Aaron’s wife got a big promotion while she was pregnant with their first son. Neither wanted to put their baby in infant daycare and Aaron’s parents could only care for the baby (and his eventual brother) twice a week. So the Massachusetts dad scaled back his hours as a system administrator. Until he went back to full time work years later, he spent most of his weeks as a stay-at-home dad.
“I was damn good at it,” he said. “I made bread. I made soup stock. I fucking made my own granola. I was cooking all the time. I was running, I went to the gym. It was awesome.”
When Aaron eventually returned to full time work, his wife outearned him by $20,000. Her higher salary never bothered him because, he said, “I’m not an asshole and it never even occurred to me that it should be a problem.”
“It doesn’t matter to me at all,” he added. “I’m glad she makes more money than I do. We need the money. I wish she made even more.”
The number of households led by female breadwinners is rising. While previous generations of husbands would’ve been bothered by being outearned by their wives, many modern men are, like Aaron says, not assholes about it.
In the 1980s, less than a quarter of American households had female breadwinners. But in 2015, the federal Bureau of Statistics reported that 38 percent of American women outearn their husbands overall and 29 percent outearned their husbands in two-income households. According to a 2018 Prudential financial survey 54 percent of the women in their sample were the primary breadwinners in their household and 30 percent were married breadwinners generating more than half their household income.
Prudential’s report speculated that the rise of female breadwinners could reflect Millennials having more flexible ideas around gender and work compared to Baby Boomers. But as Prudential’s Financial Wellness Advocate Amanda Clayman noted, the changing nature of work may be equally responsible. It is almost impossible for a man to get hired by a company, punch a clock for 40 years before retiring with a pension and a gold watch. The modern workforce is less stable, which means workers of all genders step in and out of it far more often than previous generations. Today’s full-time salaried male employees might be tomorrow’s graduate students, gig workers, part timers, or just unemployed. Even if they’d like to adhere to traditional gender roles, they often don’t have a choice about it.
“Self esteem and identity are bound up in a particular aspect of masculinity, like the identity of being a financial provider,” Clayman said. “But it’s not within your power to necessarily have those circumstances in the way you would like them to be.”
Many couples in female breadwinning households do find the income disparity uncomfortable. A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau study comparing survey results with IRS filings found that when a wife earns more than her husband, husbands and wives both exaggerate the husband’s earnings and play down the wife’s. In her 2014 book When She Makes More, Farnoosh Torabi noted that marriages with female breadwinners have heightened risk of infidelity and divorce.
The couples interviewed for this story, however, said the discomfort is misguided and unnecessary. The husbands of breadwinning wives accept that their wives outearn them without stress and speak of it as an advantage.
Take Heath Collins. When his wife Susie Moore’s life coaching business took off, Heath quit his finance career to work for her and he’s never looked back.
“I always felt free in my career because of Susie’s income,” Collins said. “I can take more risks professionally. I didn’t feel the stress I knew some of my male colleagues did who were the breadwinners in their homes.”
Moore and Collins said there wasn’t a great secret to how they make their marriage work.
“I almost take the fact that I have a very secure husband for granted,” Moore said. “It’s just who he is and how our relationship is.”
In previous generations, household responsibilities were split along gender lines, with men earning money outside the home and women managing homes and families. When a couple stops dividing household responsibilities along gender lines, it’s easier to play to their individual strengths.
“We [partner up] not just for love and sex, but also because we are creating a new unit that’s bigger than what one person or two individuals can cover and accomplish,” Clayman said.
Stepping back from his full time job gave Aaron more time to cook, which provided his family with cheaper, better meals and let him do something he enjoyed, for example. One thing he says to keep in mind is why you got married in the first place: the belief that you’d be better when you’re together than apart.
“I think that it offers a real competitive advantage, if you will, when men and women are able to come up with a more bespoke family system solution,” Clayman said.
Not everybody loves their job. Having a higher earning spouse can give men who’re miserable at work the freedom to quit.
Brooklyn dad of one Alex worked at the same company as his wife. He watched her thrive while he felt less and less invested in his job.
“She works harder first of all,” he said. “And she’s very good at what she does. I think I was average at what I did, maybe slightly above average.”
His wife’s higher income gave him opportunities to explore creative outlets like podcasting and to be a better parent than he’d have otherwise. At first, he felt anxious and wondered if he wasn’t not pulling his weight in the family. But then he realized something important: he was happy.
“We live the way that we want to live,” he said. “That’s certainly part of it. You know what I mean? If you were like, we don’t have the life that we want and I want to have a nicer car and a bigger apartment house in the country or whatever, then it would be another thing.”
For some couples, having a wife earn more money than a husband can feel emasculating and even devastate their sex lives. However, Susie Moore said Heath’s support for her career brings them closer together.
“I’ve always felt very taken care of,” Moore said. “And that naturally is a real intimacy booster. If I have like a rich husband who wasn’t ever around and he bought me gifts and stuff, but I’m having dinner on my own or with my friends all the time, that would not be an intimacy booster.”
It’s not going to work for every couple. Some men and women will cling to traditional gender roles no matter what. Clayman said it works best when spouses are able to work with each other and respond appropriately to change. She likened it to a couple attempting to perform a ballroom dance.
“When both people know that and feel comfortable and both like the waltz, then this all looks quite lovely and feels very harmonious,” Clayman said. “But if the music is not a three quarter time or if one person is trying to do a jig and the other is determined to waltz, then that doesn’t bode well for how this is all going to work together.”