As a feminist, I sometimes bristle at my own attitudes and expectations when it comes to certain things. Case in point: how it feels to be the primary breadwinner in my little family.
To clarify and provide a bit of context, my “little family” consists of me and my fiancÃ©, who is in the process of finishing his B.A. at Columbia University’s School of General Studies (if you’re considering going, by the way, don’t. I’ll save my reasons for that for another post). When we met, he was a student, and I was employed. We’ve been together for almost two years, and we’ve been living together for about one and a half. Prior to meeting him, I’d been supporting myself since 2004 when I started graduate school, and I’d been in the workforce since 2008.
I didn’t grow up expecting that I wouldn’t need to work; indeed, working has always been a source of pleasure for me. I enjoy the feeling of having done something well, I like being challenged, and I’ve dreamt of having a successful, fulfilling career for as long as I can remember. Although my mother stayed home to raise my two sisters and me, neither of my parents ever made a point of reinforcing the sort of gender stereotypes that would suggest that a woman wasn’t supposed to work, or that if she did, she wasn’t meant to earn more than her husband. As I said above, I identify as a feminist, so theoretically I am open to the idea of a heterosexual household in which the woman is the primary breadwinner (I only specify heterosexual here because I have no experience living in a household of any other kind and so can’t comment on the dynamics that exist in relation to this particular issue). So the fact that, in practice, I’ve ended up a bit troubled by my bread-winning status has me a bit disappointed in my feminist self. Why shouldn’t I be the primary earner in the relationship? Why should I expect that, between my fiancÃ© and me, I should be the one with more freedom to choose what to do with my time than him because I’m in a privileged position as a result of his salary?
I wonder if most women my age, and in my position, grapple with these same questions. And in my more introspective moments, I wonder about the degree to which they really represent a betrayal of feminist ideals. Is it possible that what I’m really experiencing is the stress of being the sole breadwinner in a two-person household in a terrible economy? Could my feelings be more a reflection of my frustration with my salary, and the fact that even though I’m close to 30, I don’t feel like I’ve lived up to the career expectations I had for myself? Honestly, I’m not sure what the answers are. I have moments of petulance when I wish I could leave the workforce, stay home, and do what I want without having to worry about whether or not it will bring in enough money for us to put dinner on the table. But doesn’t everyone have those moments, regardless of their gender or ideology? There are also times when I feel empowered by the fact that I hold a Master’s degree and that I can pay for things without having to rely on help from anyone, including my fiancÃ©. More than anything, though, I find myself wishing I were in a position to provide us with a better lifestyle, one in which we didn’t have to worry about how to pay tuition bills, or student loans, or the rent. And I think a lot about how we’ve been socialized to expect certain things from each other and how he might feel in a relationship with a female breadwinner. With the pressure put on men to be the ultimate source of support to their partners, is it possible that he is in an even more difficult position than the one I find myself in?