Women Breadwinners: A Holy Calling?
Perspectives from couples who reflect a growing trend
Alison Strobel Morrow works three jobs. She’s a full-time middle school language arts teacher, she writes women’s fiction, and she runs a home-based health and wellness product business.
Her husband is a part-time church newsletter editor and primary caregiver for their two children, ages 4 and 7, whom he home-schools. He handles most of the housework, although Alison pitches in occasionally.
Alison is just one of many women who are the primary breadwinners for their families. Each family has a unique story, yet is part of a larger trend: a steadily growing number of women who out-earn their husbands.
“For the most part, I’m okay with my role,” she says. While her close friends understand, she admits, “I get a lot of weird looks from people when I first explain our situation, but I’m over caring whether or not people approve. I’m immensely relieved to have a job and insurance at all.”
40 Percent and Growing
Some 40 percent of wives now earn more than their husbands, a trend which challenges the traditions of American society and has stirred debate and commentary about its sociological implications (with publication of books such as Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, and Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family). Because of the growing number of women earning advanced degrees and ascending the corporate ladder, that percentage is growing.
A small (but growing) fraction of those wives are solo breadwinners while their husbands stay home with the children. Many more are part of couples in which both spouses work—but she earns more. Some observers predict what Mundy calls “the big flip”—the coming day where the majority of women will earn more than men.
For Christian families in this situation (and there are many), the changes can be unsettling—especially if they are a part of a conservative faith tradition that taught them it is “biblical” for a man to go out to work and a woman to stay home.
Some Christian husbands who want (or need) their wives to contribute to the household income by working may feel conflicted when their wives advance in their careers. Others are quite content to earn less, especially if this allows them to be closer to their children because they’ve become the primary caregivers and household managers. Their supporting roles often help their wives thrive in their careers.
When Cathy and Dave Breslow had their kids 18 and 16 years ago, they were “adamant” that one parent would be home with them. Cathy had assumed it would be her, but her job as a software engineer for Safeway Foods had benefits, a retirement package, and a good salary. Dave’s work as an insurance salesman had no benefits and paid straight commission.
So he suggested that he stay home with their children. “At first I was like, what?” she admits.
“It was very unusual at the time,” Dave says. “But we didn’t want someone else raising our kids. I wanted to impart my values to them.”
After prayer and conversation, “we felt that the Lord was leading us in that direction,” Cathy says. “My husband handled it brilliantly. When you look at it over the long haul, we knew this is what God had for us.”
He continued to work part-time selling insurance but has been the primary caregiver for their children, as well as doing the cooking, shopping, and cleaning. He also coaches basketball and volunteers at their church.
When his daughter was 2, he wanted to take her to a playgroup through his church but noted it was called the Moms Friendly Playgroup. When he jokingly said, “I guess I’m not invited,” the church changed the name to Parents Friendly Playgroup.
However, most of the families they know at their church in the San Francisco Bay area have dads working full-time. “Would I have done things differently? No. Do I have regrets? Not at all,” Dave says.
Living the Dream
A year ago, Jeff Walton quit his job to be a stay-at-home dad to his two boys, ages 4 and 8, so his wife could take a promotion to district sales manager.
Today, the family feels they are living the dream. Kathy is free from the stress of what to do when she was 50 miles away and got a call from school saying one of her boys was sick. She is able to devote more time to her job, and she has had a banner year.
“I’ve always liked my job, but I like it so much more now,” that her husband is at home, Kathy says, although she admits that “it’s very, very, very stressful to be the sole breadwinner, especially when you’re in sales.” But Jeff’s support means both less chaos and more free time for both of them.
“We used to both do everything, when we were both working, but it was stressful. I no longer have a ‘laundry room mountain’ waiting for me on Saturday, when we’ve got to get to a soccer game, and wondering when that’s going to get done.”
Kathy says her women’s group at church has been very supportive, which helps her. Jeff’s also in a Bible study there, and that group also has been very encouraging, he said.
