On Marrying Down

We’ll make it, I swear

On Marrying Down | APW (1)

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 J works in the warehouse of a big box electronic store, they usually ask “Oh, is he in school?” My doctor, my professors, that chick that 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.

I grew up in a household where the 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 has always out-earned my father. They married at a time when construction was profitable and my father was considered highly skilled labour. As the economy changed into what we have today, my father’s high school degree (which he admits he would not have without gym and shop credits) meant less and less. She has often expressed her regret and dismay that she had married my father and become the de-facto breadwinner. My mother was an unfortunate member of a generation of women trapped between traditional gender roles and a changing economy. While she continued to take on most household and child rearing responsibilities, she also took on the role of breadwinner. They were a generation Livin’ on a Prayer, where Tommy’s skilled labour job had tanked so Gina worked the diner all day.

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 of leaving your infant at daycare for the long hours 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 that I could stay home while my children were young.

When I first met J 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 J 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 baby 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 where he earns enough for us to pay vet bills and buy groceries. He 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 that I can concentrate on my schoolwork. During exam period, he pretty much takes 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 of 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 are not okay with this setup. You can see it in the questions they ask about my fiancé. Because 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 J 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 that he can be with me, so that he can contribute to our baby 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? Was this not a goal of feminism, to break down gender roles and allow for different identities?

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. J 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. Our story is not that of the perpetually single career woman unwilling to ‘settle for less’ nor of the young single mother with a deadbeat baby daddy. The media likes to put these forward as the future of families. But these are not the only options for Millennials. We are choosing our own roles within our baby family and crafting our own identities. Take my hand baby, we’ll make it I swear.

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  • Granola

    I’m so excited to read this today. I’m also the more career-orinted partner and I’ve struggled with the idea of “marrying down” in some ways. It’s hard for me not to judge my husband according to those social standards of how men are “supposed” to think about work. But the truth is that if he was as ambitious as I am it would probably produce a lot of strain navigating it. I just don’t know how to let go of my preconceptions about what I should want as a woman and make space for both of us to just be who we are.

    • Price of Tea

      Exactly! Every once in a while I get annoyed that my husband isn’t at all career driven, but we probably wouldn’t work as a couple if he were. The fact that he finds fulfillment through his life at home means that I have the freedom to pursue whatever academic and career opportunities I want, knowing that he will be supporting me.

      • Laura C

        The thing is, in this country with our parental leave and vacation policies being what they are, it’s pretty close to being the case that there’s only room for one very high-powered career in a relationship, at least if you’re interested in having kids. Work being structured that way is absolutely one of the things that crowds women off of the career track, and while the best way to fix it would be for the US to have some Europe-style leave policies and less intense work schedules more generally, the next best thing is probably a cultural shift that makes it ok for men to be more home-oriented. And that is a slow chipping away that happens one family at a time. Unfortunately.

        • Meg Keene

          You can have two with a lot of help. But someone has to have flex time, and then that person takes the fall over and over again, no matter how high powered their career is (<– Me, in our house.) It SUCKS no matter which way you cut it, and there isn't near enough conversation about it.

          And if no one has flex time, you have to have *at least* two forms of childcare always. Full time and backup.

          (Edited to note: it's not the having of flex time that sucks, obviously, it's the total lack of flex time in almost all US jobs, and how that slowly erodes families.)

          • Laura C

            Yes, this is pretty much exactly what I’m looking at if we have kids — he’ll be a lawyer, I’ll presumably still be writing. And my job has generous leave, but I’ll feel guilty at work/annoyed at home to be the one always adjusting my schedule to deal with it.

          • Meg Keene

            Yup. It’s tough. It causes tension. This is where I’d love for some other commenter to swoop in with the perfect solution, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.

            I mean, I was (with the help of a sitter, thank god) watching a sick child at home while re-launching APW, in the third circle of hell, because there was a mediation going on. AKA, litigator’s jobs always win, even if you’re managing a team of five through the biggest project of your year. HEADDESK.

          • KA

            This. We don’t have children but I can guess how it would go in our current situation based on how we’ve been dealing with contractors recently. Even though we both have days at home during the week, because he works for a large company in a corporate environment, I’m the one expected to juggle my schedule if necessary. (And he’s an artist for pete’s sake–no one’s going to trial here!)

            I think this is going to become the relationship tug of war in coming decades—as more people become business owners or freelancers and more workplaces and lines of work become more flexible, the issue will be less one of gender and more about who has the schedule flexibility to take on more responsibility.

          • ElisabethJoanne

            As a footnote to our work-life balance conversation and the need to end “face time” and other workplace attitudes that make it hard for families to have flexibility…I hope we’re moving to a place where both parents/partners have some flexibility, rather than the present situation, where I agree with Classof1980 – in a lot of situations today, one parent/partner needs flexibility for the family to run.

          • ElisabethJoanne

            As a litigator myself, I hear worse from the M&A lawyers. At least mediations and trials and almost everything else we do are scheduled. Those mergers seem to take place suddenly – planned vacations, sick babies, power outages and human need for sleep be damned.

          • Meg Keene

            Oh god. Glad every day I’m not married to a corporate lawyer.

          • Lindsay Young

            Marrying a corporate lawyer in July! And one of my bridesmaids works with him :) Life is fun. Our past Saturday: Work in AM – Cake Tasting at noon – Work in PM/cancel plans to do registry stuff and ring shopping. He tries his best and I try my best to be understanding since he’s only been there a year and still the lowest man on the totem pole but it’s definitely frustrating at times

          • Sarah

            Lindsay, just continue to be patient. I recently graduated from lawschool, just started a new job, and I am also planning my wedding. It is hard to balance life and work, but I am thankful to have a job to pay back my student loans in this economy.

          • Granola

            The “at least two forms of childcare” is key I think. We live several hours (at least) away from either of our immediate families, so that increases the need for one person to be more flexible. My parents had my grandparents 4 minutes away to call when they needed help. It makes me want to start some kind of child-rearing co-op with my friends.

            As a sidenote, I find it really helpful to do this analysis and see the differences between my parents’ situation and mind. Reminds me that I have different needs and problems to solve, so of course I probably won’t do things quite the same way.

          • Meg Keene

            Yeah. No one really tells you that you need backup childcare if your family isn’t nearby. It’s a rocky problem to solve (our recent backup childcare person has been out of town for two plus months which is leading to lots of missed work, plus, since that’s not a family member, we have to run under 100% of doctors appointments, and there have been a TON this winter). But yeah. That’s the struggle.

        • Class of 1980

          I’ve been thinking about this for ages, obviously, given my age.

          Even if we had longer maternity leaves, etc … I think there are always going to be some demanding jobs, whether it’s hours worked or relocation demands. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best for most couples to have one person in the demanding job and one with the flexible job, part-time job, or no job.

          Before reliable birth control, it made sense for women to be in the flexible role. Hell, according to my family geneology, just surviving childbirth was a triumph. A number of my ancestors were raised by stepmothers because their own mother died in childbirth and that was fairly common. My great grandmother went through seven traumatic births until she was able to get her hands on condoms (not easy then). Who could think of women being the sole support of a family in those risky days?

          NOW, It doesn’t matter which sex does which role, as long as both are truly in the role they want, and don’t feel that circumstances have stuck them where they don’t want to be..

          I personally would have wanted part-time work if I had had children. But whenever I see a mother with a super demanding job, I’m relieved for her if her husband is less career-driven and he can give more time to the children and household. Less stress for everyone.

          • I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best for most couples to have one person in the demanding job and one with the flexible job, part-time job, or no job.
            At least for the first few years, although i did read a study recently that suggested that, actually, you are better off both working fulltime when baby is younger, and having one go part-time when they are pre-teen and teenaged, because THAT is when they often really need a steadying influence.
            I’m at-home at the moment, going back to university later in the year (LJ will be 15 months or so), and when I’ve done my 18 months study, chances are I will have no choice but to go full-time to get started on my new career path.
            Thankfully, DH loves his current job, they love him and they are lovely people, so we are planning for him to start working a bit more flexible through my study (so I dont have to miss lectures / assessments), and when I start working. And then hopefully, by the time LJ is 10 or so, we will both be well enough established that we can take turns being home in the afternoons. Hopefully. Its the whole reason I’m not having a second baby, really!

          • Laura

            I agree about the maternity leave. I live in Canada, where I can have a year’s parental leave if I want it. I’m very grateful for that, especially when I see the struggles American parents are facing. But it does pose its own challenges: being away from work for a whole year, A LOT can pass you by.

          • Erin Rafferty

            I know I’m late to this conversation, but THIS: ” I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best for most couples to have one
            person in the demanding job and one with the flexible job, part-time
            job, or no job.” At the moment, this is me and my boyfriend–I have the higher-earning full-time job, and he has a part-time job, but does most of the housework and cooking. Boyfriend and I have always talked about how my job (once I get the kind I want–an elusive beast at the best of times) will come first. I’m a violist and he’s a composer, meaning that I’ll end up in a symphony orchestra and he’ll probably end up a professor. There are more universities than full-time symphonies, therefore, if and when I land my dream job, we pack up and go, no questions asked. Luckily, our chosen careers also offer a lot of time flexibility–symphony musicians are usually only in performance or rehearsal about 20 hours a week, and much of composition professors’ work is done outside the classroom. So hopefully, when we do get around to reproducing, neither one of us will be shackled to an office job and we’ll at least be able to rotate who’s at home. (It sounds so rosy and optimistic when I put it like that! I promise, I know it won’t be easy!)

    • Class of 1980

      I just ready that the (lady) president of Princeton said she dreams of a day when a career-driven person will purposely marry a laid-back person … because right now too many career-driven women are marrying career-driven men and that means someone probably doesn’t get to fulfill their ambitions.

  • cassy

    “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? Was this not a goal of feminism, to break down gender roles and allow for different identities?”

    Yes! This is a great post, thank you for putting this social issue/expectation in such clear terms. My husband and I are in a very similar situation, where he works in a skilled trade (he went to college for a science degree but didn’t like the field) and I’m nearly done with an Earth Science PhD. The expectation that the man (speaking of heteronormative expectations) should be the breadwinner or at least make equal pay to the woman in the relationship is something that we have discussed a lot lately, given that I will soon be making (hopefully) at least 3x what my husband makes. Money made does not equal the value a person has, to themselves or to others. The fact that society focuses so much on this for men puts them in a terrible position if they make a lot less than their female partners. I hope that as women make more strides in this area and gain equal pay, that we start dropping a bit of the money/work = value ethic, and start focusing on the value people create for themselves by being happy in their lives.

