I recently realized that I make double what my husband makes.
I know, that sounds weird. But I run a small communications firm, and when you run your own business, numbers are a little more opaque than you’d think. I know what my monthly take-home pay is, but I’m not sure how that correlates to a full time salary. I know I get lump sum payments a couple of times a year, but I don’t tend to add them up (I just stick them in a savings account). My husband (who’s an accountant) is mostly in charge of our household books, and he’s always told me that I “make a little bit more than him.” I never thought to question it.
Then I sat down and did a deep dive into budgeting. And what I saw didn’t look right to me. So I crunched one number after another, until I realized I wasn’t making “a little” more than my husband. I was making double.
We’ll skip the fact that my husband somehow felt the pressure to tell himself (and me) that we made the same amount—because I think we all know the answer to that—and move right on to the question of why this is even a big deal.
wHen A Woman Earns More
Somehow, in 2016, it’s still rare when a woman significantly out-earns her husband. In fact, when I run through the mixed gender couples that I know, I can count on one hand the number of women who noticeably earn more than their husbands. Fuck. I can probably count them on two fingers. As a result? I also know a whole lot of women staying home with their kids (whether they like it or not) because “math.”
“The math just works out that way.” I’ve heard the reason a thousand times (sometimes on APW) and often from reasonably high-earning couples. It’s why she had to give up her rewarding career. It’s why she has to take the kids to the doctors’ appointments. It’s why she works reduced hours so she can handle daycare pick-up and drop-off and sick days. It’s why the family isn’t investing in any kind of childcare. It’s why she takes care of all the emotional labor for the family.
But here’s the thing. In our family? I’m still doing most of those things. Which isn’t to say that my husband doesn’t participate. He does. He’s a badass feminist partner and parent, and he cooks and cleans and does his share with our daughter. But I’m still the one handling most childcare pick-ups and drop-offs. I take our baby on most sick days. I still do more doctors’ appointments. And I still do the vast majority of the emotional labor.
Looking at the cold hard numbers, I suddenly had to ask myself why that was. Because in the households we know where the husband is earning double, he’s sure as hell not taking his kids to every doctor’s appointment and buying every teacher appreciation gift. In all likelihood he has a wife who stays home full or part time, because “math.”
the dubious Double Standard of Self-Employment
So why am I in this position? On the surface, it’s because my job is more flexible. Working for yourself gives you some advantages, but most dudes I know that run companies use those advantages to claim that makes them too busy (and important) to handle an annoying midday pediatric doctor’s appointment. But as a woman, the expectation is that running my own shop means I have the flexibility to handle all the throw up. Which I do, while trying to convince myself that I should be really grateful I get to do this! My daughter throwing up on me in the middle of a busy workday is such a blessing… right? Some weeks, I feel like my job is being flexed into non-existence.
Below the surface, it’s less simple. We live in a culture that inherently values men’s work more than women’s work (no matter what that work is). If my husband ran his own company, people would fawn over him at dinner parties (I know, because I’ve seen those guys at parties). They’d be quick to assume he must be very, very busy providing for his family. Instead, because it’s my business, people routinely imply that my accountant husband must be supporting me, or that soon I’ll be able to stop work altogether because of his future earnings.
As a result, I feel constantly pressured to make sure I’m putting my husband’s career first. And even though it would probably be most practical for us if he dropped down to eighty percent time, we feel enormous pressure to not slow down the momentum of his career. The thing that frustrates me most is that women I know in his position have quit entirely, like it or not. But I feel bad suggesting he slow down his career by a few hours a week.
And of course, my husband didn’t ask for this. He loves being an accountant. He’s good at being an accountant. He even volunteers his services for pro-bono work, so he’s ethically driven by what he does. I don’t want to take any of that away from him. But I’m also tired of being the one who seems to lose five or more hours of much needed work time every week, and who runs herself ragged picking out gifts and cards and handling social invitations. All while being responsible for the vast majority of our bills.
The Bigger Problem
After I figured out what the math really was, I sat down and had a heart to heart with my husband. And while the outside world might devalue women’s work, he doesn’t. So he’s working harder at taking more childcare pick-ups and drop-offs, and he’ll consider dropping down to ninety percent time if we really need it.
But the bigger problem? The problem where people can barely cover their feelings that my work is a joke? The problem where people ask me if I’m going to quit to stay home with our daughter soon, but never ever ask my husband the same question? That problem I can’t solve.
The Math Often Has Little To Do With It
I did learn one thing from examining our income, though. I figured out that when you hear the logic “the math just works out that way” applied to a woman’s lower earning job being taken less seriously, take a minute. Think about it. If the guy were earning less, would the same kinds of sacrifices be demanded of him? Every so often, the answer is yes. And in that case, it is in fact just math. But often, the answer is a resounding NOPE. If the guy were making less, the woman would probably be asked to make even more sacrifices so he could nab a promotion or two.
And when that’s the case? Burn it down.
But actually, negotiate. Negotiate until it’s fair. Or at least something approaching fair… ish. Because at the moment, that may be as close as we can come to winning.