Image: Jessica Flores holds 3-year-old son Mig.
Carissa Ray  /
Jessica Flores holds 3-year-old son Mig, after waking him up to get ready for school. Mornings are sometimes the only time Jessica has to spend with her children before working late afternoon and evening hours.
By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 11/2/2009 1:29:33 PM ET 2009-11-02T18:29:33

The year that Beth Klingensmith realized she made more than her husband, she remembers joking with him about it, making light of a competition neither took seriously.

There’s no humor in it anymore.

About four years ago, Jim Klingensmith was laid off from a job at the printing company where he had worked for 24 years, and a search for a similar job has proved fruitless. Instead, he’s taken a part-time job at a sporting goods store and is building a business making custom golf clubs.

That’s left Beth Klingensmith, 45, a computer programmer for the state of Colorado, as the couple’s primary breadwinner.

“I’m very glad I didn’t listen to all those teachers in the '70s (who said), ‘Oh, don’t worry, your husband will take care of you. Oh, don’t worry about getting an education,’” she said.

While the stereotype of the male breadwinner is still alive in many people’s minds, experts say the reality is that a growing number of women are earning as much, if not more than, their husbands.

“I don’t think that it’s that odd anymore,” said Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University.

In 2007, 25.9 percent of wives were earning more than their husbands in households where both spouses work, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 17.8 percent two decades earlier.

Among all married couples, including those where the husband isn’t necessarily working, 33.5 percent of women were making more than their husbands, according to the 2007 data.

The recession has likely exacerbated the trend; nearly three-quarters of the approximately 7 million people who have lost jobs in this recession have been men. The unemployment rate for adult men stood at 10.3 percent in September, compared with 7.8 percent for women.

Working wife, job-hunting husband
Heather Boushey, senior economist with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, estimates that there are currently about 2 million working women whose husbands are unemployed and looking for work.

While many female breadwinners say they enjoy their jobs and are proud of being able to support the family, some also say it’s difficult, and occasionally heart-wrenching, to balance work responsibilities with time for their kids or other obligations.

Image: Jessica Flores
Carissa Ray  /
Jessica Flores sits with 3-year-old, Mig, and 6-year-old Quino and makes a grocery list as they eat breakfast before leaving for school.

Despite such challenges, men and women appear to have grown used to the idea. In a survey conducted for the “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything” project, 65.3 percent of women and 61.2 percent of men strongly agreed with the idea that they are comfortable with women earning more than men in a household.

“The fact that women are working and women are breadwinners is something that both men and women are accepting,” said Boushey, who was involved in the A Woman’s Nation project. “They’re just struggling with how to deal with it.”

Many women say their earning power has been a relief in this recession. After her husband found out he was losing his job in public relations last October, Jessica Flores was able to easily add hours as a mental health therapist so that the family could avoid financial disaster.

“It’s kind of empowering, in a way, to be able to increase my income and provide for my family because I don’t really know what we would do,” said Flores, 39, who lives in Louisville, Ky. “It’s still hard and we’re still barely squeaking by but, hey, at least we’re able to.”

Still, for many, the recession also has amplified the struggle to make ends meet.

Beth Klingensmith, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., said it was hard enough to have to alter their financial plans after her husband lost his job. Now she worries about losing her own job because of the nation's economic woes. Already, she’s been asked to take some furlough days as the state copes with budget constraints.

“We’re doing OK, but there’s absolutely no safety net,’” she said. “If something happens to my job, I cannot imagine.”

Her husband, Jim, 49, is hopeful that his custom-made golf club business will take off soon, allowing him to contribute more toward the couple’s bills. He said that in many ways he likes his new career more than the physically taxing work of running a printing press, but he admits he’s struggled somewhat with the changed circumstances.

“We’re Christians, so for me to not be the breadwinner … it’s not the easiest thing,” he said.

One factor adding to that stress for some families: Even if a woman is the primary breadwinner, her pay and benefits may not be as lucrative as a man’s.

Although women make up virtually 50 percent of the work force, the typical full-time female worker is still making just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.

A recent study by the Families and Work Institute also found that only 77 percent of female primary breadwinners have access to personal health insurance through their jobs, compared with 91 percent of male breadwinners. Still, the study also found that more than 90 percent of primary breadwinners of both genders had health insurance, just perhaps from another source.

As more women become primary breadwinners, some men are being thrust into more domestic roles.

Flores said she has enjoyed seeing her husband, Steve, spend more time with their two sons, ages 3 and 6. Steve, 38, said he fell easily into the role of full-time dad amid a difficult job search.

