The XX Factor

What Happens When the Wife Earns More? Sometimes, Panic Attacks.

“He said he felt like he was letting me down.”

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Last week Hanna Rosin wrote about the results of her breadwinner wives survey, and more generally about the various power dynamics in relationships in which the woman earns more than the man. We also asked readers to share their own experiences, and we received many wonderful responses. Here is one of them:

Name: Laura H.

City: Madison, Wisconsin

There was an uncomfortable moment in the month of March the first year after I was married.

We were doing our taxes together, huddled around our computer. We were dorky-excited to click on the cheerful bubble-couple icon on the free TurboTax online forms to signal that we had married in the past year. And then a blank that needed filling: head of household. And that was the moment. I felt instantly that my name should go there, but I hesitated—would he mind?

We met in college at a large public university. I majored in education while my husband (boyfriend at the time) studied history. When we graduated, we lived off credit cards and old college jobs while I searched for a teaching job. Luckily, I found one, and began life as an 8th grade English teacher in the fall of 2009. My husband, however, didn’t have a clear career track in mind, and the economy was the pits. There was a dearth of entry level jobs. Everyone was asking for 3, 4, 8 years’ experience. He continued working at his college job at Starbucks. It provided health insurance, and the wages weren’t as bad as they could have been.

A few weeks into that first school year, he proposed. I didn’t hesitate.

I was paying pretty much all our bills. We both have student loans, but his are larger. I paid our groceries, cable, insurance, utilities. He paid half the rent and his loan payments. 

My husband started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, which he attributes largely to the feeling of failure he was experiencing. It was embarrassing to have a 4-year degree and be working at Starbucks. But more than that, he said he felt like he was letting me down. I could tell he tried to make up for it by shouldering more of the chores around the house. I’d come home to clean dishes and laundry done, and he would say it was only fair since I was the one with the “real” job.

In the fall of 2010, he got a job as a teller at a credit union. While it wasn’t a huge pay increase, at least he didn’t come home with mocha syrup in his hair. He no longer woke up in the middle of the night gasping for air. We got married 6 months later. 

When we did our taxes for the first time as a married couple in March, the facts were in front of us. For every $3 I earn, he earns $2. I am the one who takes a deduction on my tax form. I am the head of household.

In the next few years, we’d like to have a house and start a family. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever be able to take more than a few months off to stay home with a baby, and it depresses me. I’ve always seen myself as the type of person who would stay home for the formative years of my children’s lives. Whenever we talk about our future, there is often a pause where I feel a little resentful that the world just doesn’t seem to have arranged itself for us the way I’d like it to. Unless my husband lands some fantastic job somehow, it would make more sense for my husband to be a stay-at-home-dad. But I’m not sure I could handle the jealousy and disappointment.

We have an arrangement where my husband pays when we go out to eat once a week. I think it’s an important moment for us when the waiter drops off the bill, and my husband confidently picks it up. In that moment, he’s the one taking care of me. And everyone can see it.