Tales from a Breadwinner With Breasts: The Incomplete Role Reversal

(A different post on this same topic and drawing these ideas was published on the site Professionelle in April 2013, called “The Unsteady Rise of the Power Mom and the Diapering Dad“)

I have been the sole (or virtually sole) breadwinner for the past eight years of my 11-year marriage.  I can happily report that for those eight years, during which we had three children, the arrangement has worked out well enough for both of us that we plan to continue it.  Based on Hanna Rosin’s research in her book “The End of Men,” our situation appears to be fairly unique –  my husband does the lion’s share of the childcare and all (yes, all) of the housework and cooking. We have never had a nanny or a housekeeper, at his insistence.

That said, as Ms. Rosin said she found, switching traditional gender roles was not as seamless on my end as I thought it would be.  This has left me to think that biology has had more of an influence on the childcare part of our labor division than I had anticipated.

It was not an arrangement I thought about specifically when we got married, two weeks before I started law school.  It was something we agreed on late in my third year of law school.  It made eminent sense to me at the time.  I was eager to have a legal career

I was still shaken from the terrifying NICU stay when I returned to the firm, and my twins were not out of the wood, healthwise, yet.  I was happy to work though; staying at home with them was a nonstop feeding and changing marathon.  I didn’t really feel like a mom, just a caretaker.

June Cleaver Daydreams
The first three years were hard.   I constantly tried to remind myself that there was no reason that I should feel any more guilty than a devoted father who had the burden of supporting the family would.

I had ephemeral daydreams of being June Cleaver, cooking meals and sitting at the kitchen table with the kids and their homework.  But I knew I wanted to work outside the home.   And I am not that into cooking.  Plus, our apartment has no kitchen table.  I did not cede the domestic space completely, though.  I researched schools and doctors and extracurriculars, bought the clothes and birthday presents and planned the birthday parties My husband would have done all of this, but I wanted to.

Why Did I Want to Be Home?
My husband  enjoyed taking care of them, and he said he felt nothing but pride at my career accomplishments.  I believed him.  He didn’t feel emasculated.  So why did it seem like I felt different than breadwinning fathers?

Still Torn
A few years into my law practice, utterly exhausted from billing hours and trying to “be there” for my kids, I slightly reduced my hours at the firm, swallowing the financial hit, as well as the one on my ego.  I was now becoming a statistic – I had chosen the “mommy track” despite have a full time husband at home! Would a breadwinning dad do that?  It made a world of difference for me, though.  My husband supported it.  Because my schedule was still not predictable, he continued to stay home, with no complaints.  He started picking up overnight freelance shifts at a local television station and would nap during school hours.  I get tired just thinking about what he does.

By the time I had my third baby, six years after my twins, I was beginning to accept that motherhood had fundamentally altered my view of myself and my goals and that it was okay that I did not want to work extreme hours and make partner quickly.   I no longer had June Cleaver fantasies, but I was still torn.
Breadwinner with Breasts
Unlike my preemie twins, for whom I frustratingly pumped during their intensive care unit stay, I breastfed my youngest for well over a year.   Breastfeeding and pumping changed my mother-as breadwinner-experience a great deal.  It was a constant reminder of my biological role as the mother and the conflict that role had with my status as the working spouse. Maybe that was why I did it – to counterbalance the traditionally masculine role I had taken on, to give her something only I could give – but I am not sure.  The baby and I ended up enjoying it immensely, for all its difficulties.  It was one of the most precious experiences of my life, which is odd to say about something that gave me mastitis.

I now have a job that is more flexible than my job at the law firm – I am the Editor-in-Chief of a legal publication about corruption and bribery issues – though it is still a lot of work. Many people asked me if I changed jobs to have a better “work life balance.” (Would they ask that of a male breadwinner?)  That is not why I took this job,  though the increased degree of control I have over my life has the nice side effect of being able to be a class mom and take the twins ice skating in the mornings.  The acceptance of my desire to simultaneously want to make money and advance a career (the traditional male role) and take care of the kids (the traditional female role) seems to make doing both of those things easier, and less guilt-ridden, for me.


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