When they were both working, Jeff and Kathy would have their kids up by 6:00 a.m. to get out the door less than an hour later. They’d pick them up from daycare or after-school care around 5:30 p.m.—long days for both parents and kids.
These days, Jeff takes the boys to the library after school on Tuesday afternoons, and he plays ball with them or helps with homework on the other weekday afternoons.
“When we were both working, it seemed like every time Kathy would have to travel, one of the kids would get sick,” Jeff recalls. “It was so much stress.”
When both of them were trying to build their careers, Jeff recalls, “we’d have this ‘whose job is more important’ question when we both had a meeting, and we’d have a debate about that. We’ve taken that question out of the equation. She can focus more on her job, and the more successful she is, the more successful we are.”
The couples most comfortable with breadwinning wives had similar attitudes to Jeff’s, seeing her success as “our” success.
When he quit his job, Jeff reorganized the kitchen, then the laundry room, and divided the house into “zones” he cleans one at a time, working methodically around each room. “It’s very ‘FlyLady,’ ” Kathy laughs.
“I might have been going a little crazy at first, trying to prove that I was working,” he admits. He’s a meticulous budgeter, and he analyzed their finances to cut expenses before he left his job. “Kathy often tells me she wouldn’t be able to do this without me,” Jeff says.
He also does the yard work, cooks, and buys groceries, although Kathy still helps plan the meals and sometimes cooks for fun on the weekends. Those weekends also have margin for time to just hang out as a family or a couple.
“We have time to just be together. I’m no longer asking when I’m going to have time to actually live. I feel so blessed.”
A year ago when Kathy had just received her promotion, and Jeff was still working, she remembers crying at a sales meeting, telling her boss, “I don’t think I can do this.” She recalls, “My boss is an amazing guy, and he just looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about? Of course you can do this!’ And when Jeff quit his job, I could. I went from crying that I couldn’t do it last year, to being named district sales manager of the year this year.”
A recent Time Magazine article by Mundy, author of The Richer Sex, points out that “In the face of women’s rising power and changing expectations, many men may experience an existential crisis. When the woman takes on the role of primary breadwinner, it takes away an essential part of many men’s identity: that of the provider, the role he was trained, tailored and told to do since he could walk and talk.”
For Christian couples, it is often not just a role that he was trained for and understood that society expected him to do. Many, especially those in more conservative traditions, were told that God decreed that the husband was supposed to play the role of provider. To go against that, even when it makes economic sense, creates stress and guilt.
And yet many Christian couples find themselves—whether by choice or economic necessity or simply because women are reaping the benefits of decades of hard work and education—in this very situation.
Some couples said that the husbands’ confidence was eroded by their inability to play the traditional breadwinner role—even as they said they appreciated their wives’ efforts. Some accepted their non-traditional role but admitted it caused some tension or guilt in the relationship. Others have embraced it as the way God is providing for their families, while allowing the wives to follow God’s calling.
In her July 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “When the Wife Has a Fatter Paycheck,” journalist Susan Gregory Thomas says she’s part of that 40 percent of wives who earn more than their husbands, and notes that the situation puts her: “in the middle of a distinctively modern dilemma: how to handle the tensions of a marriage between an alpha woman and a beta man.”
In an online column responding to Thomas’ article, writer Candice Watters opines: “The dilemma Susan Gregory Thomas raises has even higher stakes for a Christian couple. We’re not merely talking tensions between alpha and beta, but defiance of the Alpha and Omega.”
“My Friends Made Me Feel So Guilty”
Whether or not you agree with Watters’ hermeneutic, she’s echoing what many people think—and many churches teach. Directly or indirectly, conservative Christian culture holds up the ideal of “man as provider, woman as homemaker.” However, the reality is, many wives do have to work, and some have far greater earning potential and ambition than their husbands. Then what?
“My friends made me feel so guilty,” says Diana Searls, who has always been the primary breadwinner in her marriage. “And if we were raised that way, to believe that earning more than your husband is absolutely wrong, the guilt is intense.”
