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Role adjustments

Couples adapt as women become bigger breadwinners

Derek and Lisa Evans helped their 6-year-old son, Owen, with some schoolwork at the family’s home in Brookline. Derek and Lisa Evans helped their 6-year-old son, Owen, with some schoolwork at the family’s home in Brookline. (John Blanding/ Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 18, 2010

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He’s not sure if it’s a male ego thing or not, but 38-year-old Derek Evans admits that ever since he returned to school to become a nurse anesthetist, things have been unusual, awkward, and frankly, a little embarrassing at times in his Brookline household.

Having to ask his wife, Lisa, a color specialist at Salon Mario Russo, for spending money, he says, is just plain “weird.’’

It’s no revelation that women have smashed the stereotypes embodied by Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. New research is showing that women are not only contributing more to the household bottom line - they are increasingly the larger, sometimes even the sole, breadwinner. And for the first time in US history, women are about to outnumber men in the workforce - and, according to some projections, within two decades women will outnumber men as the home’s major breadwinner.

Just as women entering the workforce required a big adjustment in the attitudes that for generations defined marriages, another big adjustment is needed now with wives earning more on average than their husbands. If it was dying before, the idea of families having a “traditional breadwinner’’ seems officially dead.

“Her being the breadwinner doesn’t bother me one bit,’’ said 33-year-old Robert “Mick’’ Mickelwait, a mechanic and husband of Theresa Mickelwait, 34, who works in a government job while he stays at home with 21-month-old daughter Amalie. “Compared to her, I have it pretty easy. I think I got the better end of the deal,’’ he says.

Of course, their family dynamic has brought on some interesting reactions: lectures from traditional women admonishing her for being a bad mother by letting her husband take on the caregiver role; or conversely, friends who give her the “you go, girl’’ brand of female empowerment.

And he does get uncomfortable sometimes, he said, but not because it’s a macho thing. He just wishes he could help more financially.

A recent study by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute found that wives’ earnings comprised 45 percent of the total family income in 2008. That marked a 1 percent increase from 2007 and was up from 42 percent in 1999. Kristin Smith, the study’s author, said the latest increase is more significant than it sounds: It represents the biggest single-year increase in 10 years.

And, she said, when you take into account that in 2008, full-time earnings for women equaled just 77.9 percent of the salary men brought home in the same positions (an increase from 64 percent in 2000), Smith said women have more reason than ever to be angry about the disparity.

“Women still earn less even though they’re contributing more to family earnings,’’ she said.

As traditional roles and responsibilities shift more, it’s the men, not the women, who will have to adapt. “We can’t make babies, so what can we do?’’ said 32-year-old Avi Spivack of Newton. “We make money.’’

Spivack’s wife, Nataly Kogan, 34, has been doing just that, working in venture capital in New York City until the family moved here two years ago. But for her household, the question is not the disproportionate earnings; it is a lopsided arrangement when it comes to housework.

While she was the major breadwinner she also took on the majority of the housework, which included tending to their toddler daughter, Mia. The result? Resentment, and, she admits, some “heated discussions.’’

“My job was just harder, more intense,’’ she said. “And I was still doing so much at home.’’

Even so, in their eight years together, she and her husband have struck a balance - although they admit it’s not exactly 50-50. Part of it, Kogan acknowledged, is her ambitious nature and reluctance to give up control over household duties.

Now, more than ever, that balance is crucial, her husband agreed, but never easy. “It’s a constant struggle, a neverending one,’’ said Spivack. “I envy any couple that feels they’ve found that balance.’’

Adds his wife: “I love the feeling of being able to live for my family. I’m proud of that. I want my daughter to know me as ambitious - and as caring.’’

Debra Michals, a Newburyport researcher, said these new roles foster what she calls that “awkward silence,’’ as pride intermingles with shame. Breadwinner wives can’t gloat, for fear of embarrassing their husbands. “Downplaying income and success is not unfamiliar territory for women,’’ she said.

While much of the focus in the breadwinning shift has been on how men and women will handle their changing household roles and duties, there is another, less discussed, impact of the breadwinning wives movement. The recession has hammered male-dominated industries particularly hard, but health care and education, typically female-dominated professions, have actually added jobs the last few years. Because those are generally not high-paying jobs, median family income has declined - it dropped 3.6 percent in the first year of the recession.

“Families may be relying more on wives as breadwinners, but that may not be good for families because women tend to earn less than men, so family income plummets,’’ says Smith from UNH.

And it may only get tougher for families. Since December 2007, the United States has lost 7 million jobs - 72 percent of which were held by men in male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing.

Beverly Flaxington, a 49-year-old mother of three from Walpole, pulls in about 80 percent of her family’s income through her consulting work - and it’s been that way for nearly a decade, since her husband got laid off in 2001. With the economy the way it is, he simply hasn’t been able to recover, and he now chips in when he can with part-time consulting of his own.

Despite their earnings discrepancy, there’s no inequality with the bills. Most finances are split down the middle, paid for out of both their paychecks, with the occasional dip into her husband’s savings, Flaxington said. And what her husband lacks in bringing home the bacon, he makes up for in family duties: He does all the cooking, most of the cleaning, runs errands, and handles the usual “nighttime rituals’’ with the kids, his wife said.

“It does not all fall on my shoulders,’’ Flaxington said. And frankly, she added, “I wouldn’t be able to manage if I also had to do all of that.’’ Still, there is one enormous financial strain she shoulders alone: Health insurance.

Because she is self-employed, she pays for insurance out of pocket - and that includes footing a $1,500 penalty under the new Massachusetts guidelines because she uses a non-state-approved provider. (The alternative, a state plan, would be more expensive, she said, even after you tally up the penalty, the co-payments, and the premiums.)

Such financial stresses are a common burden, but they are newer to women who suddenly find themselves their family’s chief provider.

“What I make on paper looks impressive,’’ said Theresa Mickelwait. Even so, “we literally live paycheck to paycheck.’’

It’s a tight game week-to-week; the Malden family rents in a two-family home, ditched a land line in favor of less expensive cellphones, and hardly ever splurges on outings or new clothes. Still, this was the better alternative. When Theresa was pregnant, the couple began investigating day care; they did the math and discovered that weekly child care costs would totally wipe out Robert’s paycheck from his mechanic’s job.

Theresa made twice as much as he did, so they figured why not just have him stay home and raise their daughter? That’s meant that, for the past two years, Theresa has paid 100 percent of the bills and doled out spending money when Robert needs it.

But, says Mickelwait, it’s “not about empowerment. It’s about being practical.’’

As for Brookline’s Derek Evans, any discomfort he developed after ceding the breadwinning role to his wife stems out of a habit of independence, which he lost when he returned to school full-time and his wife became the sole earner.

“I’m just used to having my own money,’’ Evans said.

He will again soon. His wife is due with their second child, and he’s headed back to work so she can return to her job part time to spend more time at home.

Correction: Because of reporting and editing errors, this story contained two errors. A statistic attributed to University of New Hampshire researcher Kristin Smith about how much women earn in relation to men was incorrect. Women employed full time earn 77 percent of what men employed full-time earn. Also, Smith did not say that women have reason to be angry about the salary disparity.

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