As 44 per cent of women now earn as much – or more – than their husbands, what does this mean for family life? When I see my husband struggling in with the supermarket bags, I tense inwardly, then launch into my inquisition. “How much did you spend? Why didn't you buy the own brand?” I can see his jaw clench as I carp about discounts missed and best-before dates ignored. Then he braces himself for the final sting: “And did you get the Nectar points?” With a pained look he slinks off, leaving me feeling both self-righteous and ashamed.
Having it all – or just doing it all? Women breadwinners are on the increase
Photo: FRANK/HELENA CORBIS
If he swapped notes with other domestically bullied men – which of course he doesn't; there is no male equivalent to Mumsnet – my husband would find that he is not alone. Women can be fearsomely territorial about ruling the nest. Even when we have another sphere in which to express our bossiness, we hate relinquishing control at home. All too easily, queen bee can become prize cow, a scaled-down version of Madonna, of whom Guy Ritchie said: “That one's never satisfied.”
Women had better get better at handling this situation because, according to figures released this week, 44 per cent of us now earn as much as, or more than, our husbands/partners. Since those figures date from 2006-7,
before the current “mancession”, the real figure for female breadwinners must be considerably higher. And it won't stop here because, while men have been losing their jobs, women have been emerging triumphant from the education system, grabbing the best careers and leaving men to pick up ever more domestic slack.
In the process, the male ego is being trampled. “How do you manage not to emasculate your husband?” I asked a friend who out-earns hers. “I don't manage,” she replied. “If we disagree about how money is spent, I decide because it's my money, and he hates it.”
When there are children around, matters get stickier still. Some 200,000 men are presently househusbands – or “homedads”, as they prefer to be called. Women are often astonishingly ungracious to them, and and far more critical than men were in the days before roles were reversed. An executive I know, recently returned to work post-baby, issues the homedad a daily list of chores which include “clean the loos”. A
paid employee would leave if presented with such a list, let alone the rolling eyes and frantic redoing of tasks that follows the high-flier's return home.
Men don't meet women's domestic standards is the message. But research published at the end of last year revealed that the notion of the “useless man” is a myth. Left to get on with it – instead of being operated by remote control using text messages – men are perfectly capable of remembering and multi-tasking, though their priorities can be different. She who cannot bear to see a cushion unplumped may indeed return to a relatively messy home. But at least he would have spent more time in the park playing.
The problem seems to be one of delayed adjustment. Emotionally, women haven't caught up with the new reality of not being in charge at home, any more than men have shed the expectation of earning the larger salary. “Women still seem to have this internal voice telling them that 'a good mother runs the show',”
says Adrienne Burgess, head of research for the Fatherhood Institute. “It's a loss that both men and women have to recognise. As one father said to me: “I realise that for me to be the dad I want to be, my wife would have to be less of the mother that she has wanted to be.' Couples must discuss these issues.”
The tipping point comes in every set-up. This week, that moment arrived for one of my colleagues. She had left fresh tuna steaks for her children, which “him indoors” was expected to cook. She texted a reminder and received the reply: “Sorry, I've just cooked some fish fingers.” What do I do?” she asked around the office, itching to issue a reproof. Another working mother advised her to turn off the phone and count to ten, before replying – with a disingenuous “no problem!”.
Easing up on domestic tyranny is one of the biggest challenges modern working women face. For those who do manage to loosen the reins, “to leg to”, the rewards are manifold: their relationship will be
more stable and their partner less prone to depression. Thirty years ago, more durable relationships were those run on a traditional division of labour, with women taking care of the home, and men going out to work, but that's changed. Now the happier relationships are those in which both members of a couple do some work, and some childcare.
My husband, bless him, does a bit of both. I'm the one who has to remember not to yelp: “Steak, how extravagant!”
by Cassandra Jardine