Being the breadwinner has shown me the benefits of invisible, unpaid work

  • As a parent with the more flexible career, I’ve always expected to take on more childcare and home care.
  • When my husband unexpectedly became a stay-at-home father, our family thrived.
  • As I got used to having a housewife husband, I realized how deep patriarchy was penetrating.
  • This article is part of Women of Means, a series about women taking charge of their finances.

I opened my office door after a morning at home office and stepped into a living room that had been transformed.

Toys and scraps of paper from the crafts my kids had made that morning were gone. The breakfast dishes—usually sitting on the counter waiting for me to frantically rinse off on my lunch break—were cleared away. My husband was looking for a dinner recipe and told me about the errands he would be running before picking up our younger daughter from preschool.

“Are you secure Don’t you want to quit your job?” I asked him, not entirely joking.

My husband was a househusband for three years. Scenes like this were normal. We reveled in the domestic bliss that can result when a partner has time to devote to the endless chores that come with a house, kids, and pets. Over time I started to take it for granted.

But when my husband went back to work, I realized how much easier his job made my life – and how valuable our patriarchal division of labor is to those who benefit from it.

I never expected to have a stay at home partner

I never intended to be the breadwinner. But when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband unexpectedly lost his job. We couldn’t handle the stress of a last trimester job hunt so we decided he would stay at home while I would continue to work from home in my freelance writing business.

The impact on my life was immediate. My husband was always there as best he could with a demanding job and long night shifts. Now that it was his job to be a father and partner, we were all fine. I felt mentally and emotionally healthier, even during the tough postpartum period. My daughters were just as likely to ask dad to kiss a boo-boo or answer a question as they were to bother me. Having a stay-at-home parent gave our family time and flexibility, which for us was worth the financial hit of having one less income.

Still, I knew the situation wouldn’t be forever. My husband didn’t choose to be a stay-at-home father; it was only by circumstance. I knew that sooner or later he would want a more traditional occupation, and I understood firsthand how a job away from the kids could be an important outlet and satisfaction. In the fall he began working outside the home again.

Same dynamics, different details

When I was the sole breadwinner for my home, I liked that we were going against societal norms about men, women, and their roles in the family. After all, only 41% of mothers surveyed in the US Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey were the primary income earners in their families (and that number has declined due to the pandemic). Stay-at-home fathers were even rarer, occurring in less than 4% of two-parent households in 2021, according to an analysis of data from the Pew Research Center.

The thing is, our home was still anchored in the very patriarchal system I was trying to break from. We depended on invisible, unpaid labor to survive. This kind of work makes all other work possible – it keeps the capitalist machine running. But even for someone who has had that role, it’s frighteningly easy to forget the value of that work.

Our society does not give parents enough support, which often pushes people out of the workforce. Most of the time this happens to mothers, but my husband faced the same problem: The high cost of affordable childcare and low wages, especially for those without a four-year degree, made it unrealistic for him to seek employment outside the home.

Even more alarmingly, I realized how convenient the system is for the people who benefit from it. My career blossomed with my husband taking on most of the child and household chores, and my bottom line doubled over three years. My days were more free knowing that someone else was doing the laundry and if there were snacks for school lunches. I would have gladly kept our family’s earning potential lower in exchange for the convenience of being a househusband.

search for solutions

These days my husband works about 60 hours a week away from home. I still earn more than he does, but due to the flexibility of my work, I’m again taking on the burden of child and household chores. Also, we spend a significant portion of his earnings on extra childcare for our little one, who is not yet old enough for public school. But he enjoys working outside the home and earning a paycheck, and there’s a fulfillment in paid work that can’t be overlooked.

The past year has opened my eyes. Even in a very just marriage, I’ve noticed how we fall into patriarchal systems and unequal divisions of labor, whether that’s on me or my husband. Even when we think we’re breaking away from societal expectations, the lack of infrastructure for families under new guises can throw us back into the same old patterns. I realized how comforting it is to be the person who benefits from these systems and why some people fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

There is no easy solution to all of this, and I’m not going to pretend to have one. Like most families, we look for the best answer at every stage of our lives. This year we found a unique one. My husband’s position is seasonal, so in the spring I will again have a partner who will stay at home, at least for a few months. And let me tell you: I can’t wait.

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