  • laguna

    Love this. You’re not the only one. I’m a mid-thirties woman just promoted into a C-level executive role at a huge multinational company. When I interviewed and talked to the other VPs, one was candid enough to talk about me wanting kids in the next year or so. She said I had “married very well” in choosing someone comfortable with taking the major family care role. He works, but I’m the major breadwinner and the one interested in my career. I’m learning to let go of other people’s judgments and thank God that he’s allowing me to flourish so well in my high-flying career (which requires international travel while he cares for the dogs). I’m lucky, even if strangers side-eye us at parties.

  • Lauren H

    Thank you so much for this….I thought about this a lot when my husband and I were dating….he was a chef at a small restaurant and I worked in HR at a large non-profit. I have a bachelor’s degree with lingering thoughts of getting my masters or another bachelor’s, and he has a few certifications for a being a chef. Now he is in school to get his Associates in a different field and I am the breadwinner. It was strange for me coming from a family where my father was the breadwinner. But in the end the reason we work is that we make a great TEAM. We laugh constantly. And share many of the same interests so we get to go on lots of adventures together when time allows. He will be an amazing and fun dad. During our engagement, we said we wanted to “do life” together. Well folks, work ain’t life in our books. We work to live the life we want, and we’ll take it whatever we can!

    • Kendra D

      So much this, “But in the end the reason we work is that we make a great TEAM.”

      My husband and I are a team. Right now, he makes more, his job dictates where we live, and I have periods of unemployment around our moves. I do more of the household chores. We’re looking at a time though, where I would make more and he would take care of the house and cooking. We’re working together to take on life, not each other. It’s not about a balance sheet.

  • Peekayla

    This is so apt! My parents were very against my engagement to D because they didn’t see him as “driven” and feared that he was a mooch because I went to college and have a good career (even though the pay is just so-so), while he graduated high school and went into the Air Force. What he did there didn’t translate when he became a civilian again, so he got a job in a restaurant as a chef. He enjoyed what he did and the people he worked with and some weeks he took home more than I did (anything over 20 hours was paid under the table), though he didn’t get benefits. D was up for a career change (something that we’d discussed many times throughout our time together), but was always worried about changing for something that didn’t pay as well, so never took the chance. Shortly after our engagement (and I’ll admit, it was after an argument with me over jobs and my parents) he applied for a job as a copier technician on a whim and go the job on the spot. From the moment I told my parents of his new job, their opposition to our marriage evaporated. It pains us both that they couldn’t see past the job he had to see the person he is, but are still grateful that we no longer have to deal with their drama. Why must we be defined by what we do? Why can’t people just see us for who we are, the lives we live, and the joy we bring to one another?

    • I love this post. My father retired last week after 42 years as a mechanical engineer, a job that he was good at but never exactly loved. He has always said that we work to live–we don’t live to work. Though he has always worked full-time, nearly every week of the year (my mom worked half time throughout my childhood, though she has continued a freelance career), he has always made it clear that what drives him is his family and the life he lives outside of work.

      Kudos to Rachel and her partner for finding a work-life balance that makes them happy.

  • Grace

    I really, really needed to read this today. I’m at medical school (finishing this year!), my partner has just finished a master’s in philosophy. It did not go well. He did so badly in his dissertation that he graduated with an overall pass, not the merit he needs for the academic career he wants so desperately. We’re pretty bummed. While I’m trying to be supportive, he seems suddenly very aware that soon I will be a doctor and he will be (his words) “a failure”. I have no problem with being the breadwinner, and I don’t need him to be successful in a traditional work related sense, but I do need him to be happy and I’m suddenly terrified that he won’t be.

  • Meg

    Thank you for writing this. I really wish “what does he do” wasn’t the first thing that came out of people’s mouths. It’s so not their business. My fiancé is moving to the US from Canada and if I have to have one more person say “what is he going to do for work?” and then tell me “good luck finding a job” to me…well I don’t know what…I’ll probably say nothing and then go complain about it on the internet because I’m non-confrontational. He DOES have a bachelors degree but people will love to throw in your face how useless that is these days….it’s just so frustrating. We’re going to do just fine for ourselves and it’s none of their business. Not like any of them would be offering help if we weren’t doing ok.
    My mom always told me that I should never rely on a man to support me, so I got educated, worked hard and now have a very good job that I love. So I never really felt I needed to find someone who could support me economically. He probably will find something too but I am sick of the judgment from people when it’s supposed to be a happy time.

    • La’Marisa-Andrea

      What does he do? And then when you get engaged, people actually still ask “How big is your ring?” Prepare for sneers if his job or the ring aren’t good enough.

  • Right. On. I wrote about this a little here a few months ago, but this puts into words a lot of stuff I’ve felt but couldn’t verbalize. When I actually sit down and think about it, it’s astounding how much time I’ve spent saying things like, “Well, he’s going to start a massage business later” or “Well, he wants to go back to school for acupuncture” or “Well he could go back to work as a nurse if he wanted”. As if those things are somehow more important or justify him currently being a stay at home parent! Bottom line, my partner, like yours, defines himself by his relationships, not his career. And that’s GREAT.

    • Kat Robertson

      Ooh, I’ve done the “justification” thing for him so much more than I’m proud of. “Well, he’s thought about school” etc… I think it would be better if I stop. I do it because I worry people will look down on him, but I think it probably makes it look like I’m uncomfortable with our situation, which I’m absolutely not.

    • oakland femme

      Oh yes. My fiancée worked in pharma for over 10 years and just recently quit to go back to school. And I always feel the need to tell people, “well, until recently she worked in pharma”. So silly, especially since it’s not like what she’s doing now isn’t equally awesome, because it is, and also she’s much happier!

  • Another Meg

    This is fantastic. My cousin recently married, and one of my aunts told me all about how “worried” they are about him and his wife. She’s a nurse and they own a house and he’s a barista. His long-term plan is to be a stay at home dad and have a big garden. It’s frustrating to watch my family freak out about this- especially because I have two sisters and multiple female cousins who stay at home and are considered successful in our family. Why not my cousin?

    We have a long way to go. I know it’s frustrating on both sides- my sisters have repeatedly been asked when they are going to “return” to work. They work 24-hours each day, taking care of children and running busy households. I hope that soon all of this work can be considered valuable, no matter who does it.

    • jhs

      It’s amazing how much some things like this show off a double standard. I bet in lots of families, if a woman said her goals were to be a mom and have a big garden it would be completely normal!

  • emilyg25

    I’m more career-driven than my husband. It happens that he currently has a better job than me, but he’s also been working for 20 years longer. We joke that it’s only a matter of time till I out-earn him. My mom has always out-earned my dad, too.

    The thing is, if you want to have a family, it can very, very hard if both partners are extremely career-driven. It’s hard to decide who makes the sacrifices to make sure all the bases are covered. It can be easier if one person cares a little less about work. But who says it has to be the lady?

    • La’Marisa-Andrea

      Yes! Currently me and my husband earn about the same. For years he earned more and I earned slightly more last year (like a few thousand lol) but my husband is definitely not career driven. He’s had opportunities to move forward in his career and he’s just not feeling it. He’d like to earn more money sure but he’s not willing to clock the extra hours and time away from home. At first that used to irk me a bit, but since my job is picking up and requires travel etc, it kind of works out that he’d rather be at home after 8 hours at the gig and home on weekends.

  • Kat Robertson

    I love the generational take on this post, because it rings so true. I grew up with the hard working, blazer-wearing, breadwinner Mom. After her ten hour day she’d immediately pick us up from Grandma’s, get Kraft dinner on the stove, take an hour or so helping us with homework, then put us to bed. As I went to sleep I always heard the sound of her vacuuming. She was trapped in the economical change and gender role shift, too, and worked out by doing the Second Shift thing. As awesome as my Dad was, she was still both the primary breadwinner and primary caregiver. Fast forward to me and Fiance. I am like my mom, I get satisfaction from work, I am on a career path that is demanding, and that I hope will be the primary financial support for my family. The difference is that Fiance is a barista who dreams of primarily being home with our children someday. I think with a huge amount of gratitude that, hey, I might not have to spend hours vacuuming, cooking, doing dishes, etc… after every single long work day. He won’t have to go through the stress and drudgery of being chained to a career he hates, and instead can spend his energy on what he loves and is good at.

    You would think people would look at us and think “Yeah, that makes sense. How well suited they are to each other! How well their gifts and passions compliment each other!” but, sadly, no. It’s the “Well, what do you REALLY want to do? Aren’t you going to school?” to him and “When do you think you’ll start having kids?” to me. Sigh. In the end, I guess there’s a F*ck It moment for that noise, too.

    • Grace

      Yes, this, similar to us I think. What upsets me about it the most is that I know if the tables were turned and he was the doctor and I was the artsy type who wanted to stay home and read books, one day look after the kids, that wos be absolutely fine. Why is it not ok just because he’s the man?!!

      • carolynprobably

        Yes yes yes! I think the real discussion is why it’s okay (expected?) for a man to “marry down” and not for a woman. Do these perceptions permeate into same-sex partnerships (i.e. the ambitious one vs. the settler?)

        • Grace

          Or to really hit the nail on the head, why are we even talking about people marrying up or marrying down in the first place? When I get married it will be to a partner and an equal.

        • thesaraheffect

          It’s interesting that you mention that because the gratuitous assigning of gender roles in a same-sex relationship is one of my biggest frustrations. It’s generally not malicious, it’s just a holdover from the idea that a romantic partnership = “Man” + “Woman” (“quotes” meaning the traditionally assigned gender profile). People often assume my girfriend is the Man/butch and I’m the woman/femme, when our relationship is much more intricate and nuanced than that -as are ALL relationships!

          The interesting thing is that once we’ve been assigned the appropriate “gender”, we tend to be pigeonholed just as a hetero couple would.

          It makes me think that the homophobia is likely part of a much larger problem with gender prejudices in general.

      • Nikki

        I actually said this to my own mother…I asked if my brother was marrying a woman in a similar situation as my boyfriend, would she have anything to say? Then knock it off. It’s not like he’s sitting home sucking up all our money and resources. We BOTH contribute, plus, the man knows how to fix cars, hello $$$ saved!

    • BD

      Oh gosh, I watched my mom go through that too. And I even resented my father for a long time for not helping her out more at home, for just washing a dish or doing a damn pile of laundry once in a while. But I also realize now that they were both going through the same cultural shifts and changes you mention, and not doing it so well. I hope to avoid that with my marriage.

