Hitched: Stop With The Female Breadwinning Trend Stories Already

Here’s this article entitled, “The Flip Side Of Being A Female Breadwinner,” another one of those what-does-it-all-mean pieces (yes, there’s an evolutionary psychologist quoted, if you’re playing Navel-Gazey Trend Story Bingo back at home) that takes one person’s experience and blows it up in hopes of making a statement, vaguely tinged with some kind of shame about not doing things properly, about the way women and men live and work now and the way things should be, or ought to be.

The ultimate conclusion of these kinds of pieces? Life is complicated, and no you can’t have it all, and no, we have never heard of anyone who is not a white, middle-class woman because if we did we would have to approach this topic with actual thought and nuance and situate it in a socio-historical context that took long-term economic and political trends into account, and that would be harder than drawing simplistic conclusions about culture and gender roles according to a self-selected sample of friends and “experts.”

I don’t think there’s a “flip side” of being a female breadwinner because I don’t think there are exactly two ways to be a female breadwinner: a way in which everyone is happy in a world of gender roles gone topsy-turvy, and a way in which everyone is swimming miserably upstream. Women — particularly single mothers, particularly women of color- — have been “breadwinning” for years.

Not only is some weird hybrid of Carrie Bradshaw and Sheryl Sandberg the inevitable and unlikely poster woman for this kind of exploration, but nobody ever asks the question, “Can men have it all?” Or, better yet, “Have men ever had it all?” in a system wherein patriarchy also oppresses male people, though in often less obvious ways.

It’s as if the broad end goal of feminism was to have It All (a moving target if ever there was one) rather than “gender equality.” Couched in these terms, a mainstream culture that pays lip service to gender equality but is fundamentally uncomfortable with what that would ever actually look like gets to say that feminism fails because women don’t have It All. So keep fightin’, little ladies, but ultimately if you don’t have It All, your little movement is worthless. Ignore that man who is not having it all behind the curtain!

As a white, middle-class woman myself, even I don’t expect “It All.” I do not live in a universe wherein my husband and I have the luxury of choosing who has the better paying job and who “gets” (?) to stay home with the cats. We both have to work. We both like to work, but if either one of us got laid off, or suddenly quit, or fired, we would soon embark upon a magical and interesting and totally crappy journey.

I am not the sole breadwinner in our household, but I do make a little more money than my husband right this second. Sometimes it’s awkward, but it’s never a problem. Someone call The New York Times!

We are both writers; I believe the money balance could change at any moment, though Patrick tends to believe I’ll be more financially successful than he will over the long term. We will probably never agree on this until time bears out one way or the other.

I could tell you some stories about how Patrick and I manage our money — separately for now, and let me stop you before you start in on how that’ll all change once we have kids, because we are not going to have any kids. (Which: I would be very happy to never read another article that assumes every woman wants It All and that for every woman It All includes “babies.”)

I could set up telling little vignettes that are supposed to be illustrations of larger issues. But I don’t think my situation actually means anything on its own, and I don’t have the ability to do a nationwide, or even a damned citywide, study to find out whether other people are like us.

I could tell you how Patrick insists on buying his own drinks at the bar even though that’s a hit he’d notice in his bank account and an amount of money I wouldn’t miss. I have tried to tell him to put his drinks on my tab. He won’t. Is this a statement about gender relations in America, and male breadwinning, and what it all means? I don’t think so. I think it’s a statement about how Patrick feels about money, and how I feel about money. I think both of those things are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

I could tell you this kind of thing, and then try to draw some conclusions and make this a statement about a larger cultural shift or stagnation. But that just serves to make people who are like me feel good and everyone else very bored, annoyed or ignored.

Can social scientists and cultural theorists look at big-picture issues and draw some conclusions about how “we,” whoever “we” are, spend our time and our money? They can. Can they draw some conclusions about who works where, and doing what, and for how long? They can. But it is going to be a long-ass time before we understand how all of those things fit together. There is no 2,000 word trend story that has answers the world’s anthropologists and sociologists and cultural studies theorists (theorists!) don’t currently have.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about culture. I’m a degreed cultural anthropologist, for goodness sake. I love talking about culture. But if my Master’s degree taught me anything, it is this: we know only very little, tiny bits about very little, tiny bits of modern culture, and it takes decades, even centuries, to understand how and why large groups of people do anything. This is why systemic analysis and criticism is so important, and why simplistic attempts to cobble together an answer to the question “But what does it all mean!?” inevitably turn into navelgazing trend pieces that get recycled every five or 10 years.

There’s always a half-cocked evolutionary psychologist, or “relationship expert” or third-tier talking head out there who’s willing to tell you whatever you need to hear to shore up your thesis, which is, inevitably: My poop smells pretty good, but let’s be real, how good? Because we all want to think we’re living the right way.

I am also guilty of this kind of navel-gazing because, like a lot of people, I want to believe the best things about my lifestyle, the things that make me feel the best about who I am and what my place is in the world. I get it. But personally? I think the future of gender is far more queer than most mainstream cultural theorists are currently comfortable positing. I think the people of the future are going to look back and wonder why we were so obsessed with figuring out the “right” way to perform masculinity and femininity for so long. I think the binary itself is going to seem silly and antiquated.

So look, your situation is unique and important, or it isn’t and that’s also important. Maybe you’re the poster person for gender and relationships in new, modern America. Maybe you aren’t. But I can tell you that there is no evolutionary psychologist, or multi-degreed freelance journalist, or wealthy white lady climbing the corporate ladder, or religious leader, who knows what is better for your family and your lifestyle than you do.

Maybe that means sometimes upsetting gender roles. Maybe that means falling along traditionally gendered lines at other times. Some of that is pretty much inevitable — American society is set up, for example, to make it very difficult for women to work and have children at the same time, and men still make more money on average than women. But some of it isn’t. That’s why all gender equality-minded people need to work toward a combination of large-scale systemic change while acknowledging that the personal is political.

I advocate messing up patriarchy where you can, but not killing yourself to perform a feminism that’s not an act of self-care and self-love that acknowledges where and what you can handle at any given time. I’m not making more money than my husband to prove a point, I’m doing it because this is the way we’ve rolled the dice. To act as if there’s a magical “right” way to be male and female, a way that will secretly make everyone the happiest? A decision that’s the most in keeping with the appropriate gender performance or rejection thereof? It’s self-defeating.

If that were the case, I’d never accomplish anything, either at home or at work. Besides polishing off a six pack.

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