects of our careers suffered and we did lose out on opportunities, but I have since come to the conclusion that having it all is a myth, at least until some changes take place in the corporate work environment that allow employees to integrate family and work life. This shift would also include how parents in the workplace are perceived. Politicians place so much emphasis on family values, yet in this country employees feel this unspoken pressure to hide family life from the workplace. Why? Because we feel our commitment to our jobs are being questioned if we admit that the real reason we’re leaving early is because we want to attend our child’s dance recital.
My “sabbatical” (as I’ve now jokingly been calling it) away from my freelance work these past few months have certainly made me evaluate my life, my career, and the expectations that I have for myself as the breadwinner of the family. I’m trying to reconcile all these conflicting feelings. Why is this guilt creeping in and why does it make me uncomfortable? Does it have to do with ego, a subtle power shift in our relationship, a loss of some kind of control? Maybe. I admit to being more comfortable when I’m in control of things, but I hope that I’m mature enough to concede to whatever is best for our family at that moment, even if this means that I step away from a role that I’m most comfortable in. Our family life is changing too. As the girls get older and enter into tween and teen years, I’m realizing that it’s more important than ever that I’m present in their lives, to guide them into adulthood and be that role model. If that’s the role that I’m moving into and where I’m needed the most, then I accept that challenge, breadwinner or not.
There seems to be this notion that as you get older you settle into the comfort of knowing exactly who you are, but maybe this is an outdated idea, a relic of how life used to work. I’m finding the opposite to be true. I mean at the very core, I know who I am, but I don’t exactly know where I’m headed. I don’t think this is a bad thing because complacency isn’t something that I’ve ever been comfortable with anyway. Things change, life evolves, and I’d like to think that I can evolve too from one role to another. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the breadwinner again and maybe I never will. Maybe the business will eventually support us and I won’t have to think about our incomes as two separate sources. But in the end, does it matter? No, as partners, we’re in this together.

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  • Liz Rose Bowman July 17, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Really thoughtful post. I have never been the breadwinner but I recently graduated and am working on my art trying to make it a full time gig. Sweet husboy has the added pressure that we just bought our first house, and though he doesn’t complain, I feel like a jerk that I’m not helping out as much. As far as the girls getting older, I think showing them your incredible resourcefulness and adaptability will go far for them.

    Also, this post definitely got the song Orinoco Flow stuck in my head, Pure Moods, anyone?

    • Jenna July 18, 2013 at 11:17 am

      I think those feelings are natural. Being in a relationship is also like being in a business partnership, yes? That sounds so cut and dry, but it’s true. As I’ve learned, things can change and the dynamics in a relationship are always in flux, so enjoy your year to make your art a go. Good luck!

    • Lisa July 20, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      I’m in the same boat, Liz. I took a year off after the birth of my second daughter during which time we moved from NYC to Portland, Oregon. Since moving, we can now afford to live on my husband’s salary, but it’s been a big identity crisis for me not working, not contributing financially, and being the stay-at-home partner. I am currently trying to muster the courage to start the nonprofit I’ve had in my head for about five years now. But after taking the year off, my confidence is low, and I still worry about how I’ll make money. Amongst other things I miss about working, I miss walking into a store and buying something that I know I worked hard to buy.

      Jenna, thanks for your post.

  • Kiana July 18, 2013 at 4:59 am

    Oh Jenna. Beautifully expressed as always. I’m really hoping the business does take off and you don’t have to worry about freelancing anymore especially if that’s not what you want to do.
    I´m finding myself in a soul-searching period as well. For the first time, I don´t need to work because we can manage on my husband´s income alone. So I took a year off work to be home with our baby and in September when he enters day care full time, I´ll be able to work again. But the question is, doing what? What do I want to do? I have no idea. People always tell me to do what I love and I feel insecure and kind of stupid, when I tell them that I don`t know what I love. I know who I am. I just don´t see how I can make any money doing things I enjoy doing. Some have suggested I go back to school but I’m already in enough debt from my Master’s degree that the idea of more loans is not at all appealing. Also my Master’s degree was not in anything practical so it’s difficult to translate that into a job. Sigh. So much to think about.
    If it helps, I think that this perception of ¨doing what you love¨ or ¨having a career¨ is very American. I live in Europe now and you never hear people talking about their jobs as though it´s part of their identity. I don´t know if that helps you or not.
    All the best!

    • Jenna July 18, 2013 at 11:25 am

      I hope you have been enjoying your year off Kiana. It goes by so fast. The dilemma you face is such a common one – what job does one go back to after staying home with the baby? I think for many women it feels like starting over, which in some ways is very exciting, but of course, daunting as well. I would say that if you are able to live off of one income, you have some leeway to try out different jobs and careers? Maybe I am guessing. I think one of the ways I felt pressured and trapped in my career is that I had to pull in a certain amount to pay our bills so there never felt like any time to explore other types of jobs. I agree that Americans are very focused on their career as a big part of their identity. It’s certainly part of the problem why the integration of family life and work life isn’t as seamless as it should be.

