The Girl Banker Blog is fortunate to have guest blog writers that offer a different, yet much needed perspective to this space of advocacy. I’m honored to post this personal account submitted by a very respected girl banker that wishes to remain anonymous. I know my readers will benefit from reading her story.
Disclosure: The anonymity of the author is designed to provide protection from judgement for her and those closest to her, not provide power to those who still embrace common stereotypes. The truth is that stereotyping, unconscious biases and uninformed judgments occur whether we like them or not and accepting that fact to protect future opportunities is not weakness, simply self-preservation.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a breadwinner is defined as: a means (such as a tool or craft) of livelihood or a member of a family whose wages supply its livelihood. With breadwinning comes a level of pressure that no one explains; especially to women. Or at least no one explained it to me. Complicating matters is the fact that the financial gender balance within marriage seems to be changing at a faster pace than society’s attitudes about successful women. “Breadwinning is still more often seen as a father’s role than a mother’s,” according to the Pew Research Center. About 40% Americans believe it’s extremely important for a father to provide income for his children, but just 25% said the same of mothers. Breadwinning, much like bread baking (maybe just my bread baking), doesn’t always turn out exactly how you envision.
In school, I was intrinsically motivated to do the best I could in school in order to get a good job as soon as possible. I didn’t need to get out of my house or necessarily start working very young, but I wanted to. My focus began to pay off in my early twenties as I begin to slowly climb the hourly wage scale at the local bank where I started working in High School at $5.75 an hour. After graduating college, I got my first job that wasn’t behind the teller line in a bank where I was making $15 an hour. My first review in my new role produced a small, but satisfying raise of $.75 an hour. I was 22, pursuing an MBA and in my first specialized role in my area of study. I had no illusions my entry level job would immediately provide me with big bucks, besides, it is supposed to be about getting the experience, right? When I conveyed my raise at home to my spouse, it was met with disdain over the low dollar amount. Not only his perception of small amount of the raise, but questioning of my desire to work at what he saw as too small of an annual amount as well. I now wish I would have had the foresight to understand how much of a problem my compensation and all the emotions that go along with it was going to be throughout the course of our marriage. Hindsight being 20/20 as they say – this is the moment when I made the decision to climb the corporate ladder softly and rise quietly as best I could. I am not saying money doesn’t matter when it comes to a job, but I was raised to understand that money is earned over time for value provided. Naturally, I had not provided a ton of value to my employer because I was fresh out of college. When I began to provide value, hopefully the money would follow. While that is also somewhat of a naïve thought as well, it’s the hope I clung to in the early years. The minute my job, career aspirations and contributions were minimized, was the moment money became clearly identifiable as a sign of power within our relationship. I have never intended to not be a contributor to my family, but I also didn’t expect to be completely dismissed as an equal partner if the numbers didn’t align evenly.
Fast forward 10 years and I had been presented with and taken some incredible career opportunities. Working with a team I admired, adored and respected, we accomplished some pretty amazing things. I was doing my best to play big at work, but I had admittedly been playing small at home for years. My marriage was as a good as a marriage 10 years in could be I thought, and one where we no longer talked about money. Our business had hit a rough patch (understatement of the decade) and I had taken over our personal finances years earlier and it became a topic we didn’t/couldn’t discuss. I had always paid our personal bills and kept my salary, title and/or other work details to myself. He was having a hard enough time coping with life in general, so I was careful not to make it worse by doing anything to somehow remind him I was now the sole breadwinner for our family.
Our first child arrived ten years into our marriage, fifteen years into our relationship. Babies change everything, including everyone’s expectations about roles within your marriage. I now understood why the stereotypes were so universally accepted and clear. More than ever before, I craved a safety net around the bubble that was our life. According to research by Merrill Edge, uncertain times may impact people’s priorities. Some 54% of men and 57% of women say they want a partner who provides financial security over love. The economic impact of our business failure paired with a new baby left a mark that changed my opinion forever about what was more important in my relationship. I found myself a member of the 57%.
The idea that men are to support their families while women take care of the children is still alive and well in many families, particularly in the south, but honestly that wasn’t our perspective. In fact, that stereotype paints a really simple picture of these roles and all their nuances. This was anything but simple. We never set out or planned for me to be the breadwinner, it just happened. Not having a plan or discussion about what to do if it every happened proved to be a problem. Because we were unprepared on the challenges that come with a role reversal, neither party knew how to handle the shift. I felt unappreciated and small because I couldn’t share happy job moments or milestones with the person I wanted to while he felt small because I loved my career and was successful while he was struggling to find a second chance at a career. My success made him feel like a failure, so in turn, we both felt small. No one enjoyed the situation and we were struggling to dig out of the hole. Any contribution he had the opportunity to make was never good enough in his opinion, because it didn’t match mine. His ego was unable to process the fact that there was strong likelihood his salary would never match mine again. I had devoted myself to my job for almost 15 years and he was starting over. Sweat equity over time was on my side and I wanted to feel great about earning my seat at the table, yet I found myself continuously apologizing for it.