      • Kat Robertson

        Yes, it is easy for me to forget that my Dad was raised with that same traditional gender roles narrative. I don’t think it occurred to him to help with housework much, and I don’t think it would have occurred to my Mom to expect him to. Interestingly, I’ve seen a lot of growth in him in this area in the past two decades. He does all the dishes and cooks breakfast every day now. I guess I can see how it would be a huge process to adjust to a culture that is different than the one you were raised in – but I’m glad my fiance isn’t starting at the same point he did!

  • Aileen

    This is so similar to my situation. I’ve recently completed my Master’s program and once I find a job in my field, will be the bread winner. My husband who is the current bread winner, has not gone to college, and has no interest in college. This would be fine to me except for two things..1. He doubts himself and his worth occasionally, and it is extremely difficult to convince him to see himself how I see him. And 2, somewhat related to 1, With all of the jobs that he has had, eventually the mind dulling aspect of it begins to get to him. I just want him to find something to do that makes him happy.

  • Emily

    From a slightly different angle: I work for a small non-profit and while I absolutely LOVE my job and my clients and my community, my student loan debt to income ratio is downright laughable. Conversely, J is a corporate manager for a mind-numbing quick serve restaurant and after bonuses makes triple what I do. My parents are both professors for a prestigious university and constantly look down on him for “not reaching his potential” (he dropped out of college) and “selling his soul to the Man” (my father would really like you to believe he is still a hippie, teaching out of his VW bus). I guess my point is, money is not the only barometer to be judged by and “marrying down” is relative too. If you’re happy, then it’s just noise.

    • Meg Keene

      I mean two points here: one, if you’re happy it’s just noise.

      Two: how success is judged. It almost doesn’t matter what I do, or how successful my business is, or how many people I employ, or how happy and fulfilled I am. I don’t have a graduate degree and I own a small business. I’ve noticed that in some (lots of) upper middle class circles, I’m just never going to rank. If I had a fancy graduate degree, I could be flat broke, but at least they could view me as “smart” “respectable” “playing by the rules” what have you. It’s fucking crazy, if you ask me. But it’s a real thing.

      • Emily

        It is fucking crazy. I sometimes like to point out to my dad’s snobby professor friends that while I do have a master’s degree from their school, I can’t pay my rent on my own… They seem to appreciate J a little more when they realize his sandwich job bought our house, cars, and my fancy shmancy grad degree.

        • Meg Keene

          That’s what I find fascinating. That the jobs that pay for the fancy degrees are not jobs worth valuing, once the fancy degrees have been achieved. IE, *not just you.*

          • Class of 1980

            My niece is in this situation. She was working full-time and going to college at night. Her job was decent, so she was getting her degree slowly.

            Then her full-time job turned into something pretty great. At the same time, with the economic downturn, her college stopped offering the night courses she needed.

            By the time she was 26, she already was making more money than a lot of graduates and owned a house. Last year, her company transferred her to the Chicago area, paid all the expenses and gave her a raise.

            Now she owns her second house and is using her talent where the action is. She hasn’t given up on finishing her degree, but so far, she’s thrilled to be on this path and not have any debt.

      • Class of 1980

        Seriously, learn to not give a rat’s ass.

        I know you know this, but it can’t be said enough. The upper middle class is rife with social anxieties and playing by the rules. When it works for an individual, it’s great. But it’s not the answer for everyone.

        How the hell can it be a “failure” to have found an alternative path to financial independence?

        • Meg Keene

          It’s the weirdness of not growing up in the upper middle class (or even near it) and then finding it to be sort of culturally… awful. I’m sure it would feel less awful if I were a native?

          • Emily

            As a “native” it does not feel less awful. But I think it comes down to the fact that no matter what you do or socio-economic group you belong to some people suck and some people get it. The key is cut out the ones that suck and bring in those who get it.

          • Meg Keene

            Oh dear god, trust me, I’m not saying that any socioeconomic group is somehow awesome and sans suck. But when you cross into a group that’s not your native habitat, the ways you notice things are… I guess I’d say… more uncomfortably difficult? Like, within your native group, you feel more comfortable saying, “Oh just shut up and stop being a jack ass.” But you can’t do that when you’re not at home? IE, the way you relate to your parents vs. in laws. You can tell your mother to take a hike, you CANNOT tell your mother in law to take a hike.

          • Emily

            Yeah, that is definitely true. I think in my case its less awful to hear it because I know these people and they are looking out for me the best they can. But it is really shitty for J, because these people aren’t his “friends” and they are just being ass-hats in his opinion.
            And sometimes I would REALLY love to tell my FMIL to take a hike…

          • Interestingly, I have the opposite of that. I’m more comfortable in Bryan’s ‘native group’ than my own, and his family group. But with my mom? Nope, never gonna happen.

          • Class of 1980

            Socioeconomic studies often mention that the upper middle class is the LEAST psychologically comfortable and the most filled with anxiety. They are beholden to the upper class, have demanding careers, and are terrified of themselves or their children sliding downward into the middle or lower-middle class.

            Even a plumber has more control over his life than the average upper-middle class person.

            Personally, I am not at all ambitious in the sense of other people recognizing what I do. I just want the financial freedom to not have to care what other people think.

            Money = Freedom.

          • anon

            Oh goodness, Class of 1980, your post is both scary and enlightening to read. May I ask if you have any links to these studies?

            I find that – post (two) fancy degrees, a job on paper that should be perfect, and a salary that (finally) pays the bills and leaves a little for fun, I am the least confident, least secure, and least happy I’ve ever been. I think you’re right about the studies’ main ideas – I am constantly looking to the next level (not salary-wise, but responsibility and title-wise), nervous about screwing up, anxious about my student loans, and up at all hours of the night, tethered to my blackberry. I’m exhausted, to tell the truth!

          • Laura

            Yes to all of this! I’m exhausted too! And I’m the person in my household who makes more money/has the more stable job so I have the stress and anxiety of that on me too.

          • Class of 1980

            Shoot. My earlier answer got eaten.

            There’s a ton of info online if you Google the right words. Here is something discouraging right here – http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201310/the-problem-rich-kids

          • Lawyer

            This. Just this. Totally agree. But it sounds like I might be a few more years down the road than you, so you should know that you are not alone in feeling less confident and less secure. And also that it gets better. You will pay off those loans. And hopefully at some point you will have the opportunity and the confidence to find fulfilling (if not socially impressive) work.

          • Alyssa M

            Can I just say, it’s a TON of fun (sarcasm) to be the one who did “slide down”. I dropped well past middle class though. I’m lucky I’m not a man, because nobody would say my partner is marrying down, but my job is a secret and a joke. The job I struggle through 40 hours a week and gave me financial independence is obviously just a hobby while I’m killing time waiting for kids, cause I’m *REALLY upper-middle class like my parents. *eyeroll

            The biggest joke to me is that through good financial planning I’m way more secure than my respectable accountant sister.

          • Meg Keene

            You need to write something about this, by the way. All of your comments about this are really interesting. I’ve sort of experienced this in reverse (SORTA, I’m not really upper middle class though I can’t seem to effing escape it socially). But anyway, I want to read about it. I’m very interested by those of us navigating across class boundaries. Those people tend to have interesting observations.

            And also, I’m really really sorry things are so hard right now.

          • Alyssa M

            You know, I really considered it after we discussed how my coworkers pretty much ignore weddings all together, but I’m fairly nervous about it. I haven’t written anything serious since probably 2008. I’d probably just end up rambling/ranting.

            Mostly I’ve just become very sensitive and defensive to classism and definitions of “real” jobs.

          • I am another one of the ones who “slid down.” And it’s definitely interesting, though I think it’s less stressful on my end because I am estranged from the pieces of my family that hold that status in high regard.

            Now that I’m out of a corporate job, family (and friends who are up a class or two) REALLY start to lay it on thick about how my work is a hobby, and speculating when kids will happen. It’s obnoxious, and rude.

          • Zel

            Um, especially when you have *enough* education/whatever markers that they assume you’re a native and expect you to “get it” and you Do. Not. Get It.

          • Meg Keene

            Clearly you and I should get a drink, Zel.

      • La’Marisa-Andrea

        That’s really interesting given that you DO have a fancy degree, just not a graduate one. People really roll their eyes at a degree from NYU? I always thought NYU was pretty fancy. That’s craziness.

      • Sara P

        This is true in really “well-educated” circles too – I grew up in a pretty well-off college town in Colorado, but my dad has a bachelor’s (engineering – and he worked solo for a number of years, some of which were pretty lean) and my mom went back to school to get her bachelor’s when we were in elementary school. But people were such snobs, oh my god. And wealthier than us, too, or at least more interested in the trappings of wealth. It bugged my mom a lot more than my dad, and I think that’s mostly because she had to deal with all of the other SAH parents (mostly moms) once we got into elementary school. You’ve got to have a lot of self-confidence, and a pretty strong “fuck ’em” streak, to avoid being bothered by it. (Not that you don’t, but my mom only had the latter and I don’t know that it was enough.)

      • ElisabethJoanne

        As someone who’s always been upper-middle-class (or easily able to pass as such when I had a low-paying lawyer job), I do recognize how our conversations go in circles. At an office party just this weekend, the conversation was about kids’ college and grad school applications and sleep-away camps. I don’t know how I would have managed if I didn’t have a long history of sharing my own and my family’s experiences with just those situations.

        Or maybe I do know. ‘Cause I had no follow-up questions for the secretary’s husband who works on sewer systems besides the most basic either really basic (“How long have you done that? Do you enjoy it?”) or annoyingly specific (“I worked on a case about sewers once…”).

        • Meg Keene

          I think that’s part of it, really. Like, if I was a lawyer, people would know what to say at parties. IE, I think you nailed it. I tell people I run a website, and I get questions like, “So. Does it run on WordPress?” (Yes?? Why would you ask that??) Or weird jokes like, “Oh, so you’re like, a job creator?” (Yes?? Why was that phrased as a joke? Also, you can be a job creator and a Democrat, try to be less uncomfortable?)

          IE, people just don’t know what to SAY.

          Possibly why we should talk about things other than work at parties, America.

          • Cleo

            Not true. People have misconceptions about all jobs. I’m a lawyer by training and people ask me about legal issues that I haven’t dealt with beyond hypotheticals in 1L (my paternal grandmother even asks my attorney father about areas of the law he’s NEVER practiced and he has to constantly remind her about that).

