Keep the Bacon, Bring Home True Equality

I just read a story from The Washington Post and reprinted in The Seattle Times with the headline “Report: Wives Bringing Home More of Bacon,” about a study released today outlining an apparently encouraging new trend: American wives are earning more income than ever before.

The report, published by the Pew Research Center, shows that women have emerged as the dominant income provider in one of five marriages and are overall more educated and more present in the workforce than compared with 1970. The study stems from Census Bureau stats of married people ages 30-44, an age group that is the first in U.S. history to include more women than men with college degrees, according to the story.

Though men are still the major “contributors” of household income — with 78 percent making at least as much or more as their wives — the percentage of women whose income has outpaced their husbands shot from 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent now. And in the recent recession, women fared better than men, losing their jobs at a lesser rate than men and shouldering the financial burdens of their families. Much of this sea-change is due to the gains of the women’s movement, experts point out.

Good news, right? Well sure, any time women begin to approach a level of equality with men, it’s positive. Because, being that we’re all human beings equally capable of achievement, it stands to reason that we should be valued equally by the society we’ve set up for ourselves.

What I take issue with is the weight we, as Americans, give financial achievement over other measures of success. Take these quotes, from the story: 

“What’s radically changed is that marriage is now a better deal for men,” said Richard Fry, co-author of the report. “Now when men marry, often their spouse works quite a bit.” Huh. A better deal? Okaaaaayyyyy. I can only assume when he says work, he means work outside the home — not the lesser valued, bob-bon fueled hobbies of raising children into productive adults and maintaining a household, which clearly should not be counted as actual work — maybe more of a recreational-type thing??

Another jem: “As women have brought more money into the marriage, their authority and decision-making power has grown,” said Andrew Cherlin, author of “The Marriage Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.”

What these types of comments confirm for me is what I already know: To a large degree, as Americans we give much more value to “work” that brings in a paycheck than we do to what should fairly be recognized (but isn’t) as equally challenging and important work — raising children, for example — which brings moral and societal benefits and rewards (someone’s got to ready the workforce of tomorrow) but not often any dollars and cents to the marriage table.

The way I see it, it’s all about the balance of power, as Cherlin so indelicately put it. Whoever earns the most money gets the most power in the marriage, an equation replicated on a societal level. What I don’t understand is why we are so programmed to give more weight, or power, to the achievements which have a paycheck attached.

Yeah, we all need money. We need houses to live in and clothes to wear. We’ve got groceries to buy and cars to fuel and those overpriced soccer camps to think of. Raising families cost money, and it’s true today more than ever before that it’s harder to raise a family on just one income in this country. Some families don’t have the luxury to keep one parent — male or female — home to be with the children.

But why are we so focused on measuring, comparing, competing, our contributions this way? This mindset — that he OR she who “brings home the bacon” rules the roost, or at least deserves to strut around a little more — is counterproductive to a family-friendly society. And on the street level, it’s divisive to marriage.

In my own marriage, Mr. Punkernoodle and I have navigated this moat as we’ve gone. We started out as singles with him earning a higher wage, based on his experience. As a young married couple, there was a long stretch of time when I earned more than him. When our first daughter was born, I took maternity leave first, then he stayed home on paternity leave, then we both went back to work. Now, with two young daughters, I have been “at home” for the past year while he works an office job out-earning me (now and in my former career capacity) by a longshot.

In all of these various mutations, for the entire decade that we’ve been together, never have we felt that one vs. the other had or deserved to have more power within the relationship. Major decisions — from how to spend money to where to live and vacation — are made jointly. Smaller decisions can be made by either one of us; we both have the authority to make money decisions. There’s no “my money” or “his money.” It’s our money, regardless of who “earns” it — meaning whose name is on the payroll paycheck.

Because really, although right now my husband’s name is on that regular check (and thank god for the existence of that check), we BOTH earned most of that money. Why? Because like most “stay-at-home parents” in this country know, the ability of the spouse who leaves the home to find traditional career success depends largely on the support provided behind the scenes by their partner. It’s common sense: As an “outside worker,” the more secure I feel about the safety and happiness of my children, wherever they are, the better I can focus on succeeding at my career — and ostensibly the more money, security, benefits, and opportunities I can earn for my family.

Two stories on this topic stay with me:

An acquaintance of mine came to visit me in my diaper shop to research switching over to cloth diapers. She was a stay-at-home-mother (or a work-at-home-mother, to be exact, as she was bringing in extra income for her family with side jobs whenever she could squeeze in time between bottles and laundry). She had calculated that she was spending a large chunk of change every month on disposable diapers and that, for the cost of just eight weeks of diposables, she could buy many, many months’ worth of cloth diapers, which she was happy to use and launder herself. After crunching numbers and deciding it would be a good move, she looked and me and said, “Well, I’ll just have to check with [husband’s name] and see if I can get his OK.”

I was incredulous but managed to hide my amazement until I vented later that night to Mr. Punkernoodle. This woman had the important, designated job of household manager in her family. She bought and prepared the food, oversaw the children’s activities and understood the family budget. Yet because her name wasn’t on the pay stub, she didn’t have the authority to make a decision about something that fell squarely into the realm of her job description. She had to “check” with her husband to see if it was alright.

The other story: When we were married but not yet parents, we had a dinner date with another couple, friends of ours who had been married longer than we had and were expecting their first child. The parties in this other couple both had successful careers and were working and earning similar paychecks, and were of a mostly liberal mindset — supporters of human equality and all that good stuff. When it came time to pay the bill, we split it. The woman friend of ours reached for their half of the check and said casually to her husband, “I’ll get this.” “You sure?” he said. “Yes, you can get the next one,” she answered. Later that night, my husband and I whispered in bed to one another, marveling at how surprised we felt over our friends’ process of splitting expenses.

The thought simply would never have occurred to us — even then, with two individual paychecks, no kids and a lot more disposable income than we have now — to divide our money. Some feminists might whip me for this, lambast me for sloughing off all the hard-earned gains of the women’s movement. But I maintain it’s because of the feminist movement that I can now be in a place where I comfortably and equally share money with my partner. Whether what I bring to the marriage table is in the form of dollar bills or other, less tangible contributions, I know that it is equally as valuable as what my husband has to bring. And if down the road the tables turn and I earn more money and he eats more bons bons, he’ll still have free will over our checkbook.

And that’s what I wish would seep into our national consciousness a little more: That the measurement of contribution to family success should not be made in greenbacks alone. Maybe a start is to eliminate these overused and outdated colloquialisms we seem so hard-pressed to move beyond, phrases like “bring home the bacon,” which just reinforce money as the standard of success.

Keep the bacon, it’s just empty calories. Bring me true equality, which will feed us all in the long run.

One response to “Keep the Bacon, Bring Home True Equality

  1. I’m glad you have found a wonderful match in Mr. Punkernoodle! The longer I’ve worked (and the more I see the hard work that goes into being a stay-at-home mom) the more I appreciate the effort my mom put into making things rich and wonderful at home, and the more I hope she recognizes her value, even if it wasn’t compensated the same as I am for the work I do.

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