As we got older, I wanted to feel safe and secure and know we could provide the life needed for a baby to grow and thrive. This is the exact point when no longer discussing money was not an option. Every time I would bring it up, guilt would somehow shut the discussion down. I felt guilty for providing because he would get so upset about me having to provide. Every conversation was turned from our financial future and well-being to an emotional firestorm designed to demolish any attempt at progress. The fact was from my perspective, I was handling everything – what was left of his career aspirations, my career, our family finances, the baby and the housework. I began to understand that not only did he resent my success, but I resented it too. I had poured my heart and soul into a company and people I believed in, and hadn’t felt comfortable talking about it. The narrative of our marriage had centered around him while my job had quietly risen into a successful career I minimized at every opportunity.
I realize I was/am ashamed of my success. Ashamed because it played a role in ending my marriage. It was not the sole cause of its demise, but it played a key role in the dominoes cascading downward. I knew to provide for my family the way I was determined to do meant I would always be the primary breadwinner. I didn’t mind being the primary breadwinner if my partner was okay with being the primary caregiver, but that wasn’t our story. The support he feigned for my career in public was superficial at best and my success was one of the biggest daggers he had in his arsenal behind closed doors. Before the situation was all said and done – he would make sure I understood in no uncertain terms that my success was the reason for everything bad in our life during our years together.
Out earning my spouse was not the primary cause of our divorce. However, it did play a significant role. I share this story because I understand now that it’s okay it didn’t turn out picture perfect. I see so many great women who have supportive husbands cheering them on, helping them succeed and being the rock of their relationships in a million other ways and that is amazing. I also know that success can come to those of us who don’t have that either. Success can be achieved professionally even if the situation personally is less than ideal. I tell my story so you can prepare yourself if you start to see those warning signs in your relationship. I had not disclosed any raise or promotion in my working career for almost eight years before our divorce. The difference between the last salary he laughed at me for making and what I was making when we signed divorce papers was substantial.
Don’t allow another person, whether you love them or not, force you to feel small. Women are wired to want security, safety and nurturing, but we can also be driven, ambitious and strong. It took me way too long to realize that I didn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. I can provide the safety net for myself now, which is a different type of satisfying. I am not advocating divorce or staying single forever. I am simply advocating for you to know that breadwinning comes with a host of emotional complications you need to be prepared to manage in your personal life. Have the conversations early on in a relationship. Find out if your significant other can handle if you ever make more than him or her. We never had the conversation because we never thought it would be a reality. That was a mistake on both of our parts.
Both of us had unconscious expectations of who would be the breadwinner. When I became the breadwinner, there was no victory lap from either party. The slow demise of our views of each other began to accelerate. He saw me as selfish, uncaring and insensitive to his emotional needs. I thought I was trying to help by not talking about it, when in reality, that began to breed resentment about his inability to truly see my contributions and the toll taking care of everything was having on me. The bottom line is no one felt like they were winning. I won’t apologize for my success, but I do see the price we both paid for it, despite my best efforts to neutralize it as a threat.
The best explanation and advice I have seen on this subject comes to us from David T. Pisarra, a father’s rights lawyer in Los Angeles who has a great deal of experience dealing with male clients in the past who experienced problems in their marriages. When asked whether a female breadwinner can ultimately lead to divorce, he responded, “In today’s world, yes, being the female breadwinner can lead to divorce, but not because she is earning money, but because the parties haven’t had a discussion about what their goals and roles are. A marriage is more than a romance — it is a business as well. And the obligations and duties of the partners need to be discussed and clarified so that everyone is on the same page. What causes problems is not one spouse making more money than the other, because as women have noted for centuries, the role of homemaker is not a cushy one. The contributions of the parties to the family may be unequal in terms of dollars, but be equalized by value of the emotional support or domestic duties that make a household run smoothly.”
Everyone’s story is different. Yet we still all naturally lean towards sharing only the most positive of stories about ourselves. This story didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, but valuable lessons were learned by all and that still matters. No matter the path, women can be the breadwinner, the nurturer, the organizer, the caregiver and the revenue driver. Check on the women in your life. Regardless of their story, help every woman around you rise.