Being a Bread Winner Showed Me the Benefit of Invisible, Free Labor

  • As a more flexible career parent, I always expected more children and home care.
  • Our family grew when my husband unexpectedly became a stay-at-home dad.
  • As I got used to a stay-at-home spouse, I realized how deeply patriarchy penetrated.
  • This article is part of Women of Means, a series about women taking responsibility for their finances.

After a morning of working from home, I opened my office door and stepped into a converted living room.

The toys and scraps of paper from the craft my kids had made that morning were gone. The breakfast dishes that normally stood on the counter were cleared for me to frantically wash during my lunch “break”. My husband was looking for a dinner recipe and talking about things to do before picking up our little girl from kindergarten.

“Joyful certainly Don’t you want to quit your job?” I asked, not jokingly.

For three years my husband was a stay-at-home dad. Scenes like this were normal. We enjoyed the domestic bliss that can occur when one spouse has time to devote to the endless chores of owning a house, children, and pets. Over time, I began to underestimate him.

But when my husband returned to work, I realized how much his labor had made my life easier and how valuable our patriarchal distribution of work was to those who benefited from it.

I never expected to have a stay-at-home partner.

I never planned to be the breadwinner. But when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband unexpectedly lost his job. We haven’t been able to face the stress of looking for a job in the last three months, so we’ve decided that she stays at home while I continue to work from home in my freelance writing job.

The effect on my life was immediate. My husband was as involved as he could get in the tough job and long night shifts. Now that it’s his job to be a father and partner, we’ve all been successful. Even during the difficult postpartum phase I felt healthier mentally and emotionally. My daughters are more likely to ask my dad to give me a boob kiss or answer a question as much as they annoy me. A stay-at-home parent has given our family time and flexibility; it was worth the financial blow of a revenue cut for us.

Still, I knew the situation was not forever. My husband did not choose to be a stay-at-home dad; It was only through circumstances. I knew sooner or later she would want a more traditional employment, and I understood firsthand how having a child-free job could provide significant outlet and satisfaction. In the autumn he started working outside the home again.

Same dynamic, different details

When I was the sole income of my household, I enjoyed going against societal norms about men, women and their roles in the family. After all, only 41% of mothers surveyed in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey in 2019 were their family’s main source of income (and that number has dropped due to the pandemic). Stay-at-home dads were even rarer, occurring in less than 4% of two-parent households in 2021, according to data analysis from the Pew Research Center.

The thing is, our house was embedded in the patriarchal system that I was still trying to get rid of. We relied on invisible, unpaid labor to survive. This kind of work is what makes all other work possible – the capitalist keeps the machine running. Yet even for someone who has taken on that role, it’s frighteningly easy to forget the value of that effort.

Our society does not support parents enough, which often pushes people out of the workforce. This often happens to mothers, but my husband faced the same problem: The high cost of affordable childcare and low wages, especially for people without a four-year degree, made it unrealistic for him to seek work outside the home.

Even more frightening, I realized how comfortable the system is for the people who take advantage of it. My career flourished and my profits doubled in three years as my husband took care of the children and most of the household. My days were freer as I knew someone else was worried about laundry and whether or not they had snacks for school lunch. In exchange for the convenience of having a stay-at-home spouse, I would gladly keep our family’s earning potential lower.

seek a solution

These days my husband works outside the house about 60 hours a week. I still earn more than he does, but due to the flexible nature of my job, I’ve come back to taking on the burden of kids and household chores. We spend a significant portion of her earnings on additional childcare for our little one who is not yet old enough for public school. But he enjoys working outside the home and earning paychecks, and he has an undeniable satisfaction in paid employment.

Last year has been eye-opening for me. I realized how, even in a very fair marriage, whether it’s up to me or my husband, we default to patriarchal systems and unequal division of labor. Even when we think we are drifting away from social expectations, the lack of infrastructure for families can lead us back to the same old patterns in a new guise. I realized how enjoyable it is to be the beneficiary of these systems, and I saw why some people are fighting their teeth to maintain the status quo.

There’s no easy solution to all of this, and I’m not going to pretend there is. Like most families, we are left to seek the best answer at every stage of our lives. This year we found a unique one. My husband’s position is seasonal, so when spring comes, I’ll have a stay-at-home partner again for at least a few months. And let me tell you: I can’t wait.

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