I’m a Woman and The Breadwinner in My Relationship—And I’m Fine With That
Growing up, my mom had one basic tenet when it came to marriage, dating, and feminism: “Jamie, make your own money so you never have to ask a man for the things you want.”
She gave me this advice so many times that it became my mantra and something that dictated my dating behavior for years. I wasn’t attracted to men with money. In fact, I was mostly repulsed by them. I was also repulsed by the idea that I should be attracted to a man because of his money. I had no desire to be supported, and so, instead of focusing on men, I focused on my career. My fallback plan was me, not a man. And although we’ve progressed beyond women solely being relegated to being housewives, it was still clear to me that the expectation for women was to find a man with a good salary and a good job who would provide. Men had to provide. It was biology. Right?
I focused on being strong and independent and was not at all concerned about a man’s biological impulse to provide. I told myself I’d rather be alone than diminish myself in the name of love. And if a man was intimidated by my career or my salary, then that was his problem, not mine. Was this emasculation? No. It’s not emasculation, because I’m not in charge of whether a man feels like a man. I’m not the keeper of a man’s masculinity. (Emasculation as a concept is bullshit. It’s just another way to shame women for not being enough of something or being too much of another thing.)
So, I dated without regard to jobs or job titles or salary, because I had my own money, my own job, and my own salary. If I was going to fall in love and share my life with someone, he was going to love me as a strong woman who made her own money. There was really no budging on that.
It’s not any surprise that I met a man in Paris who spoke little to no English and had to start at the bottom of the American career ladder when he immigrated here through our marriage. I’ve been supporting us through the majority of our five-and-a-half year relationship. He was born into poverty in Tunisia and he is an incredibly hard worker, but he will likely never match what I can make in this country as an American who went to a four-year college. As a freelancer and multidisciplinary creative, I have opportunities that he will likely never be afforded. For the foreseeable future, I will make considerably more money than he will. And, frankly, I’m fine with that. The fact that I even have to qualify how fine I am with it shows how gendered we still are about who gets to be the breadwinner in a straight relationship.
Truthfully, it took me some time to be fine with being the breadwinner. It took me even more time to be proud of being the breadwinner, instead of being secretly ashamed or insecure. Although things are definitely changing in American culture, a woman’s value is still on her body and a man’s value is still on his ability to earn money. And even though I have worked hard to unlearn a lot of America’s gendered cultural norms, I have still internalized some of them. For a long time, I didn’t want anyone to know that I made more money than my husband. I didn’t want anyone to give me that sad, pitying look reserved for women who are with “deadbeat” men. But my husband’s not a deadbeat. He’s with an accomplished, successful woman who can make money doing a number of creative jobs, including but not limited to, web design, copywriting, freelance writing, consulting, and iOS app development. Why do men get to be proud of how they provide for their family, but female breadwinners still have to hide in the shadows?
I once took an improv class and invited some of the students over to my apartment for a practice session. As I gave them the tour of the two-bedroom apartment I shared with my husband, one of the men (while complimenting our place) asked me, “So, what does your husband do?”
A coded and loaded question. I wanted to tell him, “Almost everything in this apartment is here because of me.” But I didn’t. I wanted to scream, Why do you assume my husband pays for everything?! I had saved up money to be able to take time off freelancing to explore acting and improv. My husband didn’t even have his green card or work authorization yet. I was supporting us entirely at that point—yet it was assumed that my husband was the one who had made our apartment, our furniture, and our life exist in the form it did.
I’m pursuing my dreams and working simultaneously. I need to support my husband and me. He works now, but again, he’s not earning nearly as much as I am capable of earning—so if I want the lifestyle I desire, then I need to make up the difference. That means I work to pay the bills, the rent, and I also put in time on the projects that will eventually be the framework of my dream career. It’s a slow build, uncertain and stressful, but I am proud of what I’ve built.
And I’ve finally learned to be proud of being the breadwinner. It’s a story we don’t hear about often enough. I want to be part of a movement where we divorce our worth from societal norms—as men and as women both—so that men do not feel their worth is tied to their bank account or job title. And so that women do not feel their worth is tied to their clothing size or their looks. We keep perpetuating these norms, making subtle agreements with each other. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about being with a man who wants to provide, but I do take issue with behavior and agreements that happen on autopilot. The same way I wouldn’t want my husband to value my body and/or sex with me above, say, all the other facets of me that are worth being admired and loved, I wouldn’t want to love a man based primarily on his ability to earn a good paycheck. I am just not interested in that subtle gendered agreement of worth. If I want my worth to be attached to the wholeness of me, then I need to love the man I chose to spend my life with in the wholeness of him.
Being the breadwinner is not without stress, of course. It’s not without anxiety. Or without the fleeting moments of thinking there is greener grass out there somewhere. But I feel more of a sense of pride than I do a sense of frustration. Because integrity is a small room with nobody clapping for you except yourself. And to live your values isn’t always met with recognition.
It’s a good feeling, as it turns out, to heed my mom’s advice. She was right, but don’t tell her that.
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