            I currently work in entertainment and people ask me if I’ve met X actor or Y actor and “why is Hollywood out of fresh ideas?” None of these questions are directly relevant to my position or portion of the industry I work in.

            HOWEVER…these are people trying to connect with me. And work is a good place to start with a (relative) stranger/person we’re trying to catch up with because we’re asking how they spend a good chunk of their time.

            If we want the dialogue to change regarding what we speak about, we should do so in the way we answer questions. I was at a wedding over Christmas where I was chatting with an acquaintance. I asked her what she did and she said she taught art classes, and without missing a beat, she said that was just to pay the bills — her real passion was the roller derby team she was managing. So we talked about that. Let’s not be afraid to bring up what we REALLY love without it feeling like bragging or boasting.

          • Meg Keene

            No, I wasn’t saying that people don’t have misconceptions about all jobs. What I was saying is that within specific class or social situations, people will be more versed at understanding one kind of job over another. When I’m with friends from my blue collar hometown, people totally get working for yourself. When I’m at an upper middle class lawyer party, they don’t really get it.

            I’m a pro at subject changing, trust me. I can show anyone how it’s done. I don’t want to talk about my work with people generally, so I avoid and dodge and change the subject lightening speed. It is my passion and what I really love. But I don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations with random people about it.

          • Mezza

            Oh yes, this. I have a fancy graduate degree (in law) but am working in a tangentially-related but lower-paying field (theatre management). I went to an engagement party for some former law school classmates shortly after getting my job, and it was like visiting another planet. Everyone there either had or was frantically searching for a corporate law job, and I had this job that I was so excited about but somehow also ashamed of (for taking a pay cut/leaving the field), and conversations were impossible on both sides.

            And the same thing when I met a distant cousin for the first time at a Christmas party and learned he was a coal miner who had never left his (and my) home state. I couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t relate to how different our lives were!

          • Meg Keene

            Theatre management fist bump.

            Hell, coal miner fist bump. I’m descended from one, I would have PEPPERED him with questions ;)

          • Oakland Sarah

            This is why I like to ask people what they do with their time and talents and not just what their job is. I find it lets people share/focus on what is important to them rather than assuming their job will tell me what is important to them. People are at first taken aback, but seem to really like answering. Especially if what is important/meaningful to them is NOT their job.

          • T

            Oh man, this whole thread is like peering directly into my brain. You know what’s funny? A while ago I started asking people not what they do for work but “how have you been spending your time lately?” or “what have you been up to?” and the discomfort seems to be… profound? Maybe we’re all overworked (thanks Bay Area economy) but a lot of people seem pressured to come up with something besides “work” or “work and then going home and watching Netflix.” Or “Oh god, I’ve just been so busy.” But that might be a whole other thread.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          My husband and I run into trouble that our not-work interests are also not great topics for casual conversation – ancient philosophy and working with the mentally ill. We don’t go to movies, follow sports, or have a TV. We’re training ourselves to be better at normal conversation. For example, I’ve taught him questions he can ask about any sport just to stay in the conversation (“Who won?” “What was the most interesting play?” “Were there any bad calls?”). But it’s something we have to work at.

      • Superfantastic

        Yes to how success is judged. I’m a teacher and about to have a graduate degree, which won’t impress any of the judgmental people because I’ll still be just a teacher. And you know what? Fuck ’em. I teach because it’s what I love, not because I couldn’t do something more impressive. A whole lot of kids can read a lot better because of me, I make enough to cover the travel I want to do in my time off, and one kid told me I look like a spy lady. I married up as far as society would be concerned, but my passion for my work was one of the things that first attracted my now husband. Thank goodness he was more interested in what lights me up than in my earning potential.

        People at parties hearing I teach special ed almost always say, “Wow, you must be so patient.” I always fight the urge to respond, “I never said I was good at it.” Usually I go with something more along the lines of “Some days more than others.”

    • KA

      Solidarity! I have a college degree and a work history of non-profits and small businesses, my husband is a high-school dropout and still earns more than twice what I do. We’re lucky to not have a lot of judging around us, but man we’d be rife with fodder if we did! He judges himself sometimes (and assumes other artists judge him) for “selling out” by working a corporate job rather than pursuing his art full time. But on the other hand, it’s hard to turn down being paid well to do something you’re good at in a decent environment.

      I’ve definitely found, at least here in my random NY social circles, the degree thing to be relatively meaningless in terms of financial success. I know PhD’s that make less than I do, and at least one high school dropout that makes more. :) It’s strange though, to now be in this nether world of having a bit more money than our artsy friends but far less than our corporate friends.

  • belleamie209

    It’s interesting how in this country, we assign so much status to what job someone does, as opposed to the content of their character or even how well they do their job. Also, I remember after graduating college that I realized my 9-5 job didn’t have to be something that would 100% fulfill me, because I could do that in my spare time– yet perhaps because of the lack of work-life balance in the U.S., it’s really hard to find that spare time! I read this article yesterday and I think it adds some helpful perspective: http://chronicle.com/article/Hanging-Up-on-a-Calling/144197/ (and for the record, I’m about to defend my dissertation and have always wanted to be a teacher– but I also would never teach for free, because it is work, and I deserve to be paid)

    • carolynprobably

      I think this harkens back to the work/life balance discussion last week. Remember, a job is “what you do” not “who you are” EVEN IF (especially if?) you are ambitious and satisfied with your career.

    • malkavian

      This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot as a PhD student. I’ve come to realize that my work is not where I get the most satisfaction in my life. My hobbies and relationships are what really make me tick, and my work is a thing that I do to make money. But it’s so difficult now to find jobs that are 9 to 5 and pay a living wage, even with an assumed PhD.

  • Louise

    Interesting read that I can definitely relate to. I love the connection to feminism. It’s so true. I have always been more career-oriented than my husband. We are in a unique position at the moment, where I am making good money working abroad and we are living virtually for free, so he’s currently a house husband. And let me tell you, its fantastic. I go to work, do a job I am passionate about, then come home and have amazing homemade dinner all ready for me, clean laundry and my favorite person. (The only downside is we are living literally on the other side of the world from our families) I wish I made enough money for us to live like this when we move back to the States! He would be the most amazing stay at home dad, if we could figure out the money stuff.

  • laddibugg

    Wow. If I wasn’t at work I’d clap. If we got married tomorrow, I”d be marrying ‘down’ (his long term earning potential is better, but only after a number of years, and it’s still a very blue collar profession. But it is also more volatile.). At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do, as long as you either “hustle” or support my hustle. We’ve had the SAH talk–we want our kids at home the first year or so but it doesn’t matter who watches them (though admittedly it may be a grandparent–I”m just really against early day care)

    I just don’t want to end up like my folks—my dad has always out earned my mother, and even in their older years, he’s the one with the dope pension and lifetime health insurance (which stops when he dies!) while she has a tiny 401k. They work together but I don’t think they are really a cohesive team, you know? She did stay home the first 5 years of my life so there is also that….

  • Moonie

    This post really resonates with me. When my husband and I got married three years ago he was a college drop out. He has since gotten an associates degree but it’s looking like he’ll soon be dropping out of his bachelors program again. Both me and my parents have masters degrees and his father had a PhD, so you can imagine the pressure on him. I’m finally starting to let go of my expectations of what he’ll accomplish academically, not because he is a man but because I’ve been socialized to believe that college is the only real path to success, which is obviously not true. Although my husband is ridiculously smart college is torture for him. I’ve been successful professionally but am on a non-profit track which will keep my salary low. I do need my husband to contribute financially but really I’m hopeful he can find meaningful and rewarding work, as he does like to work. I wish our society was more flexible in its determination of what is and is not successful work; with the movement towards online education and the like I’m hopeful that the rigid parameters of the path to success that I was raised with are starting to change.

    • Kat Robertson

      “Although my husband is ridiculously smart college is torture for him.”

      My fiance is also on his second time quitting the whole bachelor’s degree thing, and this is so, so true of him. I wish every day that all of the pressure about college wasn’t a thing. No one should feel like they have to be that miserable for that many years in order to be a “success”. We have such a twisted definition of that word.

    • Gina

      Yes, completely. My husband is also a hard worker who cannot do school, and I’m also a professional on the non-profit track. It’s hard to realize the disconnect between education and meaningful work, but I’m getting there. Especially nowadays when college is so expensive and there really ARE good jobs out of high school for specific skill sets, I hope there will be less and less pressure on kids to go straight to college when they have no idea what they want to do– and then, in large part, graduate with a worthless degree and mountains of debt. There has to be a better way.

    • marie-helene

      You raise an interesting point–what about families in which there isn’t one “high-flying” breadwinner and a more stay-at-home partner, but two low- to medium-earning professionals with the kind of demanding schedules but low salaries that non-profit/academic support positions often bring? I feel like a lot of the current discussion about couples who are switching traditional gender roles and making it work still focuses on partnerships with a large income gap, but in those situations at least one person can usually spend more time at home to take care of things. Families where there is *no* one breadwinner, but two salaries combined don’t equal enough to pay for good childcare, go relatively ignored.

      • Meg Keene

        Well, I’d like to have a conversation about that! Who wants to start it?

        • marie-helene

          Yay! (And just to be clear, I wasn’t saying I felt like it was a conversation that’s neglected here in particular–more “the conversation” on a national level, & maybe especially the generally middle/upper-middle class internet. This is obviously an even bigger issue for partnerships where both people are blue-collar/part-time/underemployed workers.)

          I think family support makes a huge difference in situations like this, and I’ve often seen that trotted out as a solution: “have Grandma watch the kids!” Which is great if you can swing it, but… My fiancé and I live 800+ miles away from our families because our careers have required moving to chase grad school/fellowships/rare job opportunities, and I can’t imagine moving back to my home city unless I were already rich. We both come from single-mom households that gave us great educations but no financial nest eggs. All of my friends from my age group (mid/late 20s) are in similar situations, and most older colleagues in my field who have kids are in a lopsided earnings relationship. Has anyone reading made it work?

          • AnnieP

            Loving this conversation! And thanks to Rachel for this post. I went to a private liberal arts college and heard a lot about “vocation” growing up – making your passion your work. When people first meet my husband, they say “and where did you go to college?” to which he replies “I dropped out,” and they get awkwardly quiet. It’s not the whole story – he dropped out of college, went to technical school, and is now a union skilled carpenter. He works to live and is happy, which teaches me every day that a job doesn’t have to fulfill a deep existential longing. We both make fine money in our current jobs, but neither of us out-earns the other by much. Which begs the question of what happens when we have kids? Put the kid in daycare and continue on as now, hoping for the best? I see so many parents who depend on grandma/grandpa for childcare, and that’s not an option for us.

