woman with fanned out dollar bills

Credit: Tax Credits on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

(WOMENSENEWS)– As a sole-breadwinning, married mother, I belong to a small but growing group. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports just 8 percent of American families rely exclusively on a woman’s salary.

But as the primary breadwinner, I have more company. Close to 40 percent of U.S. working wives now outearn their husbands, with Bureau of Labor Statistics data revealing that in married-couple families where both the husband and wife receive a paycheck, 28.1 percent of the wives earn more than their husbands. And even though the mainstream media might lead you to believe all women are real housewives and that mothers in a modern family are omnipresent in their children’s lives, the majority of mothers work outside the home.

So I’ve actually got plenty of company when you include me with the women who contribute some of the family income and are therefore at least partial breadwinners. Based on the same Bureau of Labor Statistics data, mothers are employed in 65.4 percent of married-couple families, contributing at least some of the family income.

It makes sense. Women have the means: we’ve been outnumbering men on college campuses for years and outpacing them when it comes to graduate degrees. We have the desire. A study from the Center for Work-Life Policy showed that at the start of their careers, 47 percent of young women claim to be “very ambitious.” And we have the need. Women’s participation in the labor force increased just over a percentage point since the start of the recession.

Today’s women are working for much more than power and fulfillment. They’re paying the mortgage, the grocery bills and the medical benefits. And if the rise in female breadwinners continues at the same pace it has in recent years, it’s likely that in just a few years more families will be supported by women than by men.

Media, Research Attention

In recent years, there’s been a slew of articles and research dedicated to the female breadwinner. We’ve been treated almost like mythical beings to be studied and figured out–you’d think we’d be better understood, as there are more than 23 million working mothers in this country. A Wall Street Journal article from July 2012 referred to the dynamic between female breadwinners and their spouses as the alpha woman versus beta male. Elle magazine, a few months earlier, was even more colorful, talking about how female “hunters” felt about “the stay-at-home schlub.” And last year, New York magazine ran a feature story, a cautionary tale, about how breadwinning wives’ “new financial muscle is causing havoc in the home.” According to author Ralph Gardner Jr., shell-shocked husbands feel emasculated by their alpha wives.

I interviewed working women all over the country, at many different stages in their careers, in many different industries–not one of them mentioned a shell-shocked schlub– and what I found is that their feelings about working and family are incredibly layered.

One night, over a few glasses of wine in the living room of a neighbor who is a research consultant, I spoke with six women, five of them the majority breadwinners for their families. These women were tired and busy, certainly, but they were comfortable in their own skin, were accepting of their roles and expressed no mothering guilt– another common working-women narrative in the mainstream media.

The Only Concern

The only niggling concern several of them shared was their lack of freedom to pursue different career choices, mission-based work, as they described it, that might feed their souls more but pay them less than what they were currently earning. But all of them felt it was their own choices that had landed them in the breadwinner role, and I sensed no resentment.

One woman, a doctor who owns a private practice, even hinted at the frequency of sex she and her husband, a teacher, have. A recent intimate moment had taken place after her husband cleaned the dirty dinner pans that were her assigned responsibility one night.

The doctor better fits the description of the female breadwinner in Liza Mundy’s book, “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family,” than she does the one in Gardner’s article. Mundy paints a much brighter future for breadwinning women and their spouses. She writes that ultimately women will have “the bargaining power they need to usher in a new age of fairness, complete the revolution, push us past the unhappy days of the so-called second shift, when so many men and women were mired in arguments over equity that always seemed to boil down to laundry and dishes.” Hopefully, she’s right. But first, some changes need to be made.

The reality of working women lies somewhere between Gardner and Mundy. There is no one standard profile of a female breadwinner; the lives of modern working women are complex and their path to becoming the breadwinner is rarely as they’d planned; in fact, it’s highly likely it was never planned at all.

Excerpted with permission from “Mogul, Mom, and Maid: The Balancing Art of the Modern Woman” by (Bibliomotion, ).

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