The woman will probably feel like she is more in control and independent, but she will likely worry a lot and feel immense pressure, along with some guilt and resentment.
And the house probably won't be as clean as it was when Dad brought home the bacon.
That's the finding in a new study out of the University of Missouri which looks at the impact on the life of a wife who suddenly finds herself the breadwinner.
That's happening more and more these days. In nearly a third of U.S. families, the wife is now the primary or sole breadwinner, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number is growing.
Research Looks at the Working Wife
There have been many studies of the male side of that equation, but very few researchers have looked into the impact on the working wife, according to Rebecca Meisenbach, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri, and author of a study in the current issue of the journal Sex Roles.
When she first started searching for wives to participate in the study, she discovered that most female breadwinners felt somewhat alone, seemingly unaware that many others share their fate.
"They felt isolated in that role," Meisenbach said in a telephone interview.
She finally rounded up 15 female breadwinners in 10 states and conducted lengthy interviews, and then re-interviewed them several times. The women in her study seem to be doing quite well in their unexpected roles, although life at home has become difficult for some of them. And the findings in the study will not apply to all female breadwinners.
The 15 women in the study are "highly ambitious, career driven, and they feel more pressure to perform well at work than when they were single and they weren't the breadwinner," Meisenbach said.
They are also well educated, some even holding doctorate degrees, and their jobs range from business executives to educators. So they may not be typical of female breadwinners, but their observations in Meisenbach's interviews sound pretty much like ordinary folk.
How Are Men Adjusting to Their Working Wives?
While some wives are gaining fulfillment on the job, there is considerable documentation that men, accustomed to being the masters of their domains, are not adjusting as well to handing the reigns over to women. Some studies have found, for example, that most husbands of working wives actually reduce their effort to take care of the house.
Meisenbach sought to find issues that confronted all of the participants. She found six predominant "themes," and the women spoke candidly about such things as control, independence, stress, their partner's contributions, guilt and career advancement.
"I've gotten this (desire) from my father," said a participant identified only as Jan. "He definitely instilled in my sister and I the notion of being control freaks."
But it's one thing to be in control at work, and another to being in control in the home. Several women said their husbands resented any effort to urge them to expand their household duties and fill in the gaps left by the absence of the wife.
"I just have to ask because, I mean, he's a man, and they don't see that there's a mess," observed a woman identified as Emma.
"My husband's a guy," added Carrie. "He picks and chooses what chores he does." Carrie, like several others, said she still does most of the housework, even though she's also the breadwinner.
"I'm just very, very independent," said Gail. "I can't imagine being dependant. I know how to turn on the dependency and make it look like I'm dependent if I need something, you know, but that's a marriage thing." Several women emphasized the importance of their financial independence.
"If something happened in the relationship or, God forbid, that, you know, he was killed or something like that, I know I could take care of myself," said Lisa.
Pressure, Stress, Worry
"It's a stressor," said Rachel of the pressure in being financially responsible for the family.
"I get a little antsy sometimes, especially not being tenured yet," said Lisa, a secondary school teacher. "You know, the bag lady syndrome. What would happen if I lost my job?"
Pressure on Women Different From Pressure on Men
Meisenbach pointed out in one of the interviews that generations of men have felt that same pressure, so is it any different for a woman?
"Definitely," said Emma. "Because there's not that guilt that's added on by your friends that go, 'Oh, you're working, well, what are you going to do about the baby?'"
Elaine noted that leaving the husband at home with the kids can lead to "the mommy guilt complex."
And, of course, she also has to keep her mind on the job.
"It's an immense amount of pressure on me to be a very high performer at work so that I can, with 100 percent certainty, maintain either my employment here or my employability at the same level in another organization," said Diana, a human resources consultant. "It's an immense amount of pressure ... and it dissuades me from going out and finding a job that probably would suit my passions more because my passion lies in areas that don't pay.
Valuing Partners' Contributions
The women clearly struggle to convince their husbands that they contribute much, even if it isn't monetary.
Jan said that when her husband complains that he's not doing enough, just taking care of the homestead, she reminds him of her own domestic shortcomings.
"'Are you kidding me,'" she told him. "I regularly grew mold on my dishes in the sink. I've thrown away a lotta dishes 'cause I couldn't even stand to clean them."
Emma probably spoke for many when she said:
"I've just felt this overwhelming sense of guilt like, am I less of a mother, am I less of a woman, less of a wife for wanting to pursue this career and, you know, wanting to have this family? Am I selfish for wanting to have this?"
These are upper middle-class breadwinners, seemingly doing well, but conflicted, nonetheless. But they are less likely than many others to worry about the bottom line.
"It's not, is there going to be food on the table?" Meisenbach said.