What It’s Like to be Wife, Mom and Primary Breadwinner

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According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family. That’s a record number, which has quadrupled since 1960. And it’s especially interesting because women are still the primary caregivers in their family as well. We talked to two moms who are the primary breadwinners in their families to find out how they juggle all their demands.

Lauren G., 31, is a school nurse at a high school in Rochester, New York, and mom to a 2 1/2-year-old son. Her husband, who used to drive trucks, has been a stay-at-home-dad since their son was born. Along with her full-time job, she also works at least two shifts a month at a local hospital, picking up extra shifts there during her two months off from the school in the summer.

How we made the decision for him to stay at home: “I’ve always made more money than my husband. After paying for daycare, he wouldn’t be bringing home much, so we decided he would stay home with our son. And I love my job. It’s the job I always wanted. It’s a very competitive field with great benefits, so I didn’t want to lose my position. There aren’t a lot of openings, so the odds are slim that it would come back up if I left for a few years.”

On their division of labor at home: “Our roles are reversed. He cooks a lot, more than me. And while he thinks I don’t clean up enough, he ‘man cleans’—it looks better, but he doesn’t organize anything or deep clean. In the evenings, he plays video games. I say, ‘I have to do your job all evening.’ He does one job, and then gets a break. I never get a break. I’m still the primary parent. I take our son to his doctor’s appointments, sign him up for preschool and do all the other stuff. But I’m lucky I get to see my son more than other working moms. I’m usually home by 3, and he wakes up at 9, so there are only six hours a day that I’m not with him.”

On what’s been easier: “It was an easy transition for me to go back to work, not having to do the whole daycare thing. In the mornings, I just get up and go to work. Nothing changed in my morning routine. And if the baby is sick, I don’t have to worry about who will stay home with him.”

On taking time for herself: “It’s really hard. If I take time for myself, something else suffers. By the time I have time to workout, it’s 9:30 and I don’t want to work out. My time is lying in bed!”

On her son and husband’s relationship: “They have a special bond. That’s one of the things I like the most. They are so close, and my husband is so good with our son. It’s special to see.”

On what others say: “People definitely make comments; they think he is lazy. They ask the is he going to get a job—I know no one would say that to a stay-at-home mom. It’s interesting to see the difference. But he doesn’t worry about what others think at all.”

On the hardest thing: “Relating to other moms can be difficult. Being the breadwinner is definitely a different role, especially in comparison to moms who don’t work outside the home. When they are complaining about their husbands not helping out enough at home, I relate to their husband’s side. I find myself seeking out friends who are in the same role as me. My best friend is also the breadwinner for her family, so that has strengthened our friendship.”

Anonymous, 29, is a manager of network operations at a communications company in Tennessee. She has a son, who turns 3 next month. While her husband was a stay-at-home dad for almost two years, he took a job working nights a little over a year ago, so their son is currently in daycare. She works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is on call 24/7, while her husband works 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. five days a week.

Why they put their son in daycare: “My husband wasn’t a good stay-at-home dad. There was no learning and a lot of screen time. He’s not the type of person to read books and teach colors and numbers. My little boy has great tech skills and hand-eye coordination, but I wanted him to learn all the other stuff, too.”

On their division of labor: “I still cover most of the parenting. I’m a very hands-on, type-A person. My husband was the ‘house-dad’—he kept the house clean but didn’t cook much. I hate cleaning, but I enjoy cooking. And all the bills and finances were done by me. I couldn’t not control that. Even now, while my husband can do the daycare pickups, I prefer to do it. I like to separate my days from work to home by picking up my son. If I don’t get to pick him up, by the time I get home, he is already playing and involved in stuff at home. I don’t get the ‘you-are-my-world’ smiles and hugs that he gives me when I pick him up from daycare.”

On the stress: “It was a little stressful when my husband stayed at home, because if something happened with my job we were in trouble. But I feel very secure where I work. Even now, his income is a quarter of mine, so that is still a little disconcerting.”

On relating to other moms: “I know a lot of other moms, and all but two are stay-at-home moms. I get resentful when they complain. While I know I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom, I wish I could stay home once in a while. And with working moms, we can’t connect. There’s no time to see each other.”

On others making comments: “No one says anything about me being the breadwinner. Our families are supportive. I’ve always been the breadwinner, before and after baby. The most comments are from the stay-at-home moms, like I get to walk away from my kid each day. It’s hard for me, but I see their point. I get to be with adults, but I miss all my son’s hurdles and achievements.”

On taking time for herself: “I don’t. I need to work on that. My husband encourages me to take time for myself. But I work in a male-dominated industry, and I don’t go out by myself. I’m not the type of person to get a manicure by herself. And we don’t have date nights. My husband and I haven’t had an actual date since son was born. Our family is one to three hours away. Every now and then, we find time to have a lunch date.”

On her husband and son’s relationship: “They are really, really tight. Every now and then, my son will say ‘I love Daddy’ when I ask if he loves me. They have quirks that I can’t explain, and my husband understands some things about our son that I don’t understand.”

On the hardest thing: “I don’t spend enough time with my son. Someday, I hope to find a job that allows that. I just feel like there is very little time. We get home at 6, and he does to bed at 8. And we have to get up at 6 and get on the road, so the only time we get together is the weekends. I resent that, and it can affect my job performance.”

On having another child: “We had several miscarriages and complications, so my husband is afraid to try again, though he has mentioned adopting in the future. If we do adopt, it will be after our son is in school.”