Did you immerse yourself in fairy tales when you were growing up? “Once upon a time, there lived a damsel in distress who was rescued by her knight in shining armour, and they lived happily ever after.” This was a fluffy, romantic but unreal narrative embedded in our psyche during the most impressionable years of our lives? Traditional gender roles have presented household income from a perspective where women were expected to stay at home and look after families either in the “kitchen” or the “other room”.
Every March, the world celebrates women in Women’s History Month. On March 8th, we marked International Women’s Day when the economic, political and social achievements of women are celebrated all over the world. The 2022 theme is “Break the Bias”. When it comes to personal finances, for a variety of reasons, women have generally not been as successful with their male counterparts in terms of earnings and even in our general attitude to money.
Yet there is a growing contradiction. Economic realities have meant that most families must rely on more than one income to meet even the most basic family needs and future aspirations including educating children, modest living, decent housing and a secure retirement. Across Africa, women are earning and contributing a significant part of the household income, often assuming the role of primary earner and increasingly, the sole breadwinner. What happened to the fairy tale?
This social phenomenon has financial, emotional, and psychological implications for both men and women particularly in a largely patriarchal society with its traditional views and cultural values. Traditional role reversals can be disconcerting and can lead to frustration or resentment as an increased financial burden is placed
on women on the one hand, and potentially bruised male egos and insecurities on the other if such issues are not addressed as a partnership in the family setting.
The changes in the dynamics in the household, places many marriages on shaky ground. Indeed, we are already seeing brilliant, successful millennials on the fast lane appear to be less prepared or willing to play the role of the “submissive wife” and walking out of marriages so soon after the wedding.
Here are two scenarios
Charles and Kay Robinson live in Birmingham, England. Kay works as a Vice President in an investment bank with a significant package. Charles is a freelance photographer with much more time of his own. Before Kay returns home late each night, Charles has already picked up the kids from school, helped with their homework and prepared a meal for them all.
With Kay’s last promotion, it became impossible for her to take the lead on household chores and minding the children. They discussed this and the family goals and came to a decision that since her six-digit income was far more than he could expect to earn in the short term through his small business, which brings in moderate but irregular income, it was better if he did.
The family goals include private education for their 2 children, moving into their dream home in five years which would include a state-of-the-art photographic studio for Charles, early retirement for Kay, and world travel. Charles is comfortable with the situation; he enjoys quality time with the children and can focus on doing what he loves. He does not feel belittled in any way, as his non-monetary contribution to the family is as significant as all the money Kay delivers.
Thousands of miles away in Ibadan, Nigeria, Mary and Tunde Johnson live with their three children. Tunde runs a small accounting practice; he doesn’t wish to work for anyone so has turned down jobs from larger more established firms until the offers have stopped coming. His clients are small business owners that often can’t afford to pay what he considers his services are worth. Even with what he has, he is not a real saver and is at the club most evenings after work socialising with friends over drinks.
Mary works for a large multinational and earns two to three times what Tunde brings in. This causes Tunde to feel bad for not meeting expectations. His feelings are further bruised whenever friends and relations visit. Some make snide remarks about who is wearing the pants in the house. Outside in the driveway, Mary’s sleek car is parked with her company’s logo brightly emblazoned on the doors. Everyone knows whose car it is. Tunde’s 13-year-old second-hand car is parked behind it. The remarks and his ego get the better of Tunde and put a huge strain that threatened their marriage.
Mary had always looked forward to being taken care of by her man and admits that she finds this situation somewhat jarring. She grew up in a family where her father was totally responsible for the family finances and provided for her mother and their children. She struggled with the role of provider that she found herself in. Every time rent or school fees were due, and she had to provide the funds without any support from Tunde, something inside her died.
As Mary became angry and resentful, her respect for her husband waned and it showed. She felt that he didn’t make enough effort and should get a job and set aside his practice; she didn’t think it had great prospects in the short to medium term. She struggled to give him that hallowed position which he expected as head of the household.
Fortunately, Mary and Tunde still had a strong foundation on which their bond was built and they wanted to save their marriage. They sought counselling at their church and the conversation helped to put things in perspective.
The phenomenon of the breadwinning woman is here to stay. Many couples face similar scenarios and navigate this situation very well. Are you in this situation? Here are some suggestions to navigate this sensitive issue.
Communication is key
If you and your spouse are communicating, you will have a better chance at warding off some of the noise, criticism or snide remarks. The people that make them usually don’t matter and are often dealing with some issues in their lives.
Do you have clear family goals?
What are you working towards? Owning your own home? Planning for your children’s education? When goals are SMART, it is far more motivating to work towards them. Does it really matter who makes more money; or is working together as a team to meet the needs of the family not more important?
Mutual respect matters
Maintaining respect and acknowledging how you both contribute to the marriage will help. There are many non-monetary contributions that each of you bring to the table. Acknowledge and appreciate these.
Don’t listen to the gossip
Sadly, society can be quite judgmental of women with financial and professional influence. Expect criticism from the extended family, including your in-laws; even your friends might look on disapprovingly. Steer clear of such conversations.
Irrespective of who earns more, both of you should be involved. In a largely patriarchal society, it is emasculating and wrong to cut your spouse out of decision-making just because you earn more. Ideally major financial decisions about debt, savings, investing, and educating children that concern the family should be made jointly.
Improve your financial knowledge
Be proactive about understanding the long-term financial implications of the financial decisions that you both make. Knowledge is power; you need this to build long-term financial security.
Look after yourself
Anger, resentment, and bitterness will make you ill. Your physical, mental, and spiritual health is even more important now than ever, particularly if your family depends on your income. You cannot afford to buckle under the pressure or be laid off work. Eat healthily and exercise regularly.
Submission and the 21st Century woman
There are misconceptions about the word “submissive.” To many “modern” women, the word submissive has a negative tone as it connotes weakness. Yet, a truly submissive and God-fearing woman is not feeble; she is strong, capable, intelligent, resourceful, hardworking, and patient. She lays aside all negative connotations to rest and sees the ideals of submission not as subservience or as a threat to her identity, but rather, as a partnership. It does not undermine her, or her position in any way. It is not a contest.
In exploring “submission’, one discovers that whilst it may not be an easy or a popular choice, it brings harmony to a home. It is that admission of dependence upon one another and an acknowledgement of our traditional roles which continue to evolve.
At the end of the day, it is a blessing that at least one of you, if not both, is able to provide for your family at a time when so many families are struggling to make ends meet.
There is no one size fits all
It is surprising that some successful women hand over their entire salary to their husband for him to make all decisions; he then provides them with a stipend from their money; for some this may be a way to keep things on an even keel.
Find a system that works for you, and if it is not working, change it.