Although men still take home bigger paychecks in the vast majority of marriages, one in four couples today defies the status quo, as wives increasingly begin to assume the title of household breadwinner. And some couples have completely reversed traditional norms, with women taking on the role of not just primary, but sole breadwinners.
Ann Heine, the CEO of the Surgical Specialty Center of Baton Rouge, became the sole breadwinner of her family when her husband—a former teacher and coach—became the stay-at-home parent to their two children.
Heine was in the beginning of her career, working at Baton Rouge General at the time, when she had her first child in 1998. Her husband, meanwhile, had started a lawn care business, and the couple relied on former students to babysit. When those students moved on, he was able to sell his business and stay home with their daughter.
When she started school, he returned to work doing what he loved—teaching golf. The teaching program ended just as their second daughter arrived in 2006 so he stayed home to raise her allowing Heine to focus on her career.
“I could not do my job if we didn’t have one stay-at-home parent,” says Heine, who became CEO of the center in 2016. “My husband is always saying I can do more than I think I can. He’s very supportive.”
This nontraditional path never posed a problem for the couple, and they’re open to talking about it—though Heine acknowledges it’s far from the norm in Baton Rouge.
“There are definitely still stigmas out there,” she says. “The notion obviously still hangs out there that men are expected to be the breadwinner.”
Such stigmas are so prevalent that other female breadwinners contacted for this story declined to talk on record, saying the subject is a sensitive one— often more so for their husbands. In fact, research suggests couples in this situation are so uncomfortable with it they’ll go so far as to hide their true earnings.
A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report, which analyzed couples’ responses to an annual survey and compared those responses with tax filings, found that husbands whose wives are breadwinners will inflate their earnings by about 2.9% on average. Women, meanwhile, will shrink their earnings by 1.5% on average when they earn more than their husbands.
But the fact is as more women move into higher-paying careers, the more common it will become to have wives assuming the role of family breadwinners, especially among younger generations.
And they may be more open to discussing it, like Rebecca Cvikota, a 35-year-old ExxonMobil plant supervisor. Cvikota and her husband moved to Baton Rouge two years ago for her job, and her husband decided to stay home with their two children.
“For us, it was a no brainer,” she says. “My husband was a police officer in Chicago, and he quit to move with me for my career. When we had a son, it was logical for him to stay home. He had a career, too, but having someone home with our son was more important.”
The trick is to ensure the roles make sense and work well for both parents, she says—and that takes open communication between the two.
“In our own relationship, it’s something I’m aware of,” Cvikota says. “I always keep tabs on how it’s going—is it still working for us?”
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