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The invisible struggles of breadwinning women
Twelve years ago I wrote a blog post about the challenges of being a breadwinner. I reflect back on that essay today.
Twelve years ago, I wrote an essay about being the breadwinner in the family on my old blog, Sweet Fine Day. It was a piece of unfiltered writing that was born out of frustration from whatever was going on in my life at the time. When I look back, I sometimes cringe at how earnest it was, but those moments of raw vulnerability are often the words that resonate with others the most. It ended up being a seminal post, of sorts, during that blog’s 12-year run. Many of my old readers who found me again this year on Substack tell me that this is the essay they remember—and indeed, that post generated over 200 comments in response.
“My daughter sent me this post because I am stressed because I am the sole breadwinner supporting my family. I get so resentful; I get so angry and am ashamed of myself for not being more grateful. Everyone says I’m a superstar but I don’t feel like one.”
And the comments weren’t just from moms. Single women in their 20s wondered why dating as a successful woman was so difficult, while married women who out-earned their spouses expressed that they weren’t sure how they were supposed to stay in their high-paying jobs and have children.
“I don’t know how I can do both…how do you do it?? I want to be a mother, but I don’t know how I can do both!!”
When I published the post, I didn’t expect it to be an outlet for others as much as it was for me. The comments from other breadwinners in their family read like a confessional, flooded with pages and pages of declarations that they too felt enormous pressure mixed with the complicated feelings of resentment, frustration, and anxiety. It was like we were collectively holding our breath and was finally able to exhale as we let these thoughts loose, without judgment, in a comment thread where most of us were anonymous to each other. That blog post became exponentially more valuable because of it.
We’re not talking about women breadwinners enough
I didn’t realize that talking about this as a topic in 2011 was taboo. Is it still? Growing up in an Asian family where most things are an open book—including money and income—is normal, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to blog about. I still don’t quite understand why woman as breadwinners isn’t more widely discussed, other than the fact that it subverts social norms, and god forbid we do anything that risks emasculating men. Why do we need to tiptoe around the egos of the men in our lives? Why, as women, do we need to worry about that?
But in truth, I do know why because I saw the effects it had on my household growing up first-hand. My mom was always the breadwinner in our family; for me, this was my norm. It was the root of my parents’ complicated dynamic and as soon as I was old enough to understand, I saw how my mom’s earning power reflected poorly on my dad as the provider of the family in certain social circles where patriarchy was the cultural norm.
Becoming the breadwinner isn’t something that you necessarily plan when you meet your spouse in college, which is how long Mark and I have been together. It just sort of happens depending on education, career choice, and opportunities (and sometimes luck). For as long as I’ve been a mother, I was the breadwinner, often balancing a full time design career while running our bakery business alongside my spouse. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of our family’s overall financial well-being, panicked at times during the worst of it when when I had slower freelance years to feeling like an absolute boss when I was crushing it in others.
The resentment that crept its way in at times grew from a place of having to bear much of the responsibility of lifting our family out of a paycheck-to-paychck existence in the early years, but there was also a lot of guilt and shame for even harboring those feelings. Surely life would be easier had my spouse pursued a more lucrative career path, I wrote, daring to think out loud. I admitted that I sometimes envied all the stay-at-home moms I was meeting when I became a new mom, even if it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted for myself. I knew that the financial empowerment of keeping my career was really important to me, but the choice to take a break from working to raise children was never mine to make because that option was never on the table.
Twelve years later I’m reminded of my breadwinners essay because of a Reddit post I came across over the weekend. It was titled “Sad breadwinner.” A new mom was stressed and sad that she had to go back to work after her maternity leave because she was the breadwinner in her marriage.
“It feels impossible to be the mother I want to be and the breadwinner. It’s just too much,” she lamented.
That led me down a rabbit hole of other posts that ran the gamut of women venting about the imbalance of housework to being downright angry for supporting their underemployed or unambitious husbands’ lifestyles.
