Seven Trials and Tribulations of Being a Full Time Breadwinning Mom

A reader reached out the other day to ask if I’d write a post on the trials and tribulations of being the kind of mom that I am. As a full time, working outside the home, breadwinning mom whose husband stays at home with the kids, I’m in a bit of a unique situation from most women I know. Where I work, most of the women who are also moms are in relationships where their husbands also work. My kids friends who have a stay at home parent – it’s always their mom. So I’m in a unique position.

It hasn’t always been this way. When my husband and I were first married, we both made roughly the same amount of money. I worked in a call center, working my way through college debt free, and my husband worked in a factory. We made under $50k combined at the time. A few years later, right after I finished my undergrad, my oldest son was born. I had gotten a job in IT by then, and was making slightly more but still only $35k. My husband quit the full time factory job and began working part-time evenings and weekends. Later he would get a full-time job at the factory again, but working second shift so someone was always home with our son (later sons). It was only after the factory closed, and our subsequent medical crisis where he almost died, that I really became the full breadwinner.

My husband and our three boys, about two years ago after the youngest was born.

So both during his medical crisis, while our bills mounted, and for the past two years I’ve been the sole breadwinner of our household. What are some of the difficulties I’ve dealt with?

First, one that I haven’t had to deal with (fortunately) – my husbands jealousy or anger that I outearn him. At first by a little, then by two times as much, three time, and now I make 100% of the income. Instead he’s very proud of me and all that I’ve accomplished since we were married all those years ago. He’s my biggest cheerleader, and supports me when I need to work late, travel, or stay after work for one of those awesome (not) happy hours. Heck, when I finished my MBA after four long years of hard work, including going to school while he almost died, he baked me a cake.

My mother made the little bear cars around the cake, but my husband made and decorated the cake himself.

So that’s one good side-what about some of the trickier sides? Here’s a list of seven things that have struck me over the years.

Seven Trials and Tribulations of Being a Breadwinning Mom

  • I have no role models. My mother was a stay at home mom who ran a daycare out of her house for many years, then got a part-time job. My grandmother was a stay at home mother. One aunt who worked full time had no kids-the other worked part-time shift work to work around her husbands schedule. In books women like me are often angry and resentful at needing to work (I’m looking at you, I Don’t Know How She Does It), or secretly want to stay at home. Our situation is so unusual that when my husband was in the hospital being visited by an infectious disease specialist due to an ecoli infection (on top of everything else), the doctor told us she had recently read an article in a magazine about people like us. Then she brought in a copy of the magazine for us. Even in the online world it’s difficult to find  other moms like me. The lack of role models for our situation makes it difficult to forge a path, or ask other people for advice.
  • I don’t know the other moms. During preschool pickup and drop off, after school activities, or events during the school day-those are all opportunities to meet and chat with the other moms, right? Not for me. My husband does all those pickups and dropoffs, unless he’s ill or an emergency comes up. In the rare cases where I have to do it, not only do the other moms not know who I am, but also the teachers/activity coordinators don’t know me. This is fine with me but can make me feel like the odd one out at times
  • Mothers Day school events make me angry. OK not every event, but generally our preschools and local elementary school have two major problems with their Mothers Day celebrations.
    • They’re during the school day-usually around 2 PM. But are the Fathers Day celebrations during the school day? No, of course not! Those are at 8 AM, the start of the school day, because the fathers have to get to work. But the mothers don’t need to work, right? They can come to an event at 2 in the afternoon, and bring their kids home afterwards. They don’t have to drive 45 minutes just to get back home after being in the office, and they certainly don’t have to arrange their entire schedule around this event (sense the sarcasm here?)
    • They’re sexist. I’ve run into this problem a few times, and was so mad I couldn’t talk  about anything else for at least a week. The time that stands out to me was when my oldest sons first or second grade class was reading poems about their moms. It was all about how their moms were home when they got off the bus, and they had fresh cookies waiting for them. The moms cooked dinner, did your laundry, and took you to your activities. This was in 2009 or 2010! It was like they accidentally found a poem from the 1950’s and decided it was good enough for the kids to read that day
  • It’s stressful. I keep a healthy emergency fund and comprehensive emergency plan in case something happens to me or my job. I’ve been seeing pockets of layoffs at my company recently, which of course makes me concerned about my job. When the roof over our heads, the heat in our house, the food on our table, and the gas in our cars all depend on my ability to keep working – it can be very stressful at times.  I feel like I need to push myself as hard as I can to succeed at work, since any increases in pay will come solely from me. It’s one of the reasons financial independence and mortgage payoff are so important to me. I really want the increased security of knowing that we’ll be OK no matter what happens with my income, and the assurance that the roof over our heads can’t be taken away for failure to pay the mortgage.
  • It requires financial sacrifice. Now, I make a good income, so it’s not that we’re sacrificing food on the table or something like that. But I see my co-workers doing plenty of things that are financially out of reach for a family of five living on one income. Buying second homes, new SUV’s, taking fancy/exotic vacations multiple times per year, getting new clothes all the time, paying for expensive kids activities and private school, eating out frequently, etc.
    • Now a caveat – I don’t know if they can afford this any more than the average American can. But I do know that they all have two-income families, so I assume they can live a higher income lifestyle than I can with my family of five living on my income alone
    • In order to do things like max out my 401k and save for college for three kids, I need to cut expenses as much as I can. So I take my lunch and coffee to work instead of buying it, get clothes at the consignment shop, and seek out free/inexpensive things to do as a family. I shop at the warehouse club for groceries every weekend (with coupons!) and drive a car with 99k miles on it. We don’t carry any debt other than the mortgage-everything has to be paid for in cash. Our vacations are road trips and camping.
  • People make assumptions about you. Now this is something I see in the press more than I’ve heard, because people usually aren’t rude enough to come out and say the things they’re thinking. But I’ve seen the looks I get when I answer the question of “What does your husband do?” with “He stays at home with the kids.” People usually feel sorry for me, I think, or it’s such an unusual situation they don’t know how to deal with it. It doesn’t fit their mental model of a married couple with kids. I bet people think that I must secretly want to stay at home with my kids all the time, or that I must be jealous of stay at home or work at home moms. Guess what? I’m not jealous and I don’t want to stay at home. I’ve been working in corporate America for almost 20 years now, always in Fortune 150 companies. If I left work for a different option, it would be to start my own business, which I likely would not be running out of my house. I’m one of those women who’s just not cut out to be a SAHM. Sure, I love spending vacations at home with the kids, and I do sometimes wish I had more flexibility at work, but I’m not cut out to be a SAHM. I’m glad my husband is cut out to be a SAHD, though.
  • Articles and books about female breadwinners can really annoy you. When I read books and articles talking about female breadwinners, there’s usually an assumption that the work outside the home mom model is not ideal-or doesn’t exist. The women who are celebrated are the ones who’ve started their own business to be at home with their kids. Or the woman is a director or VP of a company, part of a two-earner couple and the press is all about the craziness of child care. Or they’re a high flying executive of a big company, and the article is about how her husband made sacrifices for her multi-million dollar per year career.
    • I don’t have a home-based business. I’m not part of a two-earner couple. And I’m not an executive by any stretch of the imagination-just an ordinary IT Project Manager for a big company.
    • Don’t get me wrong – whether you stay at home, work from home, are part of a two-earner couple, or are a single parent – I think it’s awesome! I’m all about families working out what works for them, in their situation, and forget about what society might tell you. But, to get back to that role model item, it can be hard when you don’t find any media matching your reality.