          • Meg Keene

            We depend a lot on friends-as-family. IE, friends watch the baby so we can go out on dates. Friends or friends of friends cover for us when he’s sick and can’t go to daycare, etc. We mix that in with paid help, but friends standing in for family is what keeps us sane.

            That, and we’ve skipped out thus far on classic middle/upper middle class markers of adulthood like house buying. In the current out of control housing bubble of the bay area, we know a lot of people that have bought, but they’ve all done so with family help. I realized that eating what you kill, so to speak, buying isn’t a particularly sane choice. So we aggressively looked for a good rental, found one, and have just settled in like we own it.

            Anyway! Super curious what other people are doing, but that’s our particular brand of making it work.

          • “I think family support makes a huge difference in situations like this, and I’ve often seen that trotted out as a solution: “have Grandma watch the kids!” Which is great if you can swing it, but… ”

            Amen. We’re having a baby, and that kind of advice is, frankly, useless. My parents live 3 hours away, and his live 4. (All of our good friends also live far away, so anyone we rely on out here is basically going to be hired, until we make some friends.) Family support simply is NOT an option for some people, and I find it really frustrating when people treat it as a given.

          • Laura

            A friend of mine has a baby (well, now a toddler) and they found a lot of friends in the pre-birth classes they took. And obviously all the friends have kids the same age, so it’s a great way to find friends for you and friends/playdates for your kid :)

      • rebecca

        that is not my experience, but I live in the rural midwest and that is the experience of so many people I see around me (ie people who work at the same small college I do but have several kids and partner works in lower paying work ).

      • Peekayla

        We’re not there yet since we don’t have kids yet. But that is the situation we will most definitely be in!
        I’d love a conversation on it!

      • Sarah

        Yes, this! My husband and I both work outside our educational backgrounds, and even though we live frugally in a tiny apartment, we barely make ends meet. Neither of us is really fulfilled or satisfied in our current jobs, and both of us would love to stay home to take on a majority of the housework while also pursuing more of our “real interests” but that’s just not an option for us. Part of this is due to my overwhelming student loan debt, part of this is our hope to someday buy a house (which requires a long period of saving, since there’s not much hope for salary increases right now), but honestly I sometimes think we would be happier if at least one of us had found a successful, well-paying career so the other could stay home or work part time doing something more meaningful.

      • Anne

        Agreed! My (female) partner and I don’t make very much money, even though we both have fancy degrees and such. I have no idea how we would afford childcare for two kids in this not-very-expensive city. So, what does that mean for us? Should I try to switch to a higher-paying field so she can stay home with the kids? (I make slightly more than she does, and probably will unless she gets a 2nd masters or changes fields. But she doesn’t really want to stay home, at least not right now.) Should we not have kids, because we can’t really afford it?

        I want to hash this out, at least hypothetically, before bringing kids into the picture.

        There are people EVERYWHERE raising families without a lot of resources, so I know it can work. It seems totally overwhelming if you just buy into the system. Aaaaaaand maybe that’s the point, not buying into the system. That’s why we need conversations like this. :)

        • T

          THIS, right here. I’m currently not planning to have kids, but I had honestly not been planning to have children in part because (thanks to an expensive home state and loans) I couldn’t foresee a future where I could have kids and afford to take time off or work part-time. And my health and happiness could probably not afford to work full-time and raise a family. My mom did it, it can be done, but I have seen my friends and co-workers incredibly stressed by having young children and two parents working full-time. When I came into an inheritance, one of my thoughts was “I could buy myself some time off work now.”

      • Class of 1980

        Oh, lord. Penelope Trunk has an article about this somewhere on her web site. She said research says that two people with middle-earning jobs is the hardest situation when it comes to having children. No one can stay home or skip work days, yet there isn’t enough money for childcare either.

        I don’t know. Penelope is very controversial, and even her readers argue with her, but she never fails to make you think.

        She constantly writes about how to make it work, and concedes that no option is perfect and that it’s just reality. She also talks about how a person’s Myers Briggs score plays into issues like career and raising children.

  • Sarah E

    Awesome post. I just shared this with my friend who is teaching a class on women in society right now. Especially at this time of year, when every advertisement is telling men that in order to “make her happy” for Valentine’s Day, they have to spend tons of money on high-end presents.

    While we don’t confront this particular dynamic in our relationship currently, I confront it over and over again in my personal job history. As much as I’d love to do a task filled with meaning (the “do what you love” philosophy), I keep coming back to why work in the first place. . .and I mean all the way back to why humans in Western culture transitioned from subsistence farming to a specialized economy. So I can do what I do well and still eat good food. If my life is worse off due to work, why the f*ck would I keep doing it? Isn’t the whole point of making money to afford a better lifestyle (whatever that means to you)? And if your chosen employment enables the lifestyle you want to live, then great! Someone needed that job done, and now you can use your paycheck as you see fit.

    And as other commenters aptly noted already, a marriage is a team. Therefore, the team gets to decide together what lifestyle each partner wants for themselves and for each other together and figure out the best way to achieve that. That’s the whole point of A. being an adult and B. having a teammate.

    • Alison O

      Yes, from a fellow ponderer of subsistence farming. Not like, I’m gonna go do it imminently, but I think about it and the transition away from it, and incorporating more of it into my life.

      So much of work is about enabling people to keep working (like, work to afford your car and gas, which you need to commute to your job…). The sweet part is that which enables you to do non-work stuff, but it gets crowded out for a lot of folks.

      • Meg Keene

        Pleaz someone write a subsistence farming post? <3 You guys are the most interesting.

        • Anne

          My aunt and uncle have raised most of their own food for decades, and it looks like my cousin and her boyfriend are going to move into the partially finished second house on their property (both of which my uncle built) to do the same. But. One of them *always* had to have part-time work (my uncle also washes windows, for example, and my aunt has worked as a teacher and artist). As a child, I always loved to visit my cousins, because their life was so different from my own (I’m a city kid). Personally, I’d have a hard time moving away from a city, but there are other aspects of the lifestyle I find incredibly compelling; I love to cook, can, grow my own food, etc.

  • Stephanie Rivera

    This was an amazing article. I felt as if I was looking in the mirror while reading this. I also am the “breadwinning” partner, BA and MA and my soon to be husband only has his High School diploma. At first my family tried to talk me out of being with him, but after realizing that it is about more than money, i took a step back and realized that we are no longer living in the 50’s. HE does not have to provide for ME. My fiance is a hard worker and with the opportunity to go back to school and get a better paying job, I know he will. Thank you for writing this article and reaching out to so many women (and men) in the world

  • Hey anony-nony

    Love this! Husband and I talk occasionally about what will happen when we finally have kids, and since I make more than him (though only a little) and tend to be less patient than he is, we have kicked around the idea of him staying at home with the kids. To me it’s a win/win situation, as his job causes him great stress and he always says he would love to take extended leave, and I don’t exactly look forward to being a stay at home mother myself. Yet, I know it won’t happen precisely because of the cultural expectations presented in this post. He really believes that by staying home with our children to take care of them, to run the home, while I make the money, would be failure on his part. I try to turn the tables on him and ask him if he would think I was a “failure” for choosing to be a stay at home mom, but that old narrative is just too strong in his mind.

  • Jess

    “There isn’t really any job that would fulfill him because the things that fulfill him are at home, not at work.”

    I hear this from women who don’t work/take lesser jobs All The Time. So let’s allow men to own that feeling too, because then it will maybe feel less awkward for women when we feel not so much like that. There are so many comments so far that talk about justifying their partners wish to stay at home, and being a bit guilty for being a breadwinner. I want, for the sake of my guy friends and my brother that do just want to do a rather low-paying job or stay at home with kids AND for my girl friends that want to go out and take the world by storm, for us to stop doing that justification.

    The more people that treat their home situation as normal, not an embarrassment, the more normal it will seem.

  • Bee

    This is a great post and discussion. To put the conversation in a broader context, I recommend this article about the changing demographics of women in America, about how basically, women are going to HAVE to start “marrying down,” because there frankly aren’t enough men to go around if everyone is “marrying up”. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/all-the-single-ladies/308654/

    And this even more fascinating article about marriage in China, where there is a shortage of women, but there is such a HUGE social stigma against men marrying up that many high-powered women can’t get a date to save their life.

    • Meg Keene

      Yes. Coming from a blue collar city, I know first hand that when you get out of the more rarified economic air of the upper middle class, there are just fewer and fewer good jobs that traditionally went to male blue collar workers. And with more women going to college that just means an ever greater imbalance.

  • Gina

    Wow. This hit me in the gut. You so well articulated all the things I’ve always known, but couldn’t put into words.

    When I went to law school, my dad told me, “the field of guys who will want to marry you is so much smaller when you have a professional degree. Guys don’t want to marry women that are more educated than they are.”

    It took me a long time to get that voice out of my head. My dad is great, but my family was the classic dad-works-mom-stays-home-with-kids arrangement. Now, here I am, an attorney married to a construction worker with a high school education. I feel blessed to have found someone who isn’t threatened by a little diploma, who loves his work, and who works WAY harder than I do–often in subzero temperatures. As you said, we are choosing our own roles!

    • Ha, I just wrote my comment, which also features a quote from my dad that haunted me. C’mon dads, stop dispensing outdated ideas of masculinity to your daughters! (I’m an attorney married to a stay-at-home dad/candy maker with a not-so-useful B.A., by the way, pleased to meet you.)

      • BreckW

        Mmmmm, homemade candy. Lucky you!

      • Gina

        Nice to meet you :) Yes, I know they mean well, but for some reason their words stick in our heads… Congrats on finding your candy maker and SAHD!!

      • Loz

        My Dad told me that I shouldn’t tell my husband that I earn more than him, because that would hurt his pride. For some reason he thought having secrets in a marriage was a better option.

        For the record, when I get a pay rise my hubby is all like ‘woohoo more money for us!’

    • a single lady

      I’m really glad it’s worked out for you, but in my experience, those cultural expectations are not simply the drivel of an older generation. I’ve been told that I’m “too intellectual” and “too smart” and “too ambitious” and “too career-driven” by too many men to count. When I look around, I see a lot of smart, single straight women in their 30s who are frustrated by their inability to find men who want to date/partner/marry them. And we’ve all noticed that the men in our circles (with comparable degrees and careers) are most often partnered/married and to women who lack these degrees and careers (not saying they’re not smart women, but that men still seem to avoid women who might be perceived as intellectual equals or career rivals). So, yeah….I don’t want this to be the case (really, my friends and I would really like to find dates and partners), but it’s still in operation.