Diana, who heads up the leadership and management development program at a career center, says she and her husband Ed “had a lot of conversations. We asked, Is this wrong? We searched the Scriptures together, and our conclusion is God did not say it’s wrong, but man has done this. That was important for us.”
Clarity about Calling
Another couple, Jean and Robert*, have both worked for all of their marriage—sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time, as they raised their two boys, who are now 20 and 17. Currently, Jean is working 50 to 60 hours a week as a project manager for a consulting company. Robert, who was downsized out of middle management several years ago, is back in school, getting his teaching credentials—at age 53. He works part-time in retail as well. While Jean is glad he’s finally found his calling, it’s been challenging.
“I’m doing what I feel called to do,” Jean says. “But the fact that Robert is not in a job he loves, kind of puts a damper on it. I’m grateful that God has provided in this way, but—there’s this big but—we’d all be happier if Robert had a better job. Although I wouldn’t trade Robert for anything because of the kind of husband and father he is.”
Jean grew up Catholic but “never got the message it wasn’t OK for me to work,” and in fact was praised for her achievements and ambition. Still, she thinks “there is this pressure, socially, that he needs to provide. He feels it more than me.”
She says she believes women “naturally have to recreate ourselves” in different seasons of life: as a student, a mother, then perhaps launching in a new direction after the kids leave the nest. Men, on the other hand, she believes, are taught that they just work, and that work defines them. When they’re unemployed, under-employed, or just not experiencing the career success their wives do, some men struggle.
The Recession’s Toll
Another couple, Jim and Angie*, met at their church in their late 20s, after she had finished a masters in social work. He worked as a carpenter, remodeling high-end homes. During the real estate boom of the late 1990s, his talents were in high demand, though the work was rarely steady. Angie’s income was the family’s main support.
The recession crippled Jim’s business. Indeed, a growing number of women have gone back to work to help make ends meet when their husbands lost their jobs—and ended up actually doing quite well. A 2010 University of New Hampshire study showed that an economic recession often results in an increasing number of breadwinner wives.
Angie works as an account manager for a company that administers employee assistance programs. She worked part-time when her children, now ages 13, 11, and 8, were young (and Jim was earning more money), but she currently works full-time. She’s always managed the money.
“Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing the finances and balancing the work demands with family life,” she admits.
Resentment and Guilt
Some men find it difficult to release traditional roles or expectations. The “man as provider” is definitely more deeply ingrained in the conservative Christian subculture than in American culture at large.
“I don’t think the tradition of faith impacts me as much as my husband. Although I cannot speak for him, at times he says things like, ‘I feel like I’m a failure,’ or ‘I will never be able to provide for you the way your father provided.’ I believe those stereotypes impact his self-esteem,” Angie says.
Angie’s advice to women who find themselves in a similar situation? “Be content in all circumstances. Trust the plan God has for you and your family. Accept the situation as it is and don’t allow resentment to creep into your attitude toward your husband.”
That’s easier said than done. Another woman, who asked to be anonymous, confided: “For a long time I was really resentful of the fact that I was the one who had to go back to work…I’ve really struggled to accept that this is God’s will for us…However, I think our girls have benefitted greatly from having him home.”
Contentment with Your Calling
Christians often talk about stewardship of their resources—but what if a woman’s skills, and God’s calling to the workplace, are gifts to be stewarded as carefully as any others?
The couples that seem to thrive with women in the breadwinner role have the support of their churches, family, and friends. They believe not just that such an arrangement is permissible, but that it’s beneficial to have the wife as primary breadwinner. They’ve prayed and studied and listened to God and followed his calling.
If God calls a woman to do work that provides for her family, that calling and the resulting income should be stewarded carefully. What does that look like? It includes the support of her husband (with practical help at home), and it also includes the woman responding wholeheartedly to that calling. By accepting and leaning into the way God has gifted her, a woman can find meaning and purpose and allow God to use her to provide for her family.
* These couples asked that we not use their real names.
Keri Wyatt Kent is a freelance journalist and the author of 10 books.