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The typical heterosexual married couple in the U.S. has historically worked this way: The husband goes to work while the wife stays home to care for the kids and the house. Just as typical is the fact that the parent who chooses to stay at home has never really received the recognition or remuneration they deserve.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of stay-at-home dads, and many more women have assumed the role of breadwinner. Since women can't collectively forget what it's like to bear the burden of invisible work, it's time for female breadwinners to change this age-old household power dynamic. The solution is simple: Offer stay-at-home partners the recognition and support — and in some cases, even pay — that women have been demanding for decades.
A short history of unrecognized work
The naked truth is that domestic and caregiving work has never been as valued or supported as work outside the home, even though it's demanding and exhausting. It stretches far beyond the hours of an office workday and isn't acknowledged by bonuses or performance reviews. Worst of all, it is almost always unpaid.
Throughout history, women have performed the lion's share of this work. There's been pushback for decades and, yes, progress as more and more women became college-educated and entered the workforce. Just before the pandemic took hold in March 2020, Ameritrade released research that showed that women comprised about half the workforce. Of those women, nearly half were earning more or the same amount as their partner.
In 2019, research showed that among all married, heterosexual couples in the U.S., a quarter of married women were the breadwinners in the family, up from 8% in 1960. In households with kids under 18, 22% of the family's breadwinners were mothers.
Gay or straight, married or unmarried, if you are lucky enough to have a stay-at-home partner, working women should learn from the lessons of their predecessors and offer support and recognition for the hard work their partners perform. Here are some tips for making your stay-at-home partner (SAHP) feel like an equal partner.
See and value various contributions
Three primary resources are needed to raise a family: Time, energy and money. Divided between two parents, it often plays out that money falls under the purview of the breadwinner, and time and energy become the domain of the SAHP.
The problem? Their contributions tend not to be equally valued. As Eve Rodsky, author of the New York Times bestseller "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)," agrees, saying, "My moonshot [is that] holding our children's hand for an hour at the pediatrician's office becomes just as valuable as an hour in the boardroom."
We can start working toward that by recasting home labor as equal to at-work labor. "Things start to shift when we talk about not a 'stay at home parent' but rather the partner in the relationship who is doing the home division of labor," explains Amy Beacom, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, the first consultancy in the U.S. to focus exclusively on parental leave and co-author of "The Parental Leave Playbook."
In the 2009 movie The Break Up, when Jennifer Aniston gets angry at Vince Vaughn for never doing the dishes, what she's actually mad about is his inability to recognize the household tasks that need to be done and doing them without being asked. It's the same theme that Gemma Hartley writes about in her Harper's Bazaar essay on emotional labor and gender equality.
She writes that "delegating work to other people, i.e., telling [them] to do something [they] should instinctively know to do, is exhausting." It also, she writes, creates a dynamic that puts one partner in the position of being seen as a nag.
"Asking me to delegate makes me the manager of the tasks," says Freya Lundqvist* of Salt Lake City, UT. "It still leaves it up to me to determine when the tasks should get done, to find a gentle way of reminding my partner to do them and then monitor if they're done completely."
Female breadwinners can flip this old script by taking the initiative and doing their share of household chores without being asked. Load the dishwasher, gather the recycling, or throw in a load of laundry. Chances are you probably can intuit some ways to help out without needing any direction from your SAHP.
Compensate your partner
If you added up all the services your partner provides you, such as cooking, housekeeping, driving, childcare, laundry, and tutoring, the median annual salary they would deserve is $178,201. Yet, despite their worth, many SAHPs feel like they have less control in their relationships because they don't bring in any cash.
While you might not be able to pay your partner a six-figure salary, you can still work toward equality by making it clear that your income is a shared resource. "That way, no one has a trump card," says Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a Boulder, Colorado-based licensed marriage counselor who's developed several apps for couples to help strengthen their relationships. "And both partners are on an equal footing regardless of who's bringing in the actual money itself. It's about creating a team mindset."
Do this by opening a joint checking account and creating a budget that includes an agreed-upon amount of "mad money" or spending money for both partners. This money can be spent on anything without approval from the other. This system creates autonomy and allows both partners the ability to spend without guilt.
Another approach: Offer your SAHP a paycheck, which is what Alexa Allamano, owner of Foamy Wader, a sustainable jewelry business located on Whidbey Island, Washington, does. Her husband's monthly stipend amounts to $1,500 after his half of their household bills have been taken out. Allamano also actively thanks her husband for cooking and handling household tasks because she wants to ensure he knows his efforts are valued.
The big takeaways
Women have been in supporting roles for so long that it makes sense they would have the power — and the desire — to change the way their households and families operate. Since women know how much effort work-family life and caregiving take, they are uniquely positioned to put our collective experiences to create change.
"We have the lived experience of domestic and invisible work being undervalued and devalued," says Beacom. And women who are in the position of offering support to a partner working in the home are the spark that can ignite tangible change.
*Name has been changed