It can be a lonely and difficult road at times, going against the grain of what your parents and society have ingrained into you. But even though it can be stressful, I’m extremely grateful to the women who came before me who made this even possible. I know that back in my grandmothers time, women usually didn’t get an education. They didn’t work outside the home, except perhaps for pin money, and an arrangement like ours wouldn’t have been possible. So thanks to all those women who worked so hard over the years for equality, now families like mine can make a choice to have the woman work and the father stay at home. If I was born in the 1930’s, or even the 1950’s, it wouldn’t have been possible at all. So thank you, women who blazed the trail, for making this possible.

What have you noticed in the media about breadwinning moms? Have you even seen any? Let me know in the comments.

And if you’re a breadwinning mother reading this, know that you’re not alone. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished and of your career. I’m sure you’ve worked hard and sacrificed to get where you are. Please get in touch and share your story-I would love to write more about other moms like me.

If you haven’t already, be sure to swing by my new one-stop shop page for Breadwinning moms, featuring all my prior articles and interviews (plus some updates on prior interviewees!).

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24 thoughts on “Seven Trials and Tribulations of Being a Full Time Breadwinning Mom”

  1. Thank you for writing this article. It made me appreciate the things I need to be proud of as a working mom and how much I appreciate my husband. We are going against the grain and sometimes that is tough. The hardest part for me is the pressure of all the finances on me. I just read your article on paying the mortgage off early and decide that is the best path for us to follow as well. I love your articles and appreciate there is someone out there like me!

    1. Yes it’s tough sometimes, but we can do it! Let me know anytime if you have a question I can help with. I agree it’s nice to not feel like you’re alone-it can be hard sometimes when you don’t know other families like yours in real life.

  2. Very interesting article, Chief Mom! It’s always nice to hear the perspective of someone in a situation you don’t know much about. My hunch is that we, as a society, are moving in a direction where gender matters less and less. That’s what I hope, anyways.

    You don’t have to go too many decades back to find women working full time at all being considered unusual. These days it’s entirely normal, and it seems natural that the next step should be that who-the-heck cares who stays at home if the family decides to live on a single income.

    1. That’s exactly how I feel! It shouldn’t matter the gender-staying at home vs working is more personality, I think. As well as income potential. Hopefully as time goes on families will feel more free to make the decisions that work for them!

