The Unsettling Side Effect Of Marrying Down

I will likely always out-earn my partner

When I tell someone I don’t know well that I’m engaged, the first question they ask is, “What’s his name?” and then inevitably, “What does he do?” When I answer that he works in the warehouse of a big-box electronics store, they usually ask, “Oh, is he in school?” My doctor, my professors, that chick who sat next to me in the class I can’t remember—none of them seem satisfied to hear that he works in a job that is neither meaningful nor pays well.

My Mother, The Accidental Breadwinner

I grew up in a household where my mother was the breadwinner. My father is a self-employed contractor who often found himself sitting around at home when business was slow (and in the nineties, business was slow a lot). My mother never aimed to be the breadwinner of the family. She was raised in poverty in a very traditional household, but she is wickedly smart and made it through a very competitive university program, and she has always out-earned my father. They married at a time when construction was profitable and my father was considered a highly skilled labor.

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As the economy changed, my father’s high school degree (which he admits he would not have without gym and shop credits) meant less and less. And my mother has often expressed her regret and dismay that she married my father and became the de facto breadwinner. My mother was a member of a generation of women trapped between traditional gender roles and a changing economy, and while she continued to take on most household and child-rearing responsibilities, she also took on the role of breadwinner.

As I grew older my mother counseled me to find a partner with a good education and a strong work ethic. She warned me of the pain she experienced when leaving an infant at daycare for long hours because she needed to earn enough to support a family. She encouraged me to pursue my own education, but also not to settle for a partner who didn’t earn enough so I could stay home while my children were young.

Me, The Intentional Breadwinner

When I first met my partner, he was taking a college program in technology, which pleased my mother enough for her to approve of my dating him. We met at the electronics store we both worked at part-time while we were in school. Five years later, he still works there, now full-time. He never finished his college program and has no interest in the field. He works hard and puts in overtime hours every week to support our family while I work my way through graduate school. I love him immensely, and I am deeply grateful for the mind-numbing work he does to earn enough for us to pay vet bills and buy groceries.

My fiancé could be resentful that I have only ever worked part-time, but he is not. Instead he supports me as I work through my very demanding program, and we split the chores fifty-fifty so I can concentrate on my schoolwork. During exam periods, he pretty much takes on a hundred percent of the domestic drudgery. He is unfailingly kind and generous to me, my family, and those around him. He loves and cares for our dog. One day, he will make an amazing father.

I am marrying him because of all these things. And I am marrying him knowing that after I graduate, I will significantly out-earn him. He and I have both recognized that I will likely always be the breadwinner, and we’re okay with that. My work is meaningful, it pays well, and I would do it whether or not I needed the money. Other people, however, are not okay with this setup. You can see it in the questions they ask about my fiancé.

Women Are supposed to Marry Up

Women are “supposed to” marry up. A woman with multiple degrees marries someone with the same or more education, not less. She marries someone whose work is as or more important than hers, not less. Even if she earns more, it’s because he works in a low-paid but meaningful job. People are deeply unsettled to see a woman with so much potential “marrying down.”

Here is the problem. While we are part of a generation that has seen the economic prospects of women rise significantly, while we are part of a generation in which women are considered more equal to men than ever before, where womanhood is defined in more ways than ever before, my fiancé is still only defined by one thing: his job. No one assigns any value to his other contributions—his relationships, his marriage, his family—because effort in those areas by men is not validated. Stay-at-home dads are asked if they are “in transition.” No one asks a man at a dinner party how his kids are doing in school. They ask, “So what do you do?” People are not okay with a man not having career ambitions, with a man not climbing the ladder. They ask if he’s planning on going back to school. They offer to set him up with an internship. They give him the card of someone they know.

After years of my mother’s voice warning me not to marry someone with stagnant economic opportunities, I too have asked my fiancé what he really wants to do with his life, what career would satisfy him. Because in my mind, no one really wants to work in a warehouse. He told me that he works to earn money. There isn’t really any job that would fulfill him, because the things that fulfill him are at home, not at work. He works so he can be with me, so he can contribute to our family, so he can pay the vet bills. And really, that should be okay. The man I love doesn’t define himself by his career; he defines himself by his relationships with those around them. That’s downright admirable.

Who is anyone to say that he must define himself in a certain way?

The Future Is Female Us Together

I am not making a mistake by marrying a man who earns less than me. I am not making a mistake by marrying a man who isn’t as educated as I am. We are the product of a changed economy and a shift in gender roles. I am not trapped between the two as my mother was. My fiancé and I have never subscribed to traditional definitions of gender. The economy we entered had already changed. I am not the breadwinner by default, but by choice. We are choosing our own roles within our family and crafting our own identities.

Take my hand, baby. We’ll make it, I swear.

This post originally ran on APW in January 2014.

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