Female breadwinners. Is this the future in working partnerships? Or will the ultimate juggling act prove to be too much for mothers?
A steady shift is occurring, where women are gradually outearning their male partners. A study by the Office for National Statistics showed that the percentage of households in which the female partner earns more than the male partner has steadily risen from 19.8% in 2004 to 23.3% in 2019.
This, in theory, is great news for gender parity and the equal pay campaign. However, those strides towards equality are overshadowed when we recognize that working mothers are now juggling providing for the family financially alongside keeping the household running. Coupled with extortionate fees for childcare which often means that the woman is working for very little income during the early days of their babies lives.
These female breadwinning households are becoming increasingly more common in our modern world, and in my experience of maternity coaching breadwinning working mothers too. The University of Leicester shared that one in three of all working mothers is breadwinners and that these numbers are also expected to rise in the future.
Some researchers have found that in the UK, 45% of female breadwinners still do the majority of household tasks, compared to just 12.5% of male breadwinners, and that the average female breadwinner spends the equivalent of an entire working day taking care of the house on top of their full-time job.
Mothers being the breadwinner is logistically challenging, it’s pushing again societal norms that have been carved over centuries. We’ve set up our society to work in a way that means it makes more sense for women to stay at home with children, so for the many that are pushing those boundaries and breaking these norms their battle for equality will be harder. Why can’t women have it all; excel in their careers, financially provide for themselves and their families and be the mother they always dreamed of?
I asked one breadwinning mother her experience of this dynamic and here’s what she told me. “I went back to work when my daughter was 7 months old because we’d run out of savings and we would be financially better off if I worked as my salary was more than my husband. To begin with, the nursery costs were crippling and it wasn’t working for us. Eventually, my husband changed to working half part-time and half as a stay-at-home dad. We moved to a childminder and with him splitting childcare with them it is more manageable, although with the cost of living rising it is still a struggle. We receive many cooing comments from people thinking it’s endearing to see a modern setup with the dad spending time at home but there are also many elements to consider with this setup that make it tricky.
Although my husband is caring for our daughter during the day I’m still worrying and overthinking as all mums do; is she wearing a hat in the sun, have we remembered her vitamins, is he remembering to brush her teeth, when do we drop the next nap, is there enough batch cooking in the freezer and so on? These constant niggles make me an openly guilty ‘back seat parent’ with my mind always juggling both worlds. Working from home creates a challenge of being in the house when my husband and daughter are also at home as trying to keep focused with a needy toddler in earshot is tricky. There is also the perennial debate of whether to have further children. As a breadwinning working mum, I am frequently asked whether I want another baby and my answer is usually ‘Well whether I did or I didn’t I’m not sure how it’s feasible. Being the female breadwinner with very short company maternity policies and a growing career I feel between a rock and a hard place.”
Post pandemic, many working mothers have reaped the benefits of hybrid working and optional working from home to be more efficient and present. There is no denying that having that extra hour before and after work that would normally be spent commuting is precious time or popping a wash on at lunch helps to streamline home life. However, it can also hold them back in their career with lower visibility in the office and in their role. Statistics are showing that more men want to go back to the office than women, so it is interesting to consider what the split between breadwinning fathers vs mothers back in the office is.
So, it seems to be that switching the breadwinner from father to mother isn’t a straightforward handover of roles and responsibilities. A bread-winning mother will still usually keep many of the expected and traditional jobs within the home by default, as well as providing financially. Whether that be booking dentist appointments or remembering that last-minute present for another children’s birthday party. Of course, every home setup is different, the dynamic between couples varies and the equality of parenthood is up for debate so every story is different and there isn’t a one size fits all solution.
Currently, the government childcare system is woefully inadequate and for the first couple of years, there is little support for returning mothers. Some organizations have gotten better at offering support but we are still a long way away from providing what is needed for mothers to return in a financially viable manner.
How can organizations support parents?
Ensure that flexible working really is flexible.
Truly managing your people by objectives and not presenteeism is incredibly helpful. Being able to flex i.e., doing a couple of hours in the morning whilst the partner takes the baby, or working in the evening or even at weekends when help is available can help to reduce the costs.
Make a gesture that shows you understand the challenge.
Some organizations have got creative i.e., offering fully packaged dinners for new parents once a week for the first four weeks back after parental leave.
Offer onsite childcare.
This may not be possible for all organizations but now that so many companies offer hybrid working there could be space for a small creche, even if it can only offer a morning or two, every little helps.
Ensure that managers are well-educated.
Train managers to be understanding to people returning from parental leave. If a manager doesn’t have a family, then it is likely that they will find it difficult to really understand the issues.
Recognize the problem with baby sickness.
Many managers will not realize that the minute a baby goes into nursery there will be a whole range of sicknesses and illnesses occurring that means they’re banned from nursery whilst also passing it onto the parents. One mother said to me “I have been sick since the minute my baby started nursery with colds, norovirus, and even conjunctivitis! It is never-ending and I dread phoning and saying that I don’t have childcare or that I’m ill again”.
But what can women do? Well, until government support increases, focusing energy on making changes at home can help you as a breadwinning mother.
Having frank and honest conversations with partners to lighten the mental load.
When speaking with many of my coaching clients, I ask a simple question to them, ‘Are you asking your partner for help wherever possible?’ More often than not, the answer is something along the lines of, ‘Not enough’. The woman’s role as a bread-winning mother means needing to become the master delegator, using lists, shared e-calendars, post-its – the lot!
See all work as equal.
Whether you are earning minimum wage, a top-level salary, or staying at home all day with children they are all equally as demanding and draining and cover the same hours in the day. So, keeping mental load equal is important too. Sharing concerns, ideas, and must-do’s daily with your partner can relieve some of the anxiety and brain overload. Communication must play a key role in sharing the running of a household.
Use every support mechanism available.
Family and friends often don’t realize that the mother needs support. Often bread winning mothers are good at projecting the impression that they are managing superbly and only notice when they reach burnout and send signs of stress. So, don’t be afraid to ask for support.
Finally, I think all parents should take some time to remind themselves of how well they are doing regularly. I remember when I was a working mum of 2 under 3-year-olds. I felt guilty all the time guilty that I wasn’t a good mother, guilty that I wasn’t a good worker and guilty that I wasn’t a good wife I just felt I was not good at anything, I was just getting by. And yet my children have grown into two ambitious, kind, and emotionally intelligent adults, who are my best friends. What more could you wish for? So, regularly take the time to remind yourself that you are doing a fabulous job and there is no such thing as a perfect.