  • dolittledesign July 18, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I agree with Kiana that in America “having a career” is such a big part of one’s identity (if not the only part.) I often loath responding to people starting a conversation at first meeting with “what do you do (for a living, to earn money?) For me, this is a “you lost me at hello” moment. And one has to be “busy” at all times (or at least saying so) otherwise something is wrong with you. Ha!

    • Jenna July 18, 2013 at 11:26 am

      yup, it’s a common conversation starter. My family gets annoyed because I don’t like to talk about work, but I don’t really find it interesting to discuss outside of the work environment. And yes, “busy”. My kids say it now too – “I’ll do it later! I’m busy right now!”.

  • Angel Y. July 18, 2013 at 11:27 am

    This was really amazing and very well written. I’m wanting to change careers. I want to focus fully on my business. I want my business and my design work to be my career. I’m currently the breadwinner in the family and it was extremely unexpected. I didn’t “wish” for the role so to speak but it just happened. Now I feel the unbelievable pressure to keep pursuing both my full-time job and my business but it’s hard. It’s hard being in this role and not feel fulfilled by my career. I’m sure I’m rambling but I feel I’m in the process of searching much as yourself. I hope you find yourself settled into what you want to do.

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      Good luck on your career search Angel!

  • Amy July 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    First, thank you for being willing to share your (beautifully articulated) thoughts about these issues with all of us. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these posts about work and family and, well, life.

    Right now, my kids are teens who have academic and athletic commitments I have little control over scheduling, yet need to help them meet (like rides to school in an area where there isn’t public or school transportation). Our oldest leaves for college next month, and the other two are in their early teens.

    Right now when I look ahead, I can see the next six years might be almost as intense as the baby years in many ways. I happen to like being around my teens a lot right now (they are funny and thoughtful and give me hope for the future), but the constant negotiating over which parent will take on this carpool or that track meet feels a lot like the early days of parenthood–except back then, I cut my work hours down and now I don’t want to do that again (and can’t, if we are going to send our kids to college). Maybe the one thing i do know for sure is that there will always be a lot to weigh and evaluate when living in a family.

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      Yes, I know what you mean and this is why I think it’s actually as important to be around the kids now as when they were babies. After school activities does require a lot of transporting to and from and scheduling. We’re finding it a bit difficult to balance that with our work schedules which are never set in stone 9-5 hours.

  • Haewon July 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Wow what a powerful post. As a working web-designer-mom of two girls (ages 7 and 3), I can relate to everything you write about and always inspired by them. I’m not a breadwinner per se, but I’m the one juggling multiple things (full time job, side business, house, kids, schools etc) to run the family since my schedule (publishing field) is more flexible.
    I often think about leaving my full time job to “be there” more for my girls. Although I will never get sick of design, I must say, I’m a little tired of keeping myself up-to-date on technology and creating the next new cool thing with the developers. I want to just unplug and enjoy every moment of being there for the family, spending my days for myself, not for someone else’s business.
    Your third paragraph hits the mark. I’d love to someday wake up in the morning with that feeling of calm. Not being anxious about having to run somewhere all the time. Because I know what it takes to make the decision you’ve made, I applaud you. And I envy you for getting there.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Beautifully written as always!

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks Haewon. It’s really weird that I haven’t freaked out about it this time around. Maybe I’m in sort of a denial, who knows. Or maybe the relief that came with it overpowered any other feeling. In any case, I am back to working, which is good because we need the income, but I can’t help but feel it put me 2 steps back from where I was, hmmm….

  • Melanie July 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Over the past year I’ve gone from having a full-time job where my pay was equal or higher than my husband’s, to starting my own business where I’ve had to learn to deal with the lull between projects. This summer I’ve given myself “permission” to avoid those in-between funks. I’ve told myself that I don’t have to come up with any new business ideas or marketing strategies or plans until October 1st. Along with that, I’ve stopped blogging five days a week after I asked myself the question, “How is this serving me or my business?”

    Like you mention, I also felt strangely calm when I made these two decisions. Our family has to be a dual income family right now too, but the anxiety of “what’s next” was gone and I’ve been able to work on some other projects that I’ve kept on the back burner. Stepping back from blogging a bit has helped too. My writing has been stronger and more focused, and I’ve come up with new ideas for my business and landed new clients. Funny how that works when you take the pressure off of yourself.

    I’ve rambled on long enough. Thank you again. I love reading your blog. 🙂

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm

      Thanks Melanie. Hope you’re having a nice summer with your family.

  • jen July 18, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    i don’t know if you seen this before but i read it recently and this really resonated for me thought i share.
    “‘You know, I do know how to prepare for old age’ he said. ‘Never have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me, it has always been the same every since the age of 12. I wake up in the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am exceedingly well prepared for my old age’ he said.”
    i think you are exceedingly prepared for whatever comes your way. breadwinner or not, keep doing what you’re doing.