I was curious to research current statistics on women breadwinners and this is what I found:
Women are slowly earning more as the pay gap decreases and the percentage of households with equal income has now risen to almost 30%, but women breadwinners are still in the minority at 16%.
Beyond the stats lie the gender norms that still dictate our roles
If you google “women breadwinners” you get a bunch of articles full of stats, but once it gets past the numbers, the real core of the issue becomes clear. Unless you’re both earning a similar salary, there will always be one person who is earning more money—that’s just a fact, so being a breadwinner isn’t necessarily about gender. Gender comes into the fold when raising children, household responsibilities, and all the endless little things like scheduling doctor appointments and going to parent teacher conferences fall on women. Societal expectations are still ruled by traditional gender norms, and this is the inequity from which resentment often stems from.
Husbands in so-called egalitarian marriages, where they earn the same as their wives, spend about 3.5 more hours per week on leisure activities than their wives. Meanwhile, the women in those marriages spend a combined 4.5 more hours on caregiving and housework than their husbands.1
Marriage and raising children is supposed to be a partnership, but we know that it’s not always equal. I grew up in a family where my mom did everything, including making most of the money. Mark was raised by a single mom for most of his childhood. These are the early experiences that shape our views of how the world works and the choices we make as we grow into decision-making adults.
My essay was honest, but I wouldn’t say it was negative or disparaging towards my spouse (and yes, he was aware and fine with me posting that original blog post, as well as this one). I was and am still proud to be the main breadwinner of my family—we should be able to celebrate our successes! But it only works because I have a partner who shares equal responsibilities in housework and childcare; running a household that works isn’t only about money. Mark has had to battle his own feelings of guilt for not being the main financial provider of the family, but in general our circumstances have worked well, even if occasional bouts of resentment peek through.
In working through my frustrations in that essay, I learned that both things can be valid: you can be proud of your accomplishments, but also sad about a life that you can never have. I acknowledge as well that the grass is always greener on the other side.
Once a breadwinner, always a breadwinner?
In 2011, I ended my breadwinners blog post with 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.”
So, 12 years later, did I remain the breadwinner of my family since that post?
There were a few years where our business brought in about the same income as I did as a designer, but for the most part, my role as the breadwinner didn’t change over the last decade. The gap between our salaries progressively widened even more over the years, especially when we closed our business during Covid and Mark started an entirely new career. What’s interesting and kind of unexpected, however, was that the balance of child raising started to tip towards me as the kids grew older.
I know that parents of still-young children might not want to hear this, but many parents can attest and will argue that your kids will need you even more when they hit the teenage years. It’s a different kind of parenting that is more emotionally and mentally taxing. As our kids entered middle and high school, my role as a parent expanded from being a provider and nurturer to being the main navigator of the complexities of adolescence. This was a gradual, but noticeable change from the early years when Mark was often the one taking the kids to playdates, classes, and school events.
Maybe this is due to stereotypical gender norms once again, but I was “better equipped” between the two of us to handle puberty, peer culture, mental health, and academics, including the college application process. I’m sure this is pretty typical in a lot of households too. Most recently this has caused some tension in the house, but we’re working on it. The key to preventing a build-up of resentment and frustration, obviously, is open communication and being honest with your feelings, but truthfully this isn’t always easy. I remind myself that this phase is temporary and repeat the line that I ended my last post 12 years ago: things can always change; what was in the past isn’t always forever.
As Mark and I enter into this new phase of post-adolescent parenthood and midlife, and even towards a post-career transition which may very well end my run as a breadwinner, our lives will shift once again and and a new dynamic in our household will take shape.
But I know, now, that even that won’t be forever.
Readers, I’m curious—and hey! Substack has a nifty little poll feature I never even noticed. If you’re comfortable in participating, which kind of household describes yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below or reply by email if you’d prefer. Let’s keep this conversation going.
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