What I've Learned from Being a Female Breadwinner

What I've Learned from Being a Female Breadwinner | Jennifer Spoelma

There’s a few things I want you to know about me and my situation from the start of this post:

  • I haven’t always had a healthy mindset about work or money.

  • I’m writing about my experience, not making judgements about yours.

  • My husband, Trevor, is currently finishing up his PhD. He has a professor job that will start in the Fall.

When the idea came to my mind to write about my experience being the primary breadwinner thus far in our marriage, I was psyched!

My mind spun thinking about all of learning experiences this situation has brought to my life. I’ve grown so much as a person and professional because of the responsibility I’ve had to support our little family.

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Unfortunately, talking about work and careers is more awkward than it should be for women.

Work and career can be a weird topic to discuss, especially for women. Many women feel more comfortable discussing personal topics such as family, hobbies and social issues than they do their work. This makes me sad. It exposes the reality that collectively, women struggle to value their own work. That, of course, stems from our larger cultural issues of valuing women as equal workers.

The whole discussion surrounding women and work is emotionally and politically charged. It often feels like stating your own truth is making a judgement on someone else's decisions (*it's not). But then talking about being the primary breadwinner as a female? That seems to cross some invisible line. It can get awkward fast.

Regardless, I’m going there. There’s an important discussion we need to have about the reality of female breadwinners compared to our perceptions of them. These numbers from the Center for American Progress are reality:

  • 42% of mothers are sole or primary breadwinners, and 22.4% are co-breadwinners (making up 25-49% of family income).

  • The percentage of mothers who are breadwinners correlates with age and income bracket. Younger mothers, and women in lower income brackets are more likely to be breadwinners. See graph below.

There are a lot of specific factors that make up these numbers. For one, the sample is looking at mothers, not all women in general. But what this information tells us is that women are doing it. They’re making it work. They’re stepping up to provide for their families financially. Yes, it may be out of necessity (i.e. if they’re a single mother), but that’s besides the point.

42% of mothers are primary breadwinners. That is significant.

Now, I want you to contrast that reality with the Google search results that show up when I searched ‘female breadwinners’:

The trend of negativity! Oh my goodness, I can hardly stand it.

Most of these articles either focus on the relationship issues that arise when a woman makes more than her male partner, or the stress and anxiety it causes a woman who is the primary breadwinner. Some of them include both and paint a very dire picture for women who make good money. They also make it seem as though it’s not common for females to be primary breadwinners. And worse, they hint that it may not be worth it if you want a happy, fulfilling marriage (*this is a false choice).

Do you see the problem with this?

These articles, and the hush-hush around conversations about women’s work and money is creating an unhealthy story.

The story it’s feeding us subconsciously is that success is stressful. And if you find success (in your career or financially) it may be to the ruin of your personal life. This is a dangerous story, and we need to be careful about how we let it affect us and our mindsets on work and money.

Remember, 42% of mothers are making it work. That’s nearly half. How does that reality challenge you?

My experience as the primary breadwinner

I want you to understand where I’m coming from personally. When I first moved to Tucson, four years ago, I was newly married and a fresh graduate from college. My husband, Trevor was a student pursuing his PhD in Management. He had a stipend, but it wasn’t enough to support us both. From the start, we had an understanding that I’d be the primary financial support while he was in school.

So I started looking for jobs. I submitted 75 job applications before getting an interview. An that first interview was for a shady pyramid scheme. I felt defeated and overwhelmed.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know how to articulate my skills. The bigger problem? I wasn’t sure if I had any skills.

For a couple of months, I entertained the idea that we could make it by if I just worked at Starbucks for four years--until my husband graduated and could start bringing in the big bucks and we could have kids. I reasoned that, if I could just be a stay-at-home mom, I wouldn’t even need to worry about the career stuff.

That felt easier than the job hunt.

But then, it happened! I landed my first full time job. And it was awesome! I was doing marketing for a local small business and I loved the projects I was working on.

Everyday I would come home and tell Trevor about something I created, something I learned or positive feedback I received. I started to realize Dang! I’m good at this work!

I began to develop confidence in myself as a professional. Which was pivotal for every decision I made professionally thereafter.

Since that first job, I’ve moved on to two different companies that were better fits for me. I have doubled my salary, and have curated my position to fit my skills.

I am proud to say that. But it didn’t happen by default.

I had to choose not to listen to the negative and passive aggressive comments about my work choices. It seemed I was constantly being warned not to “put too much on my plate”, which I interpret as a symptom of the cultural distaste for ambitious women.

There is also the unsolicited advice I receive. For example, last week an older woman asked me what I did for work, then what my husband did. When I told her I worked at a technology company (and managed my blog), and that Trevor was finishing his PhD, she said, “I see. You’re putting him through school. Well here’s the thing you need to know. Men are never really ready to support a family. The time will come when you’ll need to lay down the law and make sure he steps up.”

I was so caught off guard! I was offended that she assumed the worst of Trevor. I was also offended that her response indicated her doubt of my ability to determine for myself if I was in equal, committed and healthy partnership.

Negative and passive aggressive comments are a symptom of larger, cultural issues. Don’t take them personally.

But again, these things are symptoms of larger cultural issues. And if you can relate to the frustrations I’m explaining, I urge you to help rewrite the story.

No more shame about being the breadwinner. No more pretending you don’t like your job if you do. No more buying into the lie that you’re alone in breadwinning journey.

No more believing that being a breadwinner is more stressful for women than it is for men.

Are you with me?

I’d love to hear about your experiences regarding financially supporting your family, or about how you value your work. Please leave a comment or send me an email!