“It’s not like a blow to my ego or anything,” said Steve Flores. "I’m proud of her for taking over more of the breadwinner role during this time, but, personally, it really hasn’t had much of an effect on me that I’m not the breadwinner.”

Still, Jessica Flores said it’s been difficult to adjust to a much busier workload. As a therapist working with children, she often has appointments in the afternoons and evenings, meaning she sees her own children very little on busy workdays. There’s also less time for other things, like exercising or keeping up with a side business she runs making cooking condiments.

“I used to have a really nice balance in my life,” she said. “Now, the balance is all askew.”

Image: Image: Steve Flores prepares son Joaquin, "Quino," age 6, for school.
Carissa Ray  /
Steve Flores prepares son Joaquin, "Quino," age 6, for school. Flores found out he was losing his job in public relations last October.
Because her job doesn’t offer benefits, she said she lives in fear of what might happen if a program to subsidize COBRA health insurance payments comes to an end, forcing the family to shell out an additional $650 a month in health care costs. Meanwhile, her husband has had few leads in his job search, so she also worries about the family’s long-term financial stability.

“It just kind of feels hopeless at times,” she said.

For some women taking on the primary breadwinner role, it also can be tough to give up control over what goes on at home.

As Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s career became more time-consuming, her husband took on more of the child-rearing duties for their three children.

At first, Gov. Granholm said in an NBC interview with Maria Shriver, that was hard to accept.

“I said to Jennifer, ‘You've gotta stay out of my lane,’ which meant with the kids,” her husband, Dan Mulhern, said in the interview.

Gov. Granholm concedes that she has sometimes felt less engaged as a parent because of her job, but she also said she’s been very grateful to know her husband is looking out for the kids.

“He's actually better at parenting than — than I am,” she said.

'It wasn’t something that I was expecting'
Many women say being the primary breadwinner became more stressful once they had children.

Over the early years of their marriage, neither Rachel Molder nor her husband gave much thought to the fact that she earned more than him.

Then Molder, 33, got pregnant, and she and her husband realized that, with the high costs of child care, it would make the best financial sense for him to stay home during the week with the baby while she went back after five weeks of maternity leave.

Molder’s husband, Mike Molder, 33, now works on weekends as a dog trainer and spends weekdays with their 1-year-old.

“I’m not against it in the least, but it wasn’t something that I was expecting,” he says of being a stay-at-home dad.

Rachel Molder, who lives in North Lauderdale, Fla., says she’s enjoyed rising through the ranks at the toy company where she works, and has relished things like extensive work trips to Asia.

She also feels better knowing that her child is home with her husband, rather than in child care.

Still, she admits it’s sometimes hard to not be the one that gets to make day-to-day parenting decisions. Looking back, she sometimes wonders what would have happened if their roles were reversed.

“Before I had the baby I didn’t feel stressed at all about making more than him,” she said. But now, “I just feel like there’s a bigger weight that’s on my shoulder.”

Time crunch
Since her job offered both a higher salary and better benefits than her husband’s, there was no question that Tina Brogan would go back to work as a business analyst after her daughter was born.

“I would have loved to be home with my child — I would have absolutely loved it — but it was financially not feasible,” said Brogan, who lives in North Attleboro, Mass., with her 1-year-old daughter and husband, a private investigator and student.

Brogan, 27, said she likes her work and is grateful to have a job that gives her some flexibility to do things like work at home after her daughter goes to bed, if necessary.

Still, she says she often wishes she could have more time with her daughter. Sometimes, she jokes that “the kid’s going to grow up wondering who the lady is who comes home and cooks her dinner every night.”

And, like many women, she also often finds it exhausting to juggle work, time with her child and finding the hours in the day to do mundane things like vacuum the house or get to the grocery store.

“It’s more the overall logistics of life that, once you have a child, kind of catch up with you,” she said.

Boushey, the economist, said that’s a sentiment both men and women are expressing.

“People think that women entering the work force is, on net, good,” she said. “They’re coping with it, but what’s challenging is what’s left behind.”

© 2013 Reprints

Video: More women becoming breadwinners

  1. Closed captioning of: More women becoming breadwinners

    >> -- chevy.

    >>> we're back at 8:10. now to our nbc news special series "a woman's nation." a week-long ground-breaking look at challenges and changing roles of women in today's society. our friend, maria shriver , the first lady of california, is serving as guest editor. she spent more than a year exploring the topic with the help of the center for american progress . we'll talk to maria in just a moment. but first she shares one family's story.

