Make the dough, do the laundry: Life as a breadwinner mom

Dad's at home, Mom's raking in the bucks -- everything's cool, right? Not exactly.

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Pick up a parenting magazine or visit a parenting Web site these days and you're sure to come across something about "Mr. Moms," or, as they prefer to be known, "SAHDs" -- stay-at-home dads. These guys have at-home-dad newsletters, mailing lists, bulletin boards, chat rooms, support groups, and even an at-home dads convention. They are militant about the prejudice that SAHDs endure on the frontiers of social change ("We're here! We buy baby wipes! Get used to it!"). They share -- assiduously -- their unique contributions to child-rearing. But the ones who are married rarely give more than a nod to the women who support them. Look behind the diaper-totin', baby-lovin', juice-packin' nurturer and you are likely to find a breadwinner mom.

Like me. My sister. My friends and distinguished colleagues. Working mothers of all kinds are so commonplace these days that the breadwinner moms among us go unnoticed. According to U.S. census figures, more than a million married-couple families with children under 18 are supported by the mother alone (though that number drops to fewer than 200,000 for families with children under 6). What's harder to quantify is the number of dual-earner families in which the mom has what my husband calls the "alpha job" -- the full-time job, the one with the significantly higher salary, the one with the medical and dental benefits.

As domestic arrangements go, this one looks great on paper. It even plays pretty well in real life. For starters, having a dad at home cuts down on the stress and guilt familiar to working mothers with young children. Political complexities on the subject of day care and nannies aside, it's a hell of a lot easier to get out of the house every morning when your child care is right there in his boxer shorts. Even when he works, this is a guy who usually works at home or part-time, providing the peace of mind that comes from having at least one parent on hand most of the time.

So there's a parent at home, mom's raking in the bucks -- everything's cool, right? Sort of. The breadwinner-mom family is more than just a '90s, cross-dressed version of "Leave It to Beaver." I have never pictured myself as the provider, and my husband (as far as I know) never coveted June Cleaver's oven mitts and pearls. We, like a lot of other breadwinner-mom families, live this way because the opportunity arose to have a parent at home with our young kids, and we think it's good for them. To call this move entirely intentional would be going too far.

"I didn't sign up for this when we met and married," one breadwinner mom writes. Yeah, me neither. We started out in equal-career couples and things just happened. Like, women got enough earning power for men to be able to make spontaneous career decisions. Men now have more freedom to drop off the corporate fast track, go freelance, start new careers. My husband was laid off; my job means he doesn't have to rush right back to work. Sometimes the choice is planned, and mutual. When the demands of two jobs and two kids added up to zero quality of life for the director of my daughter's school, she and her husband decided to put his work on hold. "Money's tight, real tight," she told me, but something had to give and she loved her job.

Sounds like a chance to feel incredibly empowered, an opportunity to enjoy the great strides women have made economically and professionally, right? Sometimes. But winning bread is not always what some of us expected it to be.

In fact, I'd say some of us never expected it to be at all. Quite a few breadwinner moms I know -- usually the ones over 35 -- grew up in homes where their parents, despite the women's movement, still reinforced traditional gender roles. My sister remembers her guidance counselor telling her to forget about architecture because girls can't do math. A friend recalls how all of her family's resources were spent on her brother's education, leaving her and her sister to scrounge around for cheap schools, student loans and part-time jobs to finance college. Implicit is the powerful assumption: No point in wasting a college education on a girl! She'll just stay home with her babies anyway.

Even women who escaped the clutches of this sort of sexism aren't always prepared for the luggage that comes with the fatter (or only) paycheck. My sister, whose husband is in sales and has minimal benefits, says that she paid no attention to his finances early in their marriage, "because my job provided everything I needed." Since the birth of her daughter, though, she's had second thoughts: "Now I realize that his income and benefits have a major impact on me, because I can't make a choice about whether to stay home."

At least, one might reason, the breadwinner mom doesn't have to do the laundry. Well, I am here to tell you that domestic chores have tenaciously resisted any revolutionary change. I know only one breadwinner mom who goes to the office each day knowing that her husband will scrub the toilet and shop for food. Stay-at-home dads are great nurturers; some are also excellent cooks; far fewer clean and launder. My husband, for example, is "a really fun dad" (says our 7-year-old daughter), loves to wash dishes, and is glad to take on any errand that gets him out of the house. But he is far less inclined to vacuum and mop without me available to keep the baby at bay.

Do my husband and I wish we could trade places? Sure. Chastened by the backbreaking work of caring for children, stay-at-home-dads often are eager to resume their careers or begin new ones. Breadwinner moms, me included, miss our kids a lot and long for a turn as the stay-at-home parent -- at least until the laundry pile is high and the diaper supply is low. Then, we privately admit, going to the office might not be such a bad gig after all.

At the end of the day -- literally and figuratively -- no matter what breadwinner moms do to earn their paychecks, we end up doing the same job when we get home. When I was a kid, it was understood that you didn't jump all over Daddy the minute he came in the door. His job was done, it was time to relax. The instant I walk in the door -- before I'm actually all the way in, most nights -- my two kids are all over me. Secretly, I'm both pleased and dismayed by this. Sometimes I long to flop down on the couch with the remote and zone out; but like the breadwinner mom who told me that she can't help but feel that she's "only the mommy now," I'm always happy to be reminded that no matter how wonderful Daddy is, I'm irreplaceable, too.

By Dianne Lake

Dianne Lake lives in New York.

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