Our daughter was 13 months old when my wife started interviewing for the job that would end her tenure as a stay-at-home mom. The interviews had gone well, and she was expecting an offer any day, which is what she was telling me when I heard words from a bygone era spill out of my mouth.
“Well, with any luck you won’t have to go back to work. I’m still working on getting us more money.”
This … did not go over well.
Because as it turns out, my wife had been telling me for weeks, ever since I’d lost the freelance retainer that had been keeping us afloat, that the time was right for her to return to work — not just for the sake of our bank account, but for the sake of her sanity, her career, her very identity.
No, I had no recollection of hearing that at all. I had only heard her talking about her complicated emotions about going back and I’d blocked out the rest.
This is, to put it mildly, unlike me. I’m a generally supportive and caring husband, and I check as many feminist boxes in word, belief and action as a cisgender, heterosexual white male can check.
So imagine my shock when I realized that I had adopted “sole breadwinner” as a stanchion of my identity.
What the hell just happened?
Before introducing a kid and all the expensive kid accoutrement into our lives, we were getting by all right. This despite my ungodly amount of student loan debt and the fact that I’m a writer and my wife is a Montessori teacher.
But when she was told to stop working a month before our daughter was born to relieve her stress and lower her blood pressure, I was suddenly in charge of making a living for three.
Luckily, a frequent freelance client offered me a retainer gig at just the right time. This work, plus my 9-to-5, kept us in the black, and after she gave birth, it enabled my wife to stay home with our baby. With our commitment to raising our daughter in a Montessori environment and our therapy-informed emphasis on forming secure parental attachments from infancy, this was ideal.
We shared as many parenting duties as possible, of course: alternating the middle-of-the-night wake-ups, changing diapers, planning ahead, etcetera. But because I was essentially working two jobs, my wife ended up with a much larger parenting workload. So here we were again: her making a difference and me making a living.
Except that this time, I was making a difference by making a living. I was supporting a family: putting food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads and all the rest of those cliches that I didn’t figure I’d ever catch myself thinking, much less taking pride in.
I asked Suniya S. Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College, about these dynamics and how they affect modern fathers.
“I think on men there is, whether it’s spoken or not, there is definitely a psychological burden of feeling, you know, I have to be the hunter-gatherer,” Luthar said. “I have to make this happen. I have to make the mortgage, I have to pay the bills, I have to keep my family comfortable and under a safe roof with the basic necessities of life, if not creature comforts.”
But, still: I’m a millennial feminist. How did I suddenly start spouting some Don Draper dialogue?
In an attempt to find an answer, I also spoke with Corey Reed, a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Memphis who studies and writes about masculinity.
“Once you are in a position where you have to kind of fix or take care of things financially,” Reed said, it’s easy to slip into thinking, “‘Well, now I’m identifying myself with that role I occupied for that season.’” There are moments in life when, “the idea of the breadwinner stereotypes can be hyperstimulated and that can be what we define ourselves by,” he added. It’s important to be conscious of that, “because that’s easily a slippery slope into toxic masculinity.”
As an overthinker and self-hater, I can already hear the jeers from all corners of this hot-button discussion, from “How can you call yourself a feminist?” to “This young wuss finally got a taste of masculinity and saw how the world actually works.”
Of course, the truth lies in a more nuanced, uncomfortable in-between. I desperately want to make a difference and not just a living. And if I can be a martyr who breaks his back to provide a better life for his kid, that’s all the better — it’s something to fuel both my hero complex and my self-hatred, and it buys me entry into the intergenerational brotherhood of a certain kind of American man with whom, until recently, I thought I had little in common.
But here’s the thing about that brotherhood: Its foundational tenets are garbage.
The toxicity of the male-as-breadwinner expectation has been laid bare in studies, such as this one from 2016, which found that as men took on more financial responsibilities in their marriages, their physical and psychological health declined. Anecdotally, in a world of gender parity progress that comes in fits and starts, the male-as-breadwinner concept is increasingly seen as outdated and even silly.
As my wife was telling me about her complicated emotions around going back to work, all she really needed from me was loving acknowledgment and kind commiseration. My white knight nonsense, while rooted in societal pressures, was misguided, unneeded and, ultimately, unkind.
Today, my wife is back at work part-time and we’re paying for child care, which offsets some of the financial benefits of her returning to the workforce. But, as she had been telling me all along, the non-monetary perks are what really matter: personal fulfillment and a sense of purpose and identity.
Meanwhile, I’m still just making a living. But now a little humbler, a little wiser and a little kinder, I’d like to think that I’m also in the vicinity of making a difference.