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm

      I love that. thank you for sharing.

  • Janine July 19, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I found this a very interesting post to read. It’s full of complicated ideas about the nature of self worth, guilt, the concept of ‘the breadwinner”, gender issues. I had to reread parts to consider my own response to these things.

    I always thought that I’d continue working once I had kids (now 11 and 7) but as soon as I was pregnant (after a long wait) I realised I wanted to be at home. I loved it and we could afford it. Once the younger one started school, though, I began to feel guilt because I’m not a great housekeeper. I also realised that I had taken on all the roles to do with the children and that my husband didn’t have a clue (although he’s a very hands-on dad in a lot of ways). I felt better when I started (very) part-time work.

    Now we have moved and really need my salary so I’m returning to about 75% full-time. Although I will miss my freedom I know that I’ll feel so much better about myself and my contribution to the mortgage payments. At least I’ll have an excuse for the house being a mess and there being no food in the house! And I can already see my husband taking over some roles. I hope that together we can adjust and rebalance our roles within our family.

    The reason I keep reading your blog is that it often gives me a chance to visit a similar issue in my own life,and really think about it more deeply. You are just so much more articulate! 🙂 Thanks!

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Thank you, Janine.

  • maja July 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m getting the feeling that you are not acknowledging your own contributions to Whimsy & Spice. Certainly the products are amazing, but without the photography, beautiful packaging, and social media presence, I doubt W&S would be in the position it is today. It is a family business, yes?

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Maja, no you’re not entirely wrong. I do need to adjust my perspective and recognize that we are working on this business together, but the way that our finances work, the business takes care of certain parts of our finances while my salary takes care of others, so it’s very separate in my mind at the moment. The perception needs to change. I think this is just leftover thinking from when we started the business. Our immediate, most pressing goal was to have it replace Mark’s salary. Now that it has exceeded, we need to push it towards supporting us, and it’s creeping up there little by little every year,but in the meantime I do still need to work.

  • Vivian Doan July 19, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Jenna, I know this is going to sound trite but honestly, I think all of this self questioning and self doubt or unease of the situation is most likely from our ASIAN background. I feel the same way… no matter where I am in life (I am now 40), I never seem to feel comfortable at where I am. I thought that once I X (X could be any number of things like “have a boyfriend”, “get married”, “get pregnant”, “change jobs”, “had a husband who earned money (he’s a musician)… etc, I would be happier. But the truth is once I got each of those X’s, not much changed in my self-doubt or questioning. I have other asian friends who life me, never feel anything changes much in their views of themselves or their lives… I think as asians, we carry this huge burden of something, I cannot really out my finger on it. Mostly, it’s never enough or it’s never good enough. Maybe it’s a cop-out to say that and I apologize but I do think it must play a factor. hugs to you!

    • Jenna July 19, 2013 at 6:49 pm

      Hi Vivian. You may be right that it’s partly an Asian thing, but I actually think it’s more of a personality thing (I know that Mark, for example, thinks differently than I do about stuff like this) and I also think it’s an age thing. When I talk with friends who are also in their early 40s, we seem to be having the same questions and going through the same things….

  • Julie Yoo July 19, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Jenna,
    I’ve been following your blog for some time and really enjoy and appreciate your honesty on issues that resonate with me as well. I love that you have opened up yourself and your family to explore these issues without resorting to some lame platitudes about career and family. Who knew that we’d still be struggling with these issues in our late 30s or 40s- well, at least I do. Thanks for your thoughts. kisses,

  • Funaek July 19, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Your posts are always so insightful and interesting. I love reading about the ups and downs of your amazing life with Mark and the girls. I hope that you find fulfillment and contentment in whatever you end up doing. I can’t relate to the breadwinner aspect of this post (although I find it fascinating because I have so many girlfriends who are also dealing with similar issues as the breadwinners in their family) but I can relate to the desire for a career change. I’m so risk adverse that I worry about making the jump especially since I have a stable, well-paying job with great benefits. It’s just unfortunate that I hate it so much and it takes up so much time. I always worry that at the end of my life I’ll look back and worry about not taking more chances and risks. So I wish you the best of luck with whatever decisions you make and I’ll be continuing to follow your journey through this blog!

  • Amanda July 23, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Thank you for sharing this. Whenever I’m feeling a little lost and I read a post on your site, inevitably I feel a little better because it resonates with whatever I happen to be thinking about at the moment. I’m not the breadwinner anymore but I was for about three years. It was this immense pressure because I felt like I was carrying both of our dreams. Now we both work, but we also have a one year old and while I’m not the sole breadwinner I can’t quit either because we definitely need both paychecks. But the last year has been soul sucking career-wise. I find myself daydreaming of going in a completely different direction. Unfortunately I don’t know what direction that should be. In that way I completely agree with you. know who I am and have no idea where I’m headed.