A 30-something millennial explores what it means to become the ‘breadwinning’ woman in an outwardly woke society that secretly harbours massive patriarchal baggage.
Congratulations! You’ve evaded coerced-marriage at 23, navigated workplace sexism, shattered the glass ceiling, and somehow found yourself with a seven-figure salary that exceeds that of your new partner’s. Now what?
Resentment. In capital letters. Or so the zillion articles and research papers I read online tell me.
Before I started writing this piece, I sent a common text to all my women-only WhatsApp groups: ‘Do you or anybody you know make more than your partners?’
If not a single person in my vast network of upper caste, internationally educated, well-read and self-confessed ‘woke’ women makes more than their partners or is admitting to it, it’s a clear indication that either I have an incredibly homogenous circle, or that there’s an underlying theme at play.
Apart from the obvious gender pay gap, it also hints at a subconscious adherence to societal norms – a certain conformity in being drawn to traits that have historically made men more appealing to women, namely ambition and drive, patriarchal policies, and a less talked about matter– the freedom several upper-middle class Indian women have to pursue their passion, prioritise their health, or continue their education right up till their 30s without worrying about bringing in the bucks to sustain their lifestyle.
So like every lazy writer and voracious reader, I decided to rely on the internet for my research. Over the course of three days, I read more than 30 articles and research papers on the subject.
And the more I read, the more alarmed I was. Not just by way of society’s reaction to women breadwinners – which, let’s face it, is out to judge and therefore is not the focus of this article – but, even in the way couples deal with the topsy-turvy dynamics of such an arrangement.
I scrolled through Reddit threads and comment sections. I immersed myself in firsthand reports of female breadwinners. And I lapped up free advice from netizens who claimed to have been through the same.
What’s encouraging, skewed data aside, is that the percentage of women who make more than their partners in heterosexual relationships is on the rise. What’s concerning is the proportion of couples who are dissatisfied with this equation.
The word ‘resentment’ cropped up in nearly every piece I read.
I read about women resenting their partners for having to support their luxurious lifestyles. Of feeling burdened by not having the option to quit their jobs, should it get toxic. Of feeling undervalued by their partners despite the above. Of secretly wishing their partners would just ‘man up’ and build some ambition. Of playing down their achievements to coddle their partner’s ego. Of refusing to admit that they were bringing in the bucks. Of having to do the housework as well because their stay-at-home partner didn’t participate in the household as much as expected. Of feeling conflicted about it all. Of marriages straining, sex diminishing, and relationships ending. Of resentment, resentment, resentment.
Encouragingly, I also read about couples who were successfully navigating these foreign equations and were willing to share their learnings.
Which brings me to a delightful theory – it’s possible for more women and men to defy norms and recreate fresh dynamics – but only if they want to put in the work. And that we need more precedents and updated government policies to encourage those still on the fence.
We need to set more precedents
Growing up, most of us saw our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers playing the role of the primary breadwinner. On the off chance that they didn’t fit the role, a certain stigma shrouded their status. ‘He doesn’t do anything‘; ‘He’s useless‘; ‘He sits at home‘ were some phrases used to describe men without a profession. Naturally, this environment has played a role in shaping our perceptions.
Today, when those of us who are ambitious and hell-bent on shattering the glass ceiling go about doing so, there aren’t enough precedents that allow us to feel comfortable in these new roles.
Even if women accept these revised roles, societal stigma creeps its way in, rearing its ugly head in the form of resentment. We either feel like our partners aren’t doing enough. Or we feel the need to justify our situation by shying away from admitting that we are the ones bringing in the bucks, and compensating by doing more housework. According to this shocking study, the more men rely on their wives for economic support, the less housework they do, probably in order to make up for what they believe is a loss in ‘masculinity’.
As this study shows, we feel bound to invest ourselves emotionally into enabling our partners to gain respectable employment, should they lose their jobs.
Are we ready to bring in the bucks?
It’s one thing for society to accept women as breadwinners. But are we, as upper-middle class women, ready to take on complete responsibility for the household?
Are we ready to share our hard-earned money with our partners? To take the onus of putting food on the table, footing bills, and being responsible for rent, insurance and investments? To not rage-quit when our jobs get tough? To do the heavy-lifting in the relationship?
Are we ready to stop begrudging men for their lack of ambition? To start respecting our partners for their choices? To (sometimes) coming home to a wet towel on the bed, lukewarm food on the table, and our partner in his pajamas watching Succession – and not losing our cool?
Are we ready to accord unpaid labour the same mantle as paid labour? Of equalling caregiving and homemaking with a six-figure salary?
The reason I ask these pertinent questions is not to encourage women to let their partners get away with bad behaviour or to be exploited. Instead, it is to understand whether we’re up for the role that men have traditionally assumed for decades.
As we all know, patriarchy hurts men as much as women. Labelling men as protectors and providers puts the pressure on them to perform even when they might not want it.
It dumps an unreasonable standard on them to have to earn more, be more ‘masculine’ (whatever that means) and not give into emotions.
Similarly, many upper-caste, wealthy women have profited from patriarchy. It gives them time to pursue their passion without worrying about taking responsibility for food, shelter, and caregiving. After all, it’s a man’s domain to bring in the bucks. Isn’t it?
We have to assign equal value to ‘unpaid’ work like caregiving and homemaking
In an ideal world, both partners would contribute equally towards paid and unpaid labour. However, reality involves people with different levels of ambition, skills, health, personal drive, and goals. So how does one bridge the gap and pave the way for a truly gender-equal society?
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America puts it succinctly in this Huffpost article: ‘Women will only achieve parity with breadwinning men when men achieve parity with caregiving women.’
Elaborating further, she writes, ‘Given the way our species works, however, men are only going to want to become caregivers, for at least part of the time, when caregiving is accorded the same prestige and social value as breadwinning. When “Dad” is valued as much for the love and care he provides his family as “Mom” is valued for her success in the workplace and the resulting income she brings in. Better yet, when all human beings are valued equally for both sides of their nature, allowing men and women to decide to be both breadwinners and caregivers in any proportion they choose based on either their desires or circumstances.’
She continues by saying, ‘We should allow and encourage men to care just as much as we allow and encourage women to compete.’
So far, much of our conversation has been on getting women to shatter the glass ceiling, fight for their worth, and take on society’s unreasonable demands. What we’ve missed out on is enabling men to embrace their caregiving side, and respecting them for it.
We’re done shying away from success. Deal with it
I am an upper-middle class, privileged woman with no trust fund or family money to fall back on. I consider myself fairly ambitious. I’ve always had a singular goal – to work hard enough to earn money that can fulfill all my desires, while supporting my family, should they need help. So far, I’ve been stingy with my hard-earned cash. Six months ago, I splurged on a sunlit apartment with skyrocketing rent. I couldn’t sleep properly for a month. Till date, I try not to think about it. A part of me is even conscious about it.
As women, we’re programmed to be slightly self-conscious about our success. I once interviewed a famous influencer whose breadwinner status is common knowledge.
She sidestepped all questions that put the spotlight on her monetary success. What was inspiring about her, however, was that she repeatedly stressed on the equality of her relationship.
I think it’s time for an exchange of batons. It’s time for more women playing the role of the primary earner and more men busying themselves with housework. It’s time to set precedents that future generations can take inspiration from. It’s time to fight for policies on a government and company-wide scale that enable men to take on roles traditionally held by women.
Actively rejecting internalised patriarchy takes time and practice. It’s not going to be easy. But as Glennon Doyle puts in her critically acclaimed novel Untamed – “We can do hard things”.
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