breadwinners | Working Mother

Who Are the Breadwinning Moms?

More and more women make more than their spouses. The trend, the consequences and how primary-earner moms feel about it all.

Group of women

More than 70 percent of both men and women, all breadwinners, say they believe society is still more comfortable with men as the primary earners.

Photo: iStock

More than a quarter of all partnered working mothers outearn their spouse. In our new survey, these money moms reveal how this modern financial reality meshes with their expectations of career, marriage and motherhood.

“For the first half of our marriage, he outearned me,” says Amy Leslie, director of marketing and business development at Olympus America. Her husband, Brandon, works as a network administrator. “But I rose quickly at my company, caught up and surpassed him.” These days, the New Tripoli, PA, mom of 3-year-old Bryce is the primary breadwinner in her family—and that’s just fine with Brandon. “He’s more laid-back,” says Amy. “He teases me that he’ll be a stay-at-home dad someday.”

Amy’s role in her family’s finances exemplifies the new reality for increasing numbers of American families. According to a 2013 report from the Pew research center, in 40 percent of U.S. households with kids, women are now the primary breadwinner (almost two-thirds of them are single moms). When the study was first released, the focus on “breadwinning moms”—as they’ve long been nicknamed by the media—whipped up a frenzy of questions about everything from women’s ambition and how we build our careers to the way we nurture our kids and our partners. But no one asked these moms how they felt about being in the bread-winner role, or even how they got there—until now.

The Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI), with support from sponsor PwC, surveyed 2,000 working moms and dads about the impact that their earnings have on their families, careers, relationships and selves and found that women’s and men’s views on all four are often quite different—especially depending on the role they play in their family finances. For instance, breadwinning moms say they’re less satisfied than breadwinning dads with many aspects of home life, including (surprise, surprise) the way tasks are divided between partners. But before you nod knowingly, note this interesting fact: Moms who_ planned_ to become the breadwinner, with their partners’ input, report more satisfaction with their home lives than any other group we surveyed.

“The study provides important insights into the role choice plays in driving satisfaction,” says Jennifer Allyn, managing director for diversity strategy at PwC. “And yet social expectations continue to get in the way.”

More than 70 percent of both men and women, all breadwinners, say they believe society is still more comfortable with men as the primary earners, even post-recession, when good-paying, stable jobs remain scarce.

“I moved us here to Grand Rapids eight years ago for my career,” says Michelle Y. Stevenson, an independent marketing consultant and mom of 7-year-old Lia. “My husband, Todd, is a firefighter—he loves it. But I do make more. He sometimes gets teased by his co-workers about being married to someone who earns more than he does. But he doesn’t let that sort of thing get to him.”

Chance or Choice
Many breadwinner moms aren’t paying too much attention to that old way of thinking either—who has the time? Instead, they’re pioneering new ways to excel at work and at home on the fly.

“My husband and I never had a conversation about who’d be the breadwinner,” says Amy Leslie, who fell into her role by chance, like the majority (72 percent) of breadwinning women in our study. By contrast, 59 percent of breadwinning dads say their status was planned: they discussed it with their partners, deciding the man’s career should take precedence. Of the 29 percent of bread-winning moms who made a conscious decision with their partners to be the main earner in the family, the majority reported reasoning that they were more ambitious than their husbands, more dedicated to their careers or more likely to be promoted.

“Yes, I’m more ambitious. And I have more opportunities, too,” says Alison Carbone, associate director of category management for snack company Mondelēz International and mom of Nicholas, 7, and Gabriella, 2. Her husband, Paul, a police officer in northern New Jersey, is key to her success, however: “He’s very supportive of my career. If I have to work late or travel, we figure it out.”

Still, Alison says she and her husband view their careers in different lights. “Sometimes, after a long day, Paul will say, ‘Hey, only 12 more years till I can retire!’ But our kids will be in college then. And I work in the private sector, where nothing is secure. What if something happens to my job? I didn’t feel the pressure so much before I had children, but with two of them, it’s always there.”

Indeed, breadwinner moms report feeling added stress—something many working dads and single working moms know all too well. “The biggest hurdle is that it’s up to me to feed the family—always,” says Michelle. “That’s a lot of pressure and responsibility.” It doesn’t help, either, that 22 percent of the breadwinning moms surveyed feel that their partners should be making a bigger contribution to the family financially.

But what helps all bread-winners get the job done? Flexibility, a good boss and a job that doesn’t eat up too much time at home. “I work for a great boss,” says Bethany Rusch, assistant dean of administration and finance at University of Wisconsin–Fond du Lac. “My phone isn’t constantly ringing when I’m home; I’m not answering emails at 10 at night,” says the mom of Ava, 9, and Miles, 7.

