Growing up, my parents made about the same amount of money, which wasn’t all that much; we were solidly on the lower end of the middle class. As far as I was concerned, we were fine and when I would picture my life someday as an adult, I never imagined or aspired to make a significant amount of money, let alone to be rich. And when I reached the age where day-dreaming about my eventual romantic life became a regular pastime, I never considered that I could or would have anything different than the setup my parents had. My husband and I would contribute 50/50 to the household; it wasn’t even a question.
Years later, as an independent single woman, I’ve of course realized that there are many ways to divide up responsibility in a household. I’ve also realized that my earning potential is beyond what I ever thought it could be, even as recently as five years ago. I am profoundly lucky. That, along with my status as a single 30-something with a strong desire for children, has made me think long and hard about how different my role as a hopeful wife and mother might end up being in comparison to what I had envisioned. Female-breadwinner households are the subject of Time‘s cover story this week, which examines how this trend (which is likely to be more common than male-breadwinner household in the next generation) has affected male and female relationships. The piece resonated with me because one of the things I have concluded is that, in the right situation, I would be happy to be the primary earner in my family.
I’ve not been the breadwinner before. I was in a five year relationship with a man who, when we first started dating at 23, made as much money as I did (i.e. enough to cover rent and beers at happy hour). But within a year, he was making double that amount; by year two and three, he was doing really well. Making money had always been his goal and as he earned more and more, I, as his live-in girlfriend, got to reap the rewards. We went out to fancy dinners, drank good wine, went on vacation to Italy, and looked at apartments to buy in the city. I still paid my share of the rent (which was less than his share), but he would also cover the costs of lots of basic necessities, like groceries and dry-cleaning, and was generous with gifts.
In exchange — although we never really discussed these terms aloud, they were just sort of known — I did the vast majority of the “labor.” I went grocery shopping with his credit card, I did the laundry, I cleaned the apartment, I did the dishes, etc. It was fair, more than fair, in many respects, but I still ended up feeling like, well, a maid. At times I felt taken advantage of, or taken for granted; I still worked a full-time job, but also felt like there was work I had to do for two at home. On top of that, I felt like I was putting in so much more emotionally. Even the physical responsibilities had weight for me. I washed his underwear, I ironed his shirts, I picked up his favorite snack foods when I went to the grocery store, and there was love imbedded in each of those actions. He showed me love in plenty of ways for sure, but they almost always came with a price tag. And they didn’t make up for how unloved I felt when I came home to the apartment I was responsible for cleaning and found wet towels on the bed, shoes in the middle of the floor and a jam-packed trash bin.
We got engaged and less than a year later, he called things off and we went our separate ways. Around the same time, my career took off and I suddenly found myself in the position of making money. Not rich by any means, but given that all I ever wanted to do was write, I never expected to have much earning power at all. In the three years since that relationship ended, my romantic life has been pretty uneventful, but my financial and professional life has thrived. The guys I have dated have all made less than me, some significantly. It hasn’t been a problem for me, but it has been an issue for many of them. All that has done is made it clearer to me that the right man for me is not necessarily someone who makes as much or more money than I do, but is comfortable making less and knows the most valuable contributions to a relationship have nothing to do with money.
Nowadays, when I take the time to envision the future, I know I want a kid and I hope I am able to have one with a partner I love. (But if not, I am prepared to aid in destroying the fabric of Rick Santorum’s America by being a single mom.) When I think about the kind of man I would ideally like to have a child with, I don’t think about how much money he makes or has the potential to make; I think about what kind of father he would be and what kind of parenting team we would be together. My experiences have taught me that how much money you bring into a relationship is not equal to the value of emotional dedication and commitment. Because ultimately, whether I am the breadwinner or not, the man and the family I want and deserve are priceless.