      • Eh

        I was told the same things by people (not my father – he knows better than to say that to me). When I started dating (after breaking up with a guy I had dated for over 5 years – who was my
        “equal”) I limited myself to guys who were my “equal” and found that many of them were intimidated by me (smart, career-driven woman with a Master’s degree). I widened my options (i.e., dating “down”) and found some men who couldn’t handle that I made more than them. I did eventually find an awesome guy who isn’t bothered by it (I think the social norm issue
        bothers me more).

      • Gina

        I didn’t mean to sound insensitive to the cultural realities of dating as an educated woman. I’m sorry you and your friends have had that experience, and I agree that the cultural narrative of man-as-breadwinner is still alive and well. I definitely met a lot of guys when dating whose first reaction to the “what do you do” question was “oh, that’s nice…” (avert eyes). I HAVE noticed it is more of a big city phenomenon, perhaps because the types of people who live in big cities are more career-driven.

    • Rachael

      Like @a single lady, I’ve been on the short end of male insecurity when it comes to the intelligence of their female partner. I’ve had many, many men almost immediately get intimidated and/or lose interest when they found out I have (or was working toward) a Ph.D. in science. I also had a long term relationship with another scientist who couldn’t handle having a partner as smart or smarter than him. But, the way I look at it is I would rather have someone love me for my brain than my looks anyway, so insecurity on the intelligence front just weeded out the dating pool for me.

      I married a cop who digs my brain. And while I’m obviously much more knowledgeable in some topics than my husband, he runs circles around me when it comes to other areas. It’s added diversity to our relationship and our social circles.

      • Gina

        So much this: “I would rather have someone love me for my brain.” And it is the greatest having different strengths than your partner! I can’t imagine being married to someone in the same career as me. It would be SOOOO boring.

    • La’Marisa-Andrea

      Sadly, there are lot of men who don’t or who will attempt to compensate for that in some other way. But that doesn’t mean the guy YOU want to marry will be that way and clearly he’s not. Yay for you! But it sucks to go around thinking no man will want you if you have more education than he does.

  • Anononon

    As my partner falters in school while I chug full steam ahead, I definitely do have some fears about our different paths. One thing I worry about is his tendency to talk out of his ass. Growing up he got pretty used to being the smartest guy in the room (Translates into some unintentional mansplaining sometimes). He’s a very smart guy but his expertise nowadays usually falls under music and an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books. He reads an impressive amount of fiction. These are the things he enjoys and it’s great! But as someone who is studying political science, it is painfully obvious when he has no idea what is going on in the world but decides to bullshit his way through a conversation anyways. It makes socializing as a couple within my field a little scary, and then I feel guilty for having anxiety about it.

  • Thank you so much for writing this. I could have written parts of it myself five years ago, if I were more tuned into some the dynamics of my relationship with my then-boyfriend. Like your fiance, he works hard, but his ambition is for home and family. He is loving, kind, generous, and an amazing caretaker. This is why I love him. Like you, I pursued my education and found myself in a career that out-earns almost anything he could do. It probably always will. It wasn’t ambition that brought me here, exactly, it was a natural result of ever-expanding opportunities for women and choices I was encouraged to make by my rather traditional family. Logically, I know that what you say in the last paragraph is true. That I did not make a mistake. That we are the product of “a changed economy and a shift in gender roles.” That I am not trapped. That we chose our roles within our family and are creating our own identities. I know this. But when things get hard — and this arrangement can get hard, especially when you bring a kid into the picture — I can hear my dad’s words as he was asking about my boyfriend’s career plans so many years ago ringing in my ears: “There’s nothing worse for a family than an unemployed husband.” I know he was wrong about that. But I have occasional bouts of insecurity and wonder if maybe things would be better, or easier, if we’d followed a more traditional path. If I’d followed a more traditional path and not married “down.” Writing that, and reading it when you wrote it, makes me cringe in shame, by the way. It is so far from how I feel about my marriage. If my husband found out that I thought for a minute that this situation applies to us it would crush him. But the truth is that other people think it, and that fact haunts me, and so I need to confront it. So, thank you for helping me do that. Re-reading this comment, I realize it’s not particularly encouraging to somebody in your shoes, so I do want to tell you that the good in this arrangement far outweighs the bad. We are mostly the happiest. Nothing brings me more joy that realizing that I was right when I thought that he would make the most incredible father. I hope it is encouraging to know that there are other couples out there walking this same path and helping to change the conversation about what a man looks like, what a woman looks like, and what a marriage looks like. I know it helps me.

  • I think it’s good that you’ve been able to find balance in your relationship, but I think that the reason so many people DO side-eye is because it usually ISN’T 50/50 and the woman ends up picking up the slack no matter how feminist she may be. Not by choice, I have been the breadwinner the past 3.5 years of our marriage. It irked me to no end that not only was I bringing in 2/3 of our household income, but due to my husband’s demanding hours, yet crappy pay job, I was still doing about 90% of the housework as well. Now that my husband has finally landed a career position, I am hoping he will start picking up the slack at home. Because I can’t even imagine the burden that will fall on me when we have children. Other than that though, our marriage is great. But there are definite times that I feel like I need more of a partner

    • anon

      I hear you. I was in a very similar situation. That terror–“when we have a baby, I’ll be taking care of both of them”–led to my divorce. Obviously that isn’t true for everyone, and everyone handles it differently–likely with more grace than me. But I give that situation the side-eye. People would tell us openly that he “married up”, which was always strange. I’m now remarried to a partner with an ambition level that matches mine, and it’s no longer a source of frustration. I don’t agree with the comments here that say that it’s hard when you’re both ambitious. We both bring in money, we both do housework, we both take care of the fur kids. Shrug.

      • This was exactly my situation too. I worked in non-profit and made more than his accounting job (how that was even possible, I will never know). He had set hours and I worked ridiculously long days, and I felt like I had to manage his life 100% (to the point where he couldn’t even get a hair cut without me reminding him for weeks on end). I knew 6 months into our marriage that I couldn’t have kids with him because I would have been raising them both.

        “Ambition” doesn’t necessarily mean always looking for the next big thing or having grandiose plans. It means knowing you want to make an impact on the world, in some way, and having an idea or plan of how to do it. If that’s going out and earning a ton of money, great. If that’s staying home with children, amazing. The problem for me arose when I realized that my husband just had no ambition whatsoever. He was going to work in his extremely underpaying job forever because it was comfortable and didn’t require him to step outside of his comfort zone at all, and he also would never have agreed to stay home with our family for any length of time – and to be honest it would have been a disaster if he had because he could never have made it through a day with a child.

    • Jess

      Your comment made something my mom said this past weekend really hit home

      She mentioned that my dad had done a huge amount of spending time with us and being an involved parent – they both worked in demanding careers, though she has always made more than him. I didn’t think about it much when I was growing up, but they really did manage to trade home-front efforts based on whose job was more demanding at the time. I just thought that was how families worked.

      Now I’m going to do some serious assessment of whether or not that’s what I have – because I don’t think I can deal with less than a true partnership. I hope things work out now that your husband has a career position with fewer hours.

      • Thank you Jess. He will def have a better schedule now but he does need to step it up at home. He has admitted as such , so he at least realizes it’s a problem. I have no doubt he will make a wonderful father too, but I see him wanting to do all the fun stuff and pawning off the other less-fun stuff to me (grocery shopping ,laundry, etc). I plan on working toward more equality this year in regards to managing the homefront.

        • Jess

          Hey, awareness is the first step, right?

          My mom always says the nice part about kids is that you get to pawn some of the less-fun stuff on them once they’re tall enough to do said task (reach into the washer/hold the broom…). Weeding, vacuuming, dusting, sweeping, and laundry sorting/sock pairing? Totally kid friendly.

          I got to teach people in the dorms how to do laundry because I’d been doing it since I was 10. Kids are way capable and if I have them I’m totally putting them to work too.

    • Are you saying that people side-eye heterosexual relationships where the woman out-earns the man because they assume that she is also picking up the “second shift” at home in terms of house and childcare responsibilities? I agree that this is still a big problem, but it’s certainly not an accurate picture of all such relationships, and the assumption that it is can be really damaging because it relies on and perpetuates the stereotype that men who choose to take on a more domestic role or who aren’t ambitious career-wise are lazy.

      • I didn’t say that’s how it is 100% of the time, I said that it’s USUALLY the case. What your stating is exactly what the author was trying to convey–that her relationship defies stereotypes. What I’m saying is that stereotypes exist for a reason. While in her relationship she may be okay with being the breadwinner and having a partner who handles the domestic responsibilities, in my case, I would prefer a partner who helps me with earning the income and takes an equally responsible role at home

        • I wasn’t reacting to your statement about how things usually are, but to your justification of people giving relationship’s like the author’s the “side-eye.” It’s one thing to want something different for yourself; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to judge someone else’s. If anything, we should encourage relationships like this, because they make it more acceptable for men to take on a larger share of the domestic work. When we treat them like something suspect, we just reinforce the current, harmful, narrative.

          • Well then I must have not been articulate enough because I certainly wasn’t justifying stereotypes or judging her choice. I think it’s great that she is comfortable enough in her own relationship with the choices she’s made. I am disagreeing, though, that all women would be comfortable with this situation because in many cases (not all, but many) men do not step up to the plate in regards to domestic responsibilities even when they are not the main breadwinner.

          • Thanks for clarifying. I certainly won’t disagree with you there; there have been enough APW posts about division of labor to show me that this is a real problem for many feminist women/couples.

    • Meg Keene

      I want to say A) I hear you and validate you, but B) It doesn’t have to be like that/ isn’t always like that, so I want to be careful about making absolute statements.

      In our household, my male spouse takes on more of the chores. That’s actually the only way we’re able to balance it out, since I have 50% of the work responsibilities plus more than 50% of the childcare responsibilities. But he does 100% of the cooking, and probably 65% of the cleaning. That’s how our balance shakes out.

      So I want to acknowledge this is a real problem for a lot of people, but not fall into the trap of claiming “that’s just how it is” or “just how it has to be.” Men are perfectly capable of pulling their weight, and should be expected to. And I know tons of men that do.

      • I never made an absolute statement. I specifically said “it USUALLY isn’t 50/50” bc obviously there are exceptions to everything.