Second Shift
Here’s the rub, though: Breadwinning moms don’t find their earning power buying them much more help at home—at least, not from their partners. They are far less satisfied than breadwinning dads in almost every area of home life, from how much time their spouse spends taking care of the kids (71 percent of moms are satisfied versus 85 percent of dads) to how much housework their partners do. “I was pretty much doing it all, plus working full-time and getting my master’s,” recalls Bethany. “And my husband, Barry, was trying to launch a business. So I made a list of all the things it takes to run our home and told Barry to pick two. He took over grocery shopping and cooking on the weekends.”

“The division of labor at home has not shifted to compensate for women working more,” notes economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, PhD, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York City. “In addition, there’s a huge disparity between what men think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing. More than half of working dads believe they’re splitting the load with their wives—but their wives say they’re doing less than a third of the work.”

“It’s definitely not even-steven,” Amy agrees. “My husband does yard work, cat litter and garbage. Housework isn’t even on the table. I’m in charge of that, along with anything to do with our son.”

Simply put, a big job doesn’t help women negotiate the new dual roles of breadwinner and mom. “You suddenly have to become twice the person you were,” says Jessica Ripley, assistant building manager for the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, whose husband, Alan, stays home to take care of 18-month-old Madeleine. “I thought it’d be harder for Maddie. I had visions of her crying as I left for work. But it hasn’t happened. That’s made it a bit tougher for me. I wanted a traditional home, but it’s upside down.”

You also have to be a bit more hands-off when it comes to housework, say breadwinning moms. Mary Hilliard Moran, a business underwriting manager at BB&T in Winston-Salem, NC, and mom of Edward, 5, Gloria, 2, and a baby on the way (at press time), admits to having to work on letting go now that her chef husband, Peter, has become a stay-at- home dad. “He’s just better at it—very patient and creative, and he knows what makes each kid tick. Plus he’s a great cook,” she says. “But I had to stop trying to make him do things my way. So if I see a big pile of towels and they’re folded wrong, I just tell myself, ‘You know what? They’re folded.’”

Men, too, are struggling with changing family roles—especially newly minted stay-at-home dads. Nicole White, a pediatric nurse practitioner, moved with husband Michael and son Logan, 3, to Great Falls, MT, last year to advance her career. She’s just had her second child, daughter Reagan, but putting two little kids in day care didn’t make sense for the family, either financially or emotionally. “Michael’s an ‘accidental house husband,’” explains Nicole. “He’s an ex-marine and a security guard. But once we made the decision that he’d stay home with the kids, he dove right in. It hasn’t been easy, though. when he asked our neighbors if Logan could have a playdate with their son, the dad said no. The whole thing made him uncomfortable.”

Adds Jessica: “My husband’s a rock-star dad, but he knows he’s not the norm. Where are the playgroups for kids with at-home dads? And where are the changing tables at restaurants? They’re not in the men’s room.”

Supporting Role
The roles men and women play as provider, parent and partner are shifting ever so slowly, but some essential beliefs still hold firm no matter who’s earning the bigger paycheck.

“Young women are just as ambitious as young men,” says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the New York City–based Families and Work institute. “But about two thirds still take on greater responsibility at home. Although they’re significant economic providers they still put as much time into family life as mothers did three decades ago because that’s centrally important to them.”

Melissa Gonville and her West Chester, PA–based family are leading the way to shift that perception. A senior marketing director at JPMorgan Chase and mom of daughter Kamryn, 15, and son Keagan, 12, she makes more than husband greg, who’s launching a franchise business. Melissa sees the advantages, for the whole family. “Greg gets to spend more time with the kids, and I can do my job because I’ve got his support,” she says. “Kamryn understands she can someday do anything she wants. And Keagan sees that he has the future option to stay at home with his kids.”

Melissa is proud of what she has achieved in her career—especially building her skills as a manager and mentor to the next generation of women breadwinners. “I led the rollout of a self-guided program to help women at my company find mentors,” she shares. “I’m also on the board of YWCA Delaware and just stepped down as president. And being a role model in my career for my daughter—I’m very proud of that.”

Still, she admits to taking an “ego hit” from time to time, but her husband helps her puts things in perspective. “When I don’t get to chaperone the field trip and I’m unhappy about that, or the kids are, Greg reminds us that I’m already doing a lot, and that there’s value to everything we do. I’m supporting my family—that’s really important. And our kids get to see that this is the way families work now.”


More Stories