Our story starts nearly fourteen years ago with humble beginnings and a marriage like any other. We had a baby, bought a house, all of the normal things you’d expect from a couple just like us. Don’t let our ordinary start fool you, though.
We continued on the culturally expected trajectory until we moved from Oklahoma, back to Connecticut, my home state. I’ve always been ambitious but having been newly introduced to marketing after spending time in the medical field, I was determined to eke out a successful career for myself.
I had not yet considered what that might look like, but I knew I wanted to stop worrying about paying the bills. I wanted to stop daydreaming about family vacations and start planning memories. With this in mind, I set myself to the task. I had to find a way to take my tiny salary and make it something impressive.
Grasping for Success
I read everything I could, I pushed for more responsibility and more money. As needed, I switched jobs to get a raise, a better position, new skills, and/or a track to management. At the same time, I threw myself headfirst into freelancing, both for the extra money and to hone my skills. Meanwhile, I was still taking care of the house, the cooking, addressing the kids’ physical and emotional needs and pretty much anything else that came up.
All the while, my husband was there in the background. He got up and made the sometimes long and always nerve-wracking commute to his job. He quietly toiled, though he was becoming more and more aware his income wasn’t growing nearly as fast as mine. In fact, other than those rather insignificant cost of living raises, his salary didn’t change at all.
What I didn’t know was that my raises made him feel less and less adequate. He was suffering from feelings of insecurity generated by the ideas our society has yet to shake. He felt like he wasn’t doing his job, that he was unable to take care of his family the way he should be.
Ambition to Frustration
I tried to be encouraging but I’ll be honest, a part of me was angry. Angry that I did so much, angry that so many responsibilities fell to me. Angry that no matter how many hours I worked, I was still the one keeping the house clean and making sure the kids had clothes to wear (among my many responsibilities). To be fair, he told me he felt he was doing plenty to help around the house and that the kids should be doing more.
I deeply desired to be a marketing director. I wanted to do something meaningful and I wanted my kids to be proud of me. If work was going to take me away from them, then it should mean something. It was about this time that I started taking classes towards an MBA, the thing I thought would drive my career to its ultimate goal.
I thought it could bring me to the next level and set my career for the future, that all came to an abrupt halt though. I had no help getting things done and was struggling to meet all of my daily duties plus classwork. At the same time, my husband also began taking classes (after I did) because he felt it would help him to move on to a more profitable and fulfilling area of his industry.
I was incredibly frustrated that I’d had to put my goals on hold even though his classes were easy and he could have helped me more. Yet, he didn’t see a problem. He couldn’t understand how I felt. Secretly, I was seething inside, feeling that in his mind he didn’t want me to be more successful than he was. It felt like he was jealous, and he was sabotaging me because he didn’t want me to make more than he did or hold a higher position.
Searching for the Truth
I wish I could tell you that we sat down and worked it out, but we didn’t. I quietly loathed him. I worked at growing my freelance business and writing a blog. I pulled long hours at work, gaining promotions and pay raises. He sat stagnating at his job and taking classes. I played taxi for the kids and kept up all of the domestic chores. I spent life exhausted and he fell asleep while I worked on side projects. He played video games while I was obsessing over keeping the house in order and maintaining with freelance work.
Fast-forward a bit. We’re a couple of years into the future and my husband is about to graduate. Nothing has changed but my income. I’m a manager while he is still a regular employee. I’m now the “breadwinner” for our family, making quite a bit more than he does between all of my ventures. I still do a disproportionate amount of domestic tasks though I work overtime and freelance. We’re still stuck in the same place and don’t see eye to eye.
Finally, one day last week, I’d had enough. I couldn’t take it. So, I had to ask…what was the problem?
My husband’s response made me absolutely speechless. He looked at me very frankly and said, “I was raised to take care of my family and now I’m not doing that. I can’t do that. It’s embarrassing. I feel like I’m letting everyone down. People treat me like there must be something wrong with me because you make more than me. They act like I’m not taking care of my family.”
I’ll give you an example of what he means. We recently applied for a loan. The loan officer, a woman no less, assumed that he should be primary on the loan. We stopped her and asked if the person who made more money should be the primary. She thought about it for a minute and a look of disdain spread across her face. Yes, she told us but it was evident that she didn’t like the situation. I wish this was the only contemptuous opinion we’ve encountered. It isn’t though. Even in our modern era even the financial institutions we’ve dealt with believe that he should be making more.
