Female Breadwinners and Love in a New Economy

Rachel Pomerance

When Lance Somerfeld told his boss that he was leaving P.S. 86, the Bronx public school where he taught sixth grade, to become a stay-at-home dad, the response could hardly have been more jubilant. The principal took to the school intercom, congratulating Somerfeld and announcing: "He's decided to become a modern man!"

More than four years later, that choice continues to be a source of pride for Somerfeld, 39, who founded NYC Dads Group, a fraternity/support group of more than 800 dads with varied parenting arrangements. "I walk around, and I'm very confident in telling people what my role is, who I am, how much I love spending time with my child," he says.

Somerfeld credits his wife, Jessica, for supporting his move - first, from corporate finance to follow his passion for teaching, and then on opting to be the one who stays home with Jake.

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As he explains it, their lifestyle is simply an updated approach to managing the demands of modern parenthood. "When I need money, I ask my wife," he says. "That's just business as usual ... It's never like, 'What did you spend the last $100 on?'"

For an atypical arrangement, they both face the rather typical pros and cons of their assigned roles. Jessica, an actuary, says she benefits from "a clear mind at the office, knowing that my child is receiving exceptional care from my husband." On the other hand, spending little time with her son during the week, missing out on meshing with the other parents at his school and "my son 'wanting his father' if he gets hurt or upset" are real challenges.

Did she anticipate these issues? No, she says, "But I do feel they are a fair trade-off for the benefits achieved."

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"Women are more empowered financially than they've ever been before," says Liza Mundy, author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family." She cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that working wives out-earn their husbands by nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, among the American workforce, women outrank men in college degrees. And, in some American cities, single, childless women under 30 out-earn their male peers according to a 2010 analysis of U.S. census data. As a result, men and women face unprecedented opportunities in their home and work lives, respectively.

But research and experience indicate that nontraditional gender roles can be tough for couples to navigate.

Women may feel shame and guilt about missing time with their children; men may feel emasculated by doing or earning something that lacks social status, says sex and relationship expert Laura Berman, host of the Oprah Winfrey Network's "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman."

"One of the most fundamental needs that men have to be happy in a relationship, or even to be really attracted to a mate, is to feel needed by them and to feel of use," Berman says, advising female breadwinners to be sensitive to his situation and receptive to other kinds of support from him, such as emotional comfort or fixing things around the house.

But often, the dynamic is aggravated by what Berman calls "the alpha woman syndrome," in which the breadwinning wife berates her husband for handling household chores differently than she would. "What are you doing playing outside with the kids when the dishwasher was never loaded and the laundry was never done?" she might say on arriving home. This, in turn, further emasculates a husband and puts him at risk of sexual dysfunction or losing interest in her.

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A recent study of 200,000 couples in Denmark found that men's usage of erectile dysfunction drugs increased by 10 percent when their wives slightly out-earned them. Controlling for factors such as age and illness, the study linked drug usage to an insignificant change in wages - from $5 to $10 a week - "that essentially moves you from being breadwinner to not a breadwinner, and that has a social stigma attached to it," says study author Lamar Pierce, associate professor of strategy at Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School.

Pierce initiated the study - which also found women who out-earned their husbands were more likely to have insomnia and use anti-anxiety medication - due to concerns about women opting out of career advancement to protect their romantic futures.

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In grappling with these roles, couples do make accommodations. For example, women whose salaries surpass their husband's tend to do more housework than other women, says Julie Brines, associates professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "What we often find is that couples find themselves adopting more traditional behavior in other domains of their marriage to compensate," she says. "A lot of people are improvising, and it's not surprising if you're in a situation that seems culturally largely unprecedented to fall back on older traditional models."

Those who seem to fare best are couples who have agreed on an unconventional arrangement, or are young or unconventional themselves, according to Veronica Tichenor , author of the book, "Earning More and Getting Less."

Even so, couples who agree on a nontraditional arrangement may be surprised by their response once they're in the situation. In her research, Mundy found that women who consider themselves feminists admitted to resenting and losing respect for their male partners who had become dependent on them. While culture has prepared females to become self-sufficient, Mundy reasons, it hasn't laid expectations for women to become providers. And that may require a change, she says.

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The ideal arrangement may be for couples to alternate roles as they build their families and careers, she says, noting that family responsibilities commonly drive women out of the workforce.

"Maybe this is what it's going to take if we want women to lean in," she says, referring to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's new book title, which has become a buzzword for female empowerment. "We're going to have to tolerate situations and not stigmatize situations where a husband has been the behind-the-scenes support person."