        • Meg Keene

          I’m contesting that though, nicely. I don’t think that it’s rare for it to be 50/50, in this generation.

          • oh, well then we’ll definitely have to agree to disagree on that one.

          • I’d really be interested to hear about how this generation is doing with the Second Shift (which is, I think, what the breakup of chores would fall into).

          • Jess

            I wonder if we don’t hear about the 50/50 or the full-time-dad cases as much, so it seems like they rare. They aren’t as loud as the women who complain that they are trying to have-it-all, and therefore have to do-it-all.

    • Maria

      I agree how odd it is that sometimes the person earning significantly more money also has a more flexible schedule and more time at home, which can translate to more housework. That’s my husband and I to a tee – he makes significantly less than I do, but he’s essentially locked to his desk 8-5, while I can work from home, leave early, or arrive late, as long as I get things done at work. But the toughest part is how miserable he is at his job – looking forward to some changes in the future, however that shakes out!

  • Melanie

    Thank you. I am in graduate school for psychotherapy and my fiancé works a retail job where he is passionate about the brand and the work. He is happy. I am happy. I know he loves working for this company and he wants me to pursue the education and that makes me feel fulfilled.

    We know that I will likely out earn him in the long run but he is also determined to save and work hard so that I can stay home for awhile when we have young children (and thankfully, Canada gives 1 year leaves). I would be unhappy if I could not be at home with our future babies so we are working to make it possible for us.

  • Eh

    This really resonates with me. My mother was also the breadwinner (at least when I was young – my dad worked part-time and then went back to school, eventually he did make more than her but he sacrificed his career for hers). Due to her career in financial services and then financial planning, my mom was rarely home when I was a kid.

    After seeing my mom’s life I always thought I would marry a guy that made as much or more than me (unlike the author, my mother never suggested this). When I met my husband he was in school (even though we are the same age, I had already completed my master’s degree and I was already a few years into my career since he didn’t go to post-secondary right after high school and then decided to switch programs). He was in college for IT but when he finished there were few jobs in his field (at least where we live), and he was offered the general manager position at the chain restaurant where he had been working part-time through school. It’s not what he wants to do but it is work and it pays the bills.

    We have discussed him taking time off when we have kids (we live in Canada so we have 1 year mat/parental leave but we couldn’t live off my reduced income for a year). I think having father’s take more of a role in parenting is important. My father took care of us growing up and I think it gave us a different perspective than kids with stay-at-home-mom’s (when he worked part-time it was around our schedule, when he went back to school it was around our schedule, and his second career was in teaching so he always had the same vacation time as us – my parents were a bit ahead of the times).

    Another thing that really resonated with me is the comment on social norms when people ask me about what my husband does. One of the most uncomfortable conversations I had was with my ex (we are still friends). My ex was the only guy I have ever dated that was my “equal” (I grew up in a small town so I usually dated “down”). He has a PhD and he has a good paying job, and he is a bit of a snob (he had a hard time relating to my working-class relatives and he was intimidated when I was up for promotion around the time we broke up because I would make more than him). When he asked about my husband (at the time my boyfriend) I mentioned that he was still in school. My ex assumed that he was doing a master’s degree. I sheepishly mentioned that he was in college for IT. Now when people ask me about my husband I don’t have the “he’s in school” excuse. I mention that he is a manager at a restaurant and then people ask the dreaded question “which one?” and I embarrassedly mention the name of the chain (it’s really not that bad, it’s a family restaurant and not fast food). I need to get over it but it’s hard when most of the people in my social circle have husbands who are the breadwinner (that said, most of my family/friends around my age who are working class have partnerships where the husband does take on more “domestic work” and child care role than might be traditional since the cost of childcare is so much). I am very proud of him and his job will provide us with flexibility when we have children, but it’s just not what people expect when they meet me. (Note: My husband and FIL had a whole conversation about “pink” work on the weekend – I pointed out that my husband actually does most of the cleaning and I “run” the household.)

  • ElisabethJoanne

    Though we both have graduate degrees from top-10 programs, and he has 10 more years’ experience, my husband has been unlucky, I guess, and unemployed for as long as I’ve known him. I’m now at a job that pays well enough that we could have kids and still be fine on one income. But my husband wants to work because he feels this social pressure about “What do you do?” I grew up with Mom working and Dad at home, so I can handle the cocktail parties, but he can’t. I think we’d be happier if he stopped looking for work, but he doesn’t think he’d be happier, so for now, he keeps looking.

  • Caroline

    I love this. It’s so true. It was amazing how much palpable relief there was on so many people’s parts (my parents, one of my teachers/rabbis, strangers, people at my synagogue,…) there was when my partner went back to school. Suddenly, I wasn’t marrying down quite so much in their eyes. My partner grew up very poor , started working as a tilesetter with his dad as a kid, did a year of college but due to family issues could not continue, and when we lived together worked as a tilesetter, worked as a shipping clerk, worked various odd construction jobs, and worked at my dad’s tech startup which made him decide to go back to school. I grew up upper-middle class or wealthy, went to private college prep school, went to a state college for a few months before withdrawing for health reasons and then worked as a kitchen manager for a couple years before returning to school. We’ve dated since high school, but the “you’re dating down” pressure was so intense after we moved in together after my first attempt at college and exacerbated after I went back to school. It really caused so many problems with my family. I think for my mom, she was the breadwinner, and my dad worked a creative interesting less well paid job, and when she wanted to stay home with the kids, he was resentful that it meant he left his creative job for less interesting corporate work. Also, my mom did almost all the childrearing while a partner at a major law firm, although she had a lot of hired help. But not a lot of help from my dad.

    Things have definitely changed in terms of gender dynamics. I hope I will be able to find a job with a decent maternity leave (possibly unrealistic I know), and then will return to work. If a parent stays home, which we aren’t really plannin on anymore, having settled in a high cost of living area, it would be him. He is the one who does 90% of household work, and I expect he will do a lot of the childrearing as well although I will too. But it seems unlikely that I will do all/most of it. Our goal is to share it evenly, or for me to be the breadwinner and him to be the caretaker more.

  • graceb123

    This reminds me of the conversation between Ryan Gosling and Michelle William’s characters in Blue Valentine. The man is content with “less” and the woman looks around her and wants more. I’ve definitely been in that place. It’s an interesting one that the OP is in in this piece.

    • Rachel

      Author here!

      Grace, I think about that movie a lot and how the situations are similar. I really loved his character for how involved he was in parenting but I could also sympathize with her frustration at feeling like she was carrying the heavier load. Such an emotionally loaded movie. Here’s hoping my life doesn’t actually turn out like that!

      • graceb

        Same! That conversation is so true and so terrifying to me! It sounds like you and your fiance know what your goals and values are and are making it work! I think that the woman can totally be the breadwinner as long as the couple is comfortable with it. Your fiance seems really happy with his position and knows that your relationship is what matters, not the money overall. My ex was someone who was not college educated and that was just a piece of a puzzle of immaturity that we dealt with in our relationship and was a big deal for us.

  • Karen

    Remember the lesbians! I’d like to chime in here and say this doesn’t just affect straight couples. In most of my adulthood I’ve dated women who had either similar education levels than me or more. I always strived for a higher education level for myself so I had an education/classist view of the world. By the time I met my partner I had been through the school of hard knocks and definitely had time to reevaluate my beliefs. My partner has an Associate’s degree, I have a master’s degree. At first the fact that I had more education than her was intimidating to her. But I made sure she understood that education level is just one aspect of a person, it does not define their character. M works really, really hard in her field (probably harder than me because she thinks she has more to prove). She doesn’t have the vocabulary that I do but that’s because we learn differently, it doesn’t mean I’m any smarter than she is. M is confident in her skills and who she is but she doesn’t think she’s better than anyone else (unlike women I dated previously). She’s kind, caring, sweet, thoughtful, and considerate – characteristics that everyone I dated before her lacked. So, yes, she has the lowest level of education of anyone I’ve ever dated but she is the best partner I could have ever asked for. I’m so grateful I went through some hard knocks before she came along that helped me be more open to possibilities that I wouldn’t have considered before.

  • Lizzie C.

    Rachel, thanks for such a thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I identify with it in several ways: my government-exec mom earned triple what my author/teacher dad did; I earn a little more than my husband and he does more housework because I have a lot of extracurricular activities; I’ve witnessed my husband angsting a lot over the low social status of his work; etc.

    I wonder how this balancing act would read from a “marrying up” angle. Did my husband feel he “married up” because until this month, I’ve brought home the bigger paycheck? Can it ever be considered marrying up when the lower-paid partner gets constant grief from friends and relatives about earning less or being in an unambitious job?

    My relatives say they always saw me marrying someone in a high-profile political or academic job. Instead I fell in love with an elementary school teacher and I’ve never looked back. That said, I do feel I married down in terms of family. I come from a big, affectionate, close-knit clan, and my husband from a small, fearful, manipulative family of origin. I try to am ashamed for my mom to hear about the painful pettiness that my husband fields from his parents. If I could trade some of my income for kinder in-laws, I would.

  • I struggle a lot with this topic, because I have become the head breadwinner by leaps and bounds. We met in college, and he graduated in 2007 right as everything was going to hell in a handbasket. His degree turned out to be pretty worthless, aside from being able to check off “Bachelor’s” in the “highest level of education attained” box on applications. He got a good warehouse job, and it helped pay the bills. Still, my degree landed me a better job out of college, which has helped me land better jobs after that. When we moved for my career, his opportunities were fewer, because we moved to a rural place where suddenly having the college degree didn’t necessarily make him more desirable; I think it made him look like more of a flight risk than in a college-city where it’s fairly typical to have an education but not the best job. He is now massively under-employed and plans on being a stay-at-home dad when our baby comes this summer, because even if his PT job would bump him up to FT, it wouldn’t pay enough to have anything leftover after daycare. He’s in grad school for the same program I went to grad school for and we’re hoping and hoping that we can become equal earners in the next few years, or at least have the potential to be that.

    Why is this troubling for me? Because I have the mighty fear that were I to lose my job, we would be seriously, seriously fucked. Having two people who have a fairly similar earning potential gives me a sense of security I miss when at least he had a warehouse job that, while not glamourous, at least contributed more equally. I don’t care about the equality relationship-wise, because that’s neither here nor there to me (he does a lot of housework that otherwise we’d be splitting more equally, etc); I DO care about the potential disaster his underemployment could mean for him long-term, even after he finishes grad school. Is “stay at home dad” going to wreck havoc on his already-mediocre resume? It’s possible, given the way being a stay-at-home-dad isn’t really accepted as much as being a mom is.