  3. You are doing a kick ass job Liz and you should be proud.

    We are a dual income family, but I share some of your daycare experiences. My husband does almost all our daycare pick ups and drop offs and so I don’t really know our daughters teachers that well. On the rare occasions when I do go in and I don’t know the little things (where to find her jacket for example), I always feel a little judged. Like I don’t know things that a mother is _supposed_ to know.

    And another thing:
    As I was reading your story I caught myself thinking “Wow! Look at her go! Supporting her whole family.” And then I thought “WTF! I would not think ‘wow’ about a man supporting his whole family.” So even though what I was thinking was positive, it was still inherently sexist.

    1. I feel that judgment sometimes when I’ve had to take my kids somewhere and they ask their height/weight and I have to say I don’t know. I don’t do doctor appointments-my husband does-so I’m not up on the latest. Nurses always look at me strangely for that. 😀

  4. I definitely think there’s a perception that is less than flattering with breadwinning moms. I’ve even heard people say that Tom Brady, the 5x Super Bowl Champion, doesn’t need to worry about money b/c his breadwinning wife outearns him anyway. I’m not sure if they are trying to compliment his wife, put down Tom Brady or a combination but I agree there is definitely something about breadwinning moms that society has a hard time wrapping it’s mind around.

    1. I think it’s so new, and still so uncommon, that society just doesn’t know how to deal with it. Most times women earn less than men, so a woman outearning her spouse is still rare. People do still see it as a negative thing for the man, rather than a positive for the woman.

  5. This can be weird from the dad side too! I think you said it best though, that you have to be solid in your process as a family unit and not care what society says or commands (my own paraphrasing LOL).

    I think where you are coming from is great though! There shouldn’t be a gender role that we have to attach ourselves to in the family experience. I think dads can do just as good of a job as moms at home with the kiddos and can leave a great imprint on the kids that’s going to last a lifetime.

    I feel ya since we are basically in the same situation (my wife is the breadwinner, although it was by choice, not medically). I think as we talk and reach out to more people, people will start to see the change and accept it!

    1. I sure hope so! I think we need to read and share more stories about ordinary families living this way. As I mentioned in the article, most of the stories I’ve read seem to be about very high up executives or business owners-not ordinary families. It’s good to get to virtually know other families in the same situation!

  6. Although Mrs. Need2Save and I both work, I have no problem with her making more money than I do. Most years it’s pretty close, but some years she gets an incredible bonus. And this if after she stopped working for around 6 to 7 years after having our two sons.

    I’m sure there are always going to be guys who have a problem with their significant others making more money than them. As Lars suggested, hopefully we are moving in a direction where the majority of men don’t care about who the breadwinner is.

      1. The Mrs. here. I just wanted to comment that I actually did have a rather unusual role model early on in my own life. My mother adopted a baby in her 50’s and my step-father stayed home with him for many years to avoid the cost of day care while she worked as a paralegal. They were often confused for being the grandparents of my step-brother but I know that HE (not SHE) was primarily the one that went into the school to volunteer and took care of the doctor’s appointments, etc. This was about 20 years ago. Dads just didn’t do this kind of thing then, but I do think times are evolving for the better.

        There will always be some though that think the man should be the ‘provider’. I hate that word. We are a team. We work with the resources bestowed upon both of us as a team.

      2. That’s great to hear that you had a role model in your life! I’ve found that lack of role models is one of the more difficult things, which is why I listed it first. I hope over time there are more role models so every family can feel free to decide what kind of model works for them-without feeling like they’re alone or strange

  7. I have been the breadwinner for several years now. We have three children as well. When we had my last son, people were wondering who would watch him. I said my husband-he watched both of our other children from 3+months on. It really freaks out the older generation. We live in a conservative/Christian area, so it has been interesting. My husband has had people come up to him in the grocery store and basically thank/applaud him for babysitting the kids and taking them to the store by himself-ha! My husband has noticed that there are many more men in the grocery store and around town with the kids in the past several years. I think it is becoming much more common (at least here).

    1. That’s great you’re seeing more! I know my husband still mostly meets SAHM’s or grandparents when he takes the little one out for the day. In a lot of ways it still seems just like it was when our oldest was little (10-12 years ago).

  8. Totally agree about the “reverse sexism.” I remember when my daughter went to kindergarten and got off the bus the first day. The teacher had her write a poem “to Mom” and was told to give me a hug since this day was so hard for me. It was my husband who was experiencing the major change as I am usually at work until 3:00.

  9. On your comments on financial sacrifice, I can almost guarantee that many of your two-income coworkers aren’t maxing out their 401k’s or even paying for their lifestyle without taking on lots of debt. When you factor in childcare (a big one), paying for all of the mileage and gas on two cars, buying lots of expensive clothes for work, paying extra taxes (remember there are no taxes on saving, only income), and buying ready-to-eat and restaurant meals because your both too busy and tired to cook, many people find that you have more free cash flow with one working spouse and one spouse taking care of the children and household than two income families. I’ll bet your two-income friends who are taking vacations and eating out all of the time will cash out their 401k’s to pay off their credit cards every few years, and be paying off their mortgages and home equity loans well into their 80’s.

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