    >> reporter: before dawn, in michigan's state capital , one woman's day has just begun. for governor jennifer granholm , the politics of persuasion start early. negotiating a budget in a state that has to make drastic cuts. in meetings and face to face at the capital. it's her last term and for michigan's first female governor governor, a failed auto industry and the highest unemployment in the country. but by noon, next year's budget is not the only thing being negotiated. a quick bag lunch with the first gentleman. a former leadership executive, part-time radio host and full-time dad. the couple joined our discussion on the shifting landscape for women . did you sit down and negotiate that shift between you?

    >> i think it happened and i think you were in -- an accomplice to it.

    >> we have negotiated some things. for instance, there was a time when i said to jennifer, you've got to stay out of my lane, which meant with the kids. and she was fantastic about respecting that.

    >> reporter: and it's a fast lane . raising now two college-age daughters and their son just starting middle school .

    >> this is a good deal, to have a relationship with our children that our fathers didn't have, let alone our grandfathers.

    >> reporter: but there was also an identity shift.

    >> just the internal sense that something's wrong, it shouldn't be like this. no one asks what do you want to be when you grow up? first lady wasn't on the top of the list.

    >> reporter: they started as equals, even taking each other's last names when they married. but for this harvard law school grad, taking a back seat to his wife's political ambitions wasn't exactly what he had in mind.

    >> when a man steps back as i have, you feel like you missed something because you see her going full bore and making a difference and changing the world and you're changing a diaper sometimes, quite literally.

    >> have you had to shift?

    >> absolutely. absolutely. because as a mom i would want to give in and take over the kid thing.

    >> do you feel less of a mother if.

    >> yeah, i have felt less engaged. but i do feel so grateful, because dan, you know, he's actually better at parenting than i am.

    >> reporter: and for this man trained to teach leadership, he learned a thing or two about leading at home.

    >> i have three fantastic kids and it's tapped a lot of what's best in me and good for jennifer as well.

    >> reporter: so at the end of a long day, dinner time is less about who has what role, and more about family.

    >> maria joins us. i want to talk about them in a second but you spent a lot of time traveling the country talking to women and men. is there a headline in your mine that jumps out after all this?

    >> i think that men really want to be involved in the caring of their children, in caring for elder parents in a way that they didn't know to be involved 30 or 40 years ago and that they actually have a lot of the same goals and desires as women . these issues of child care , elder care , equal pay are now american economic issues, not just women 's issues.

    >> let me read you something you write in your portion of the book. you say "i learned women are hungry for something that's missing in their lives, a place to connect. they say they feel increasingly isolated, invisible, stressed and misunderstood." what jumps out at me based on that whent is why? because they are more and more outside the home, they're connecting with people in the workplace, they're being valued for their contribution. why do they feel so isolated and disconnected?

    >> well, a lot of women feel this they aren't being valued for their contribution.

    >> i'm talking about as something other than what they used to be seen as.

    >> i think they're stretched at all ends. women have certainly gone outside the home, they're working in record numbers but they're not getting paid equally. they still feel that they're primarily responsible, 80%, for the child care and elder care . that's a big squeeze going on with women . so men, 70% of the job losses in this recession have been in male-dominated jobs so women are becoming the primary bread winners, mothers in two-thirds of american families. primary or co-bread winners. that's a lot of stress.

    >> i like the example of the granholms, where there aren't a lot of families out there where the wife is the governor of a state, it struck me there aren't such typical family structures anymore.

    >> we wanted to look at who the american woman is today and who the american family is today and get rid of some of the old stereotypes. the fact is less than 30% of families have a stay-at-home patient today. that changes everything in america. that changes how government has to deal with the family. that changes how business has to deal with families. it changes schools. schools go from 8:00 to 3:00, there's nobody there when a kid gets home. everybody has to adapt.

    >> as we look at changing roles for women in this country i'm drawn to a question, i have to ask, and that is about your mom who passed away recently. my condolences on that. but talk about someone who helped to change the role of women . she was a trail blazer .

    >> well, she was as far as i was concerned. she raised five kids. i was an only daughter. and she changed the world for people with intellectual disabilities . she was always very different growing up. she wore men's pants. she smoked cigars and she worked outside the home. she really never cared what people thought about her. she used her own experience growing up with a sister with an intellectual disability , she always said use adversity for a purpose and she used it to change the world . actually when i got this report, when i actually picked up the first physical copy of it, my first reaction was, oh, i have to show this to mommy. i think when you lose somebody, you still have those, oh, that's right.

    >> she was clearly ahead of her time.

    >> she'd be so happy about this report because she clearly believed that mothers had the ability to change the world .

    >> maria , we're thrilled to have you here all week.

    >> thank you, matt. thank you.

    >> see you tomorrow. by the way, tomorrow on "a woman's nation," we'll look at changing dynamics between women an men at home.

    >>> but up next, suzanne somers


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