We’re used to thinking of the man as being the primary breadwinner in the family. But does it matter if it’s the woman?

Increasingly among millennials the wife earns more than the husband. And the number of stay-at-home dads is increasing as well.

My husband is a pediatrician, and in our town all of the other pediatricians are women. In many cases, their husbands stay home with the kids because she’s making a lot more money and it just makes sense.

I also have several friends who are nurses and make a good salary where they are the ones who work and the dad stays at home.

Should this matter?

I don’t think so. I think each family should do what they want to do–and that’s what over 60% of you said in our survey of 20,000 women too!

At the same time, I think you should endeavour to make things work as a family the way you want them to work.

If she’s making more money because he’s pursuing his dream of music or of writing a novel or he can’t get motivated to look for a decent paying job, and so she has to work when she desperately wants to be home with the children–that’s an entirely different situation. Who stays home with the kids should be decided based on what makes the most sense not based on necessity because one person is lazy or unmotivated. 

I have also known women who work full-time but have the kids in daycare because he doesn’t care for them well if they’re at home.

Basically, my philosophy is that both people should work hard to help the family in the best way they can in a situation that they both decide works best. So whoever is home with the kids (if someone is) will likely do the bulk of the housework and grocery shopping and errands and planning, but both of you should still talk through emotional labor and mental load and ensure everyone does daily grind tasks and everyone has time off.

And check out our emotional labor and mental load series for more!

If you don’t want to do marriage on hard mode–then stop thinking “roles” and start thinking “team”

One of our findings from our survey of 20,000 women for The Great Sex Rescue was that ACTING OUT traditional gender roles wasn’t a problem–but BELIEVING YOU SHOULD was. If you believe that a husband should be the primary breadwinner and the wife should stay at home, then your marital satisfaction goes down. When we make decisions based on stereotypes rather than based on ourselves as individuals, things go haywire, as we explained:

Great Sex Rescue

From The Great Sex Rescue

Here’s an interesting finding from our survey: Women who do not believe traditional gender roles are moral imperatives feel more heard and seen in their marriages. In fact, women who act out the typical breadwinner-homemaker dynamic also feel more seen if they see it as a choice and not a God-given role.

Does this mean it’s wrong to have a breadwinner and a stay-at- home spouse? Nope. All three of us writing this book specifically chose careers that would allow us to be home with our kids. But when we unquestioningly buy into gender roles, we create a strange dynamic in marriage in which we view each other as categories rather than as people. We are all made with unique strengths, giftings, and callings, and these do not always fit with traditional gender roles. When a couple makes decisions based on who God created them to be versus who gender roles say they should be, it allows them to live in God’s plan for their lives while feeling known and valued. Trying to live up to gender roles can mean that we’re not fully ourselves; we’re wearing a mask, and sometimes that mask doesn’t fit.

Intimate sex requires that you feel as if your spouse values you not just for what you can give them but for who you are. Sex can’t be about saying, “I want you,” if who you are is being covered up by an expectation of who you should be. In our focus groups, women consistently reported that granting themselves and their husbands permission to live outside of traditional gender roles revitalized their marriages—and their sex lives.

Think of yourself as a team that needs to provide for the family in all ways–financially, emotionally, with caretaking–and then allocate the tasks as makes best sense for you as a couple.

That’s doing marriage on easy mode.

This month, we’re talking about how couples often do marriage on hard mode–they make marriage harder than it needs to be. And this is one way that we do this: by expecting that we’re somehow doing marriage and family “wrong” if we don’t live up to traditional gender roles.

So many of our Christian resources tell women that men have a deep emotional need to provide–adding additional burdens to women who are the primary breadwinner.

Love & Respect and For Women Only, for instance, both talk about the deep emotional need that men feel to be the providers, and neither helps women deal with the very common situation where a man is lazy and refuses to work.

Here’s how Emerson Eggerichs describes men’s emotional need to work and provide:

How deeply men value their inborn desire to work and achieve is graphically illustrated in two friends of mine who faced the threat of cancer. Both men calmly faced death and accepted what they thought would be their end. Through all the chemotherapy and accompanying problems, their optimism and faith remained strong. In the end, both men survived, but both still suffered terribly from a common foe. One of the men chose to sell his company to allow himself to serve God with whatever time he had left. However, for a period of time after the sale, he found he did not know who he was without his work. He told me, “I was never depressed when dealing with cancer and possibly dying, but when I left my work, which was my identity, I went into a depression that was like nothing I had ever experienced before.”

The other man suffered horribly and was at death’s door, but somehow he, too, recovered. He returned to work, and life was wonderful, but then he lost his job. He came to see me, depressed and defeated. He told me that being out of work was harder than dying. Ironically, both of these men were more deeply affected by losing their careers than they were with facing death due to cancer.

Emerson Eggerichs

Love & Respect

What if we’re actually perpetuating emotionally unhealthy approaches to life?

It is important to want to work. Everyone should want to contribute to the family. Everyone should want to be useful. God, after all, has plans for things for us to do and accomplish that he foreordained even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 2:10). We all have a purpose.

But ultimately that purpose is about our calling in Christ. Our ultimate identity is in Christ.

Eggerichs is using this illustration to show how deeply men feel the need to provide–but this is not an example of an emotionally healthy attitude towards the deep blessing of life and calling that Christ has given us.

I’m not saying that retirement or losing one’s job is easy, but we should always see it in relation to God’s ultimate calling on our life to make a difference for Him in whatever situation He places us. By saying that losing your job is worse than death, Eggerichs is showing that he doesn’t understand what it means to live a life with Jesus as the centre.

Yes, we all need to work (women too!). We all need to make sure the family is cared for. Yes, in most families, that will involve the husband working more than the wife or earning more, because she is the one bearing the children and nursing, and often she wants to be home with the children.

But ultimately the reason we work is so that we can fulfill God’s purposes for us on earth, not so that work will fill an empty hole in our identity.

By telling women that men have an emotional need to provide, then women who are primary breadwinners bear two extra burdens

She’s already working hard, but now she learns she must do it in a way that does not make him feel emasculated, since her earning more is impinging on his emotional need. She must go out of her way to let him feel that he is still the main one leading the family (something that male breadwinners do not have to do). She must take on typical feminine roles at home (including doing the housework) so that he doesn’t feel emasculated. Men who work full-time do not feel as if they have to take on extra burdens at home, but most women do.

This leaves women exhausted, as The Atlantic described it:

Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.

Aliya Hamid Rao

Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home, The Atlantic

By telling men that their primary role is to earn money, then when they don’t earn as much, they can feel lost at sea

If a guy feels like he’s less of a man if his wife makes most of the money, that isn’t going to help the family.

Maybe instead of teaching men and women how to make a man feel manly even if he’s not earning all the money, we should teach something emotionally healthy instead:

Let’s all be responsible for the family. Let’s all use our unique giftings, talents, skills and desires to provide for our family in the way that works best for us as a family. Let’s work as a team. Let’s remember that our ultimate identity is in Christ, not in what we do. Let’s not feel guilty for not fitting a mold. 

That’s one way to stop doing marriage on hard mode.

Why it shouldn't matter if the wife is the primary breadwinner!

Who is the primary breadwinner in your home? Do you think it matters? What’s the best way to navigate this? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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