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.
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.”
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.”
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.”