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How female breadwinners navigate household dynamics

October 10, 2022

How do families with female breadwinners make it work? Has it gotten easier as more women earn as much or more than their husbands? What does being a female breadwinner look like?

These are some of the issues high-income-earning women sometimes contend with. If this is something that has been on your mind, we want to offer a slightly different perspective on the questions above.

What do you value?

We talk a lot with our clients about what they value. It’s usually in the context of how they spend, save, and invest their money. But it’s also an important conversation for all couples to have about family contributions — financial and otherwise.

There are many ways to contribute value to a family: earning money, making financial decisions, raising children, maintaining the home and yard, cooking, managing appointments and errands, etc.

Contributions don’t always need to be split with one person earning most of the money and the other doing most of the rest. Couples need to work as a team to figure out what matters to them and how they want to contribute.

This applies to all couples — with or without female breadwinners, same-gender or different-gender. But traditional gender roles may make these negotiations more important and/or more difficult when the woman in the couple earns more money than the man.

Ask, not assume

People make a lot of assumptions about their spouses. Picture this: A husband washes his wife’s car weekly, thinking he’s being very helpful. The wife doesn’t care much about the car being clean but really wants grocery shopping taken off her plate. If they don’t communicate about what contributions they value, he will go on thinking the carwash is a great contribution, and she will go on resenting that he doesn’t do more.

A good start for setting aside assumptions and coming to a mutual understanding is to ask yourself and your spouse questions like:

  • What do you think a good husband or wife does?
  • Is (insert contribution here) valuable to you? Does it matter to you if it gets done, how it gets done, who does it?
  • What would you like to be responsible for and what would you prefer I be responsible for?
  • What do you want me to do more often? Or less often?

Break out of gender norms

Since we work with many women during or after divorce as well as many women decision-makers, we hear a lot about household arrangements. When both spouses having paying jobs, we often see two mindsets that are tough to get past:

  • Women can put pressure on themselves to manage the whole household/family, even if they are the primary breadwinners.
  • Some men may undervalue the unpaid work done at home.

Strong couples who are really making their partnership work have learned to let that all go. Try to understand each other’s experiences and walk a mile in each other’s shoes if you can.

When you communicate about your values and contributions, you bring each other to the middle – out of your own tendencies and narrow viewpoints. Once you figure out how to manage your household as a team, who earns what money becomes secondary.

I knew a man who spent a couple of months at home between jobs. His wife, who normally managed the household, went to work during this time. He came to realize that her job was much harder than he previously knew, and he valued her contribution greatly after that. Being the primary earner was no longer the most important contribution to the family in his eyes.

My experience

Early in our marriage, my husband, Tom, and I both worked full time. When I started Laurel Wealth Planning, we discussed our options together and decided that he would work part time while the children were young.

We each chose to focus on areas where we felt we could make the most valuable contributions. Over the years, that has meant that I have made more of the income; he has paid more of the bills; I am the family communicator; he does more of the family caretaking.

We looked at each role that needed to be filled and decided together who should fill it based on gifts and interests. My husband would often say, “We each do what we’re best at.” Surprisingly, when my husband and I first married, he was a very traditional guy. Our gender role reversal developed over time.

I think it is really helpful that I value Tom’s contribution as much if not more than mine because he makes sure our family’s needs are met — and family is so important to both of us, a strong shared value.

So, regardless of who earns what percentage of a household’s income, the keys to making it work are shared values, communication, and each person using their gifts to add value to the whole team.

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