Even within his own family, my husband faces questions about our “role reversal.” We are in 2020, but what ideals were our Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z “kids” raised on? We hail ourselves as making it so far, but women still do the majority of domestic work. Kids still think it’s more acceptable for moms to stay home. Women are still not treated equally. Why do these stereotypes still exist?
How can we call our spouses “partners” when we are not really equal? In our homes and in our schools, and even in our workplaces, we’re still silently teaching our children antiquated beliefs. There are many questions to be answered and blame to be placed, but where do we start? We should begin at the root of our inequality…the views and notions held by our society on the roles of men and women in marriage.
Finding the Right Answer
As I struggle to find the right answer, I ask myself if divorce is the right answer but I hear the same problems echoed by friends, coworkers, and all over the internet. I guess I could just quit my job, so he becomes the breadwinner again but that would bankrupt us (not to mention I would be miserable).
Counseling may be a good option for me and my husband and there are plenty of local practices that help families solve issues like the ones we’ve been experiencing. In fact, I think it’s a fantastic idea for us as a family but I’m hoping to provide solutions to the cultural problem and not just my own. I think we need to seek out ways to shift the way society thinks and truly bring us into the modern age.
Steps for Change
There are two steps that must be taken to move forward into the future rather than forever dwelling in the past. First, women living in these dual roles need to think about self-care. What does self-care look like for you? How has the image of being a superwoman made it harder to seek counseling as an option and even harder to enjoy life?
Remember, being a martyr helps no one and teaches little girls they need to be perfect to be “successful.” Changing attitudes needs to start with the women most affected by them. There should be no guilt in self-care, self-love, or taking a moment to enjoy your life.
Promote Women Who Take Care of Themselves
When we begin to promote women taking care of themselves, we reinforce that they matter. What do you personally want to stand up and say “no more” to? What has happened when you’ve tried? How can the reader and larger society go from seeing these as average daily complaints to items they need to address for a greater good?
We need to raise them above being slaves to family, work, and anything else that comes along. Changing a personal mindset becomes contagious. When we stand up and say “I won’t be treated like this,” then it becomes more difficult for others to treat you that way. Think of those historical characters who said no more, and the impact they had.
Teach Your Children Different Views
Step two — change the world. Sounds too enormous to accomplish, right? It’s gotta start somewhere, and why not let it start with you? Make that start at home. When you assign chores, assign them equally to all capable members of the house. If you have young children in your household, start assigning chores early even if it’s just picking up their toys at the end of the day or bringing their dishes to the dishwasher. It’s important to establish that every member of the household is vital in keeping things running smoothly.
Taking the focus off of gender roles and putting the responsibility equally in everyone’s hands turns popular beliefs on their head. Sit down with your spouse and explain that you’d like to enforce a division of labor that illustrates it’s necessary for everyone to do their part. It will take some of the pressure off them, and make it clear that you’re not blaming them for not “doing their share.”
We can’t stop there though. That covers chores but that’s far from the only thing going on here. Now, show your kids that one adult isn’t the boss of the house, but that collectively you are both the bosses — together. Creating a subordinate reinforces that one role is more important than the other. Making more money doesn’t mean one person gets to make the decisions. Show this with your actions by saying, “That’s a decision both mommy and daddy have to discuss and make together.”
Last, avoid language that reinforces old beliefs. although financial institutions still seek to identify who the breadwinner and who the “head of household” are, those terms are narrow definitions of what really goes on in each household. That language doesn’t have to follow us on the car ride home.
Taking the undesirable language out of everyday life changes how we all think about the concepts of supporting and taking care of the family and who owns them. Don’t let labels get in the way of progress. Act better, think wiser and affect change.
History gets to repeat itself in our homes when the frustrated partners continue to have the heaviest burdens on them with little support or say in how to change that. My husband and I didn’t start our lives living this way. We fell into habits and continued activities that reinforced the status quo. My kids don’t know the dreams I have for myself and the places I want to make memories in but they do know that they can expect their parents to stay together — feelings of resentment and all.