You bring in the money: I've had enough!

Posted February 24, 2011

Chatting to my female friends over dinner recently, it suddenly dawned on me that they all earn substantially more than their partner. My friends are proud of their achievements and they enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that goes with their successful career. The downside is that they feel totally wrung out! 

A recent survey by car insurer Sheilas’ Wheels revealed that almost a third of working women in Britain are now the main breadwinner. This is a huge advancement when you consider that in the late 1960s only 4 per cent of women in a relationship earned as much as their partner. And yet my high-achieving friends aren’t happy because the daily grind of bringing in the money leaves them no time to pursue other interests and it’s getting them down. 

Although there is no issue with male egos in any of my friends’ relationships - their partners are comfortable with the fact that they are making more than them - it was clear that they still needed to establish some ground rules about work, family, household responsibilities and childcare. 

An American study, ‘The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything’, published last October declared that, “The Battle of the Sexes is over. Now it’s a Negotiation Between the Sexes”. The report was commissioned by Maria Shriver, the niece of John F Kennedy, in response to the “seismic shift” in America’s culture. For the first time in the nation’s history women now make up half the workforce. This has led couples to redefine the way they divide their work and family responsibilities. My friends are going through a similar process of ‘negotiation’. 

Gill was the first to properly nail this. Up until last year Gill held a senior role in the City. Her job was stressful and she worked extremely long hours. Gill agreed with her husband upfront that she would be the main earner provided that it was for a limited period of time. “I took the decision to work as hard as I could for as long possible”, says Gill “because I saw it as an investment in our future”. Although she loved her job Gill admits that, at times, it left her feeling exhausted. “To be honest, towards the end I was completely burnt out and counting down the days until I could give it all up”. Gill left her job last year but by that time she had earned enough to ensure the financial security for both her and her husband. 

Yvonne, on the other hand is an example of the woman who appears to have it all but is also doing it all. She is a company director and a harassed mother of two. With her kids’ school fees to pay and a large household to run, the family is dependent upon her financially and she often says that she just can’t afford to ever stop what she’s doing. 

Yvonne readily admits that she really needs to slow down. “I know that something’s got to give. Most of the time I hold it together reasonably well but I am aware that it is at my own expense”. The thing she finds particularly hard to let go of is childcare. Kate Figes offers a simple solution, “Fathers need to do more, and women less”. In her book, Couples, the truth, she says that women are reluctant to give up whole chunks of responsibility for their kids because it is “tantamount to being a ‘bad’ mother”. Being there for her children is definitely high on Yvonne’s list of priorities. When her son, Harry, was recovering from an appendix operation earlier this year, it was Yvonne who dressed his wound every day and nursed him back to health. She was also driving extremely long distances to work and then cooking for the family when she got home. It was a lot to juggle. Yvonne says, “I do enjoy my job, but it’s very demanding, as is being a working mother, housewife, cook, cleaner, personal shopper - you name it, I’m sure it’s all there in my endless job description!” But does all of it have to be in the job description? 

Perhaps women just need to be prepared to relinquish more. Take cleaning, for instance. Is this because perfectionists, like Elaine, do not believe that their partner could ever achieve the same high standards? Elaine is a successful lawyer and the domestic goddess amongst my friends. As well as holding down a demanding job, Elaine also does most of the household chores. Yet Elaine says is not bothered about how much her husband helps around the house because she places a much higher value on the “emotional support” he provides. “I trust him and know that he’s always on my side”, says Elaine. Elaine does however speak openly about the responsibilities she faces and how anxious it makes her. She has recently started a job share with a male colleague. This gives her one day a week for ‘me time’ which she feels is essential to her wellbeing.

Gill, Yvonne and Elaine know that success is a double-edged sword. It brings financial reward but leaves them exhausted. It also robs them of precious free time but they are determined to redress the balance.



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