The challenges of earning more than your man

Shia Levitt Apr 6, 2012

Tess Vigeland: There was a day when the number of women who out-earned their partner was so small, the census didn’t even track it. All of 25 years ago.

Today, 50 million households are headed by women. Reporter Shia Levitt looked at what being the breadwinner means for two women, their relationships and family.

Shia Levitt: When Rebecca Koladycz and Lance Brown met, the two earned similar incomes. But Rebecca scored a promotion… and another. Now she’s a senior staffer for International Planned Parenthood.

As the main earner in her home. Rebecca didn’t want to be bound by old gender norms. In her parents’ generation, being a father and husband was all about providing for the family financially. Rebecca says she fell for Lance in part for how well he provides for her in ways that matter more.

Rebecca Koladycz: What I really want in a partner is somebody who can be there for me in the ways that he has been there and who can participate in the things that matter to me and the things that are important.

They decided jointly for Lance to go back to school and pursue teaching. This way, he could also join all Rebecca’s prenatal visits, and be a stay-at-home dad for a few months. Rebecca’s work is flexible, so she hasn’t had to sacrifice that much as a mom. She still finds time to breastfeed her two-year-old and make applesauce popsicles from scratch.

Sasha: Momma, I take a bite.

Rebecca: You take a bite, what are you taking a bite of?

Rebecca and Lance are registered as domestic partners. They’ve been together for almost eight years, but they still keep separate bank accounts. Much of Lance’s income had been on hold during school, so finances have been tricky.

Rebecca: I’m sensitive to him being sensitive to it, because I know that in past relationships, he was the person who provided for the woman in the relationship. And I know it’s stressful for him to ask me for money.

Overall, the arrangement is positive, Lance says. But…

Lance Brown: My sense of frustration was unnecessary delay. I want to contribute. I’m ready to work, I can work. But I have to wait.

The degree took much longer then he hoped. That’s been the biggest stress.

Rebecca: Yeah, but you hate having to ask me for money.

Lance: Yeah, that’s part of it too, in the sense that no one wants to feel like they’re burdening, being a burden or something like that. You want to just be able to go do something. You don’t want to have to say, “I need $20, so I can go do this” or “I need money so I can get on the train,” you know.

Lance is teaching now and hopes to go full-time soon. But Rebecca will still earn more than twice his starting teacher’s salary.

Lance: Rebecca makes more, she’s the breadwinner. That’s the reality and everything, but that’s not our focus.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, we didn’t set out for it to be that way, it just is that way, and it’s not a big deal. There are times when it maybe creates a little stress, but I think that’s because money creates stress for everybody and every couple at some point.

As more women out-earn their partners, American family structures and some long-held gender roles are in the midst of dramatic change. Demographer Peter Francese says single women account for part of the rise in woman-headed households, but women are primary breadwinners in nearly a third of married couples, too. Just how fast are things changing?

Peter Francese: If the trends continue, there’s no doubt in my mind that by the 2020 census, and perhaps beforehand, we will see the majority of households in America be headed by women.

One reality for some of these women is career taking some time away from the family.

Ruby Grynberg: Did you put everything away?

Boy: I did it.

Ruby: You did it? Mateo, did you help?

Boy: No he didn’t did anything…

Mom Ruby Grynberg in Seattle is getting her four boys ready for dinner as dad Sebastian finishes cooking.

Ruby: Come help set the table.

Ruby started her own mortgage business several years ago. As the company grew, the Grynbergs fell into pretty clear roles. She earns the money and he does the rest. Sebastian gets all four boys up and out each morning and takes care of all the meals and groceries. He was a stay-at-home dad full-time for a few years, and still manages the home — something his family’s had trouble accepting.

Sebastian: Sometimes, they ask me how Ruby’s gonna get mad with you, she’s gonna leave you, because you need to bring money! It’s hard for them to understand that it’s working for us.

Ruby’s proud of the mortgage company she created, but her career meant she missed out on some things. She remembers when her third son Mateo was a few months into his first year of school. Sebastian called.

Sebastian: He said, “Can you pick up Mateo up from preschool today?” And I had to Google it. I didn’t know where his preschool was. I was stunned. It was like this twilight zone of “how did this happen? How do I not know my own son’s preschool?”

Ruby was always career-driven, and never considered being a stay-at-home mom. She says the roles they’ve chosen have worked for the greater good. But as her kids grow, so does the appeal of swapping duties with her husband.

Ruby: With each kid I thought, we’ll probably have another one. I’ll stay home with that one. And then now that it’s the last one, it’s like, “Oh wow. It’s not gonna happen is it?” I’m gonna miss those first steps, that first day of preschool, and I’m gonna miss all those…

Ruby cries

For primary earners like Ruby, there’s no easy way to switch places with a partner who’s been out of the workforce for awhile. When was Sebastian supposed to build a career, she asks, in between naps or diaper changes? Despite sometimes feeling trapped in their roles, she says the arrangement works well in the big picture. So Ruby continues to shift her schedule in the ways she can.

Ruby: How are you doing on your homework?

Ruby’s now trying new hours at the office, starting earlier to make more family time in the evening. So far, it’s working.

In Brooklyn, I’m Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

Vigeland: There is oh so much more to this subject and we’re going to dig into it a little more next week with Liza Mundy. She’s the author of the new book “The Richer Sex.”

Liza Mundy: We know that women now — under-30 and who are single — in most American cities make more than their male peer group. And they’re really trying to figure out how to present themselves on the dating market. And sometimes they will minimize their earnings and adopt all these little strategies to sort of hide their affluence. And some women will lie about what they do. I mean, if they’re a lawyer, say that they’re a music teacher or a cosmetologist.

Aw yeah — much more on that in a week.

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