    So I feel the OP on this issue. It’s really hard to explain to people that oh, yeah, I’m a person with this professional job, and my husband is a part-time maintenance worker for Parks & Rec, particularly because this wasn’t how it was supposed to be (even though, yes, he’s in grad school, and that helps when I get the raised eyebrow). I have such a fear of failure because I am the one keeping us largely afloat, so if something happens to me, like government layoffs, we’d be in some serious shit. I’m really happy he’s excited to be a stay-at-home-dad (because in his words, it will feel more like he’s being the provider he knows people expect him to be, in addition to being really good with little kids). I’m grateful he’s really happy to take on that role, I just hope that one day, not everything will ride so much on me. Purely for anxiety levels. I’m worried his underemployment will always mean I am the head breadwinner by leaps and bounds, even if he ends up with the same degree I have. But maybe time will tell…

    In short, I think I’d do better with this if I’d known from the start just how un-equal our earning situation would be. However, I’m just trying to go with the flow here. You can marry thinking you’ll be equal earners, and it may not be that way at all!

    • Jessica Nelson

      Hi Hayley,
      I don’t know if this will help at all…but I think in most relationships with one primary breadwinner and one stay at home parent, the family would be in some major trouble if the breadwinner became unemployed. I don’t think the actual financial/future employment prospectives for the two of you would be much different if the gender roles were reversed — but maybe your anxiety level would be different because having the man be the sole breadwinner seems more “normal”?
      On a more practical level, if it’s at all possible for you to start living like you only have one income right now, and saving everything he makes, it will help you build a cushion in case of emergencies and get you used to the new budget.

  • Thank you. I find myself in a sort of similar situation: I’m working towards a PhD, and my partner, who may or may not get a Master’s degree (probably not) is likely making the most money he will ever make, and really would prefer to stay at home, raise children, and write in his spare time.

    Most people don’t seem too worried about this arrangement, but I do know that my partner is constantly worried that we will never be wealthy enough to have the lives we dreamt of when we were younger (when you just assumed you would have enough money to go on vacation, live in a clean house you owned, own a car and not worry about the insurance costs). I keep constantly reassuring him: yes, I still have those dreams, but what’s more important is that those dreams would be entirely empty with someone else by my side. I’m not marrying him because I expect him to publish his novel and get rich from it. I’m not marrying him because I’m hoping that I’ll be able to find a sweet, well-paying gig and he’ll be able to stay home and eat bon-bons and be a kept man. I’m marrying him because I want to spend our lives together as partners–we’ll deal with the rest.

  • SaMant1s

    Holee chit, I could almost believe this piece was written by me! My husband has been working in warehouse and logistical jobs since he was 16 and is currently working for a chemical distributor, making giant vats of hazardous chemicals all day, which, surprisingly, doesn’t pay as much as you’d think it would. I come from a family of professors and engineers and lawyers and I am a law librarian. Thus, I am, and will likely forever be, primary breadwinner. It bothers my parents, but since S and I are able to live comfortably and save money for a house, it doesn’t bother me. Like the OP’s fiance, my husband says he works to earn a living wage so that we can have a good life and he doesn’t care if his jobs aren’t “fulfilling” (though he does wish he could work at a place where his clothes don’t have to be quarantined in the garage after being worn).

  • JT

    Thank you SO much for posting about this. I grapple with this issue so much and I feel like people never talk about it. There have been plenty of conversations about what it is like when a woman is the primary breadwinner, but not as many about what it’s like when your male partner isn’t defined by his career the way you are. I am incredibly ambitious, on a demanding career track, and work in a creative field where a lot of passion is involved. My work is a big part of who I am. My boyfriend is an assistant to a finance bigwig, a job that allows us a certain amount of financial freedom (it pays very well)–financial freedom that he didn’t have growing up, and that we wouldn’t necessarily have if he chose another path (my job does not pay well, for now, but will hopefully be quite lucrative as I ascend the ladder). Nobody has ever actively placed judgment on him/our situation, but I get these kinds of questions all the time, “So, is he, like interested in finance?”, “Will he go into finance?”, “Is he going to get his MBA?” If I’m being honest, these are questions I ask myself too in weaker moments–but that is why other people’s judgment is so unhelpful. I am already anxious about my future and I don’t really want everybody weighing in. Mostly, I just want him to be happy, and I worry that his job may not be fulfilling. Still, I always wonder, if the genders were reversed, is this something we would be thinking or talking about at all?

  • seriously?

    Does anyone editing this site have a basic concept of how grammar and mechanics work?

    • Karen

      On this site we have a basic agreement to talk to each other courteously and respectfully. If you have suggestions, thoughts, or ideas, you should contact a member of the APW team directly rather than tear them down in this way.

    • Karen

      On this site we have a basic agreement to talk to each other courteously and respectfully. If you have suggestions, thoughts, or ideas you should take it to the APW staff directly. Making this kind of comment here is disrespectful.

  • eemusings (NZMuse)


    I’ve never really blogged about it, but for the past few years I’ve been in a similar position. My partner worked in a warehouse (which I sometimes fancied up and passed off as ‘logistics’), though not really out of choice – the GFC hit hard and as someone without higher education and no trade qualifications either, and nothing he really wanted to study, it was a steady job. He’s moved into sales now which is a lot more respectable and socially acceptable (and he’s the first person in his family to have a ‘professional’ white collar job). It definitely had made me uncomfortable in the past being the educated, earning one, in a society that still places so much value on a man’s work.

  • Billy_Pilgrim

    Thank you so, so much for writing this! I literally stopped reading in the middle and yelled “well f*ck yeah!” so loud that it startled my dog.

    I’m in a similar situation. My mother was a highly educated breadwinner and my father stayed home, but her resentment of that role was one of the factors that ended their marriage, and I think she’s made a point of judging her kid’s relationships through the same lens.

    There is so much written about how restrictive traditional gender roles are for women, but not nearly enough about how they are also damaging to men and how that imbalance can be really destructive in relationships.

  • Chop

    This came at such a great time. I just clashed over this with someone at work- older, married woman- and it upset me. She (figuratively) patted the 2 men I work with on the head because they make 2x what their public school teacher wives make nand essentially told me that it was nice that I had a job to amuse myself with while my fiance was away from home. And visibly grimaced when she found out that I, too, make double because “it makes him feel like he isn’t a real man”. Words can’t describe how angry I was. Especially since when said fiance found out how much I was going to make taking this job, he asked if he could quit his and be a stay at home dog walker/cook because he’d be happier. GRRR.

  • chaos

    I “married up”. I hadn’t intended to. I had always assumed I would be the primary breadwinner, but it turned out that the boy I fell in love with who shared my values and with whom I wanted to build a life with happened to be exceedingly brilliant, went to an Ivy League school at 16, and earned a PhD in engineering from an Ivy League school 26 and will always outearn me. I see the whole person and I know that he is more than his academic and professional accomplishments. And I am proud of him, but I also am uncomfortable with the fact that I “married up”. It’s one of the reasons why I won’t change my last name. He has so much status that I’m afraid of people thinking I married him for the status if we go by “Dr. & Mrs. HisFirst HisLast” . So even though my career accomplishments pale in comparison and my career will not suffer if I were to change names, I hate how it seems to exacerbate his high status, so I won’t do it.

  • Me too

    We have an interesting situation which has allowed us to see this from both sides. My husband is not American, and his job (university professor) is both very high-prestige here and surprisingly low-prestige in his home country. Meanwhile, I work for a small business, the kind of position that in America is respectable but certainly lower down on the prestige scale than professorship. In his country, though, I’m definitely seen as having ‘married down.’ We spend the summers abroad (I work from home) and the number of comments we both receive in social settings about why he would choose not to go into business, why I would marry a man with low ambitions, etc., is mind-blowing. I’m proud of my husband – his work, his homelife, everything. But more than that, it’s all just so rude and judgmental! I can’t really imagine having to put up with that all year long.

  • carolynprobably

    Saw this today and thought some of y’all might find it interesting. “A new working paper by an international team of economists finds that better educated people are increasingly more likely to marry other better-educated people while those with less formal schooling are more likely to choose a less well-educated partner.”


  • CPR

    I’ll also be “marrying down” when my fiancé and I seal the deal this October. I have a college degree, he doesn’t. I have a career in my field of study while he’s had “jobs” since he dropped out of college after realizing the environment simply wasn’t stimulating for him. I make more money than him and probably always will. But you know what? He’s the smartest guy I know and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts (though maybe that’s just cause my abs could use a good workout). He’s happy at his “job” because he doesn’t have to bring it home with him and he can focus his energy and efforts on his writing, his drawing, and his friends and family. If we have children, he’ll likely be the stay-at-home dad to my briefcase toting mom. Every time I’m faced with “explaining” my choice of life partner and his perceived lack of motivation, I remember this awesome comic about building a meaningful life by Bill Watterson – http://imgur.com/r/pics/66DxiHX – and it reaffirms my faith that there are people out there that get it. And that I’m just lucky enough to have found one of them in my fiancé.

  • J

    Thank you for this! My partner and I are 11 years into a journey that has taught me more everyday about differences – one of those was my drive towards graduate school, licensure and added credentials while she has viewed/views work as the paycheck that supports our family – no more and no less. I don’t always understand it because it’s not my reality. As a lesbian couple in VA – we may never marry (because we choose this and that’s another post entirely). But I’ve learned that “marrying down” is about education/money and being with someone who wants little more than to love you is the best kind of foundation for dating/marriage/partnership ever. Best wishes to you both as you figure out your own love and journey … you know your truth and your love. It’s okay to silence the incredulous and disbelieving voices and faces.

  • Eva

    What I’m confused about with regards to a lot of the commenters is why society expects us to have roles at all — even if they are flipped or “traditional?” I too am the primary breadwinner but I also know that he doesn’t really clean and we both like to cook. We’re trying to navigate our individual jobs and strengths within our marriage, well beyond “I’m the breadwinner so I’m glad I have a partner who prefers to stay home and cook,” irrespective of cultural roles. This probably stems from the fact that he’s not the “wife” to my moneymaking husband…I love my career and he doesn’t mind laundry. He loves what he does and I don’t mind dishes. I’d rather figure it out as a couple and do the best we can than have to stereotype outdated gender roles, reversed or not.

  • Julie

    “…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.”

    Thank you for this — it is a helpful reminder that changing gender roles are not just about women!

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