More Women Become Breadwinners as Male Unemployment Jumps

Jeremy and Brie Hudgins, pictured here with one of their daughters, are struggling to make ends meet now that Brie is the family's primary breadwinner./Photo courtesy of Diane Hinchcliff Photography

To make ends meet, the couple has spent their savings, dipped into Jeremy Hudgins' 401(k) retirement plan and gotten help from family. While Brie Hudgins has free health insurance through her job and her children receive health insurance through the state, the family can't afford coverage for Jeremy Hudgins.

For Brie Hudgins, worrying about her family's financial straits are exhausting.

"When the air conditioner broke two weeks ago, I silently freaked out," she said. "I shuffled money around in my head, thinking how are we going to pay for this."

If there's a silver lining to the income challenges faced by today's growing number of breadwinner women, said Andrew Stettner, the deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, it's that they may help increase pressure to shrink the pay gap between men and women.

"We all know of anecdotes man will get a higher starting salary because the boss knows they have to support a family," Stettner said. "Hopefully, that will start reversing."

Less Shock to the Family?

For now, the good news for women like Hudgins is that they face a lot less adversity than they would have years ago.

The last time that the economic climate moved large numbers of women into primary breadwinner roles was the Great Depression, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit group at the University of Illinois.

That era came decades before the women's movement that "clearly established women's rights to work" and so working women met with "huge hostility" for supposedly taking jobs away from men, Coontz said.

"The good news in this recession is that families are more grateful and respectful when a woman steps up to the plate that way," Coontz said. "They've already been working, their families respect the work they've been doing , and so as they need to step up to the plate even more it's not such a total shock to the family system."

But the shock hasn't disappeared completely. Jennifer Walden, a Bowling Green, Ky., mother of two says that her new role in controlling the family finances has brought some tension to her marriage.

"He has to ask me if he needs something...if we can afford this, we can afford that," said Walden, 39, who works as a forecast analyst for an apparel company and whose husband lost his job in October. "I just make all the decisions because I know what needs to be done and I don't consult with him. That might be bad, but right now it's all I know to do."

Bonding With Children

For his part, Walden's husband Don says he doesn't mind that Jennifer makes the family's financial choices. But he does miss working.

"I've always enjoyed going to work," he said. "I've always wanted to be the man of the house. It was a big adjustment, it really was."

But like Jeremy Hudgens, Don Walden said he too treasures the time he now gets to spend with his children.

"I'm just using this time to bond with my sons. I have a very important job, I think," Don Walden said. "It's not one that pays any money, but it pays in a different way."

As fathers grow accustomed to their roles inside the homes, some new breadwinning moms must contend with being the parent who is now less in tune with their children.

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