When consultant and author Sara Tasker quit her day job to become the main breadwinner in her family, it changed her relationship with her husband in more ways than she could have imagined…
When I first met my husband, he earned a good 50% more than me.
This didn’t seem to be an unusual circumstance, as far as gender pay imbalances go: it had certainly been the pattern in all of my prior relationships, and in those of my heterosexual female friends around me. The situation only got worse when I fell pregnant and dropped onto maternity pay. Returning to work, even part time, meant paying for childcare: an epic impact crater in the dust of my paltry salary. I hadn’t contributed much financially to begin with, but after our daughter was born, I began to feel like a drain.
Then three years ago, all of that changed.
The hobby of Instagram and photography that I’d been exploring during maternity leave expanded into an entire side hustle alongside my NHS job. I was teaching classes, being asked to speak at workshops and conventions across Europe and being paid decent money to consult on social media for businesses. Gradually the revenue I was making from my “hobby” began to eclipse what I was earning in the NHS, until quitting my day job seemed the most logical – and exciting – choice.
The legacy of our pay imbalances still lingered, though. When our young daughter was sick and couldn’t attend childcare, it was my schedule that was expected to be cleared. Although my workload was crippling, I’d push everything aside to put on wash loads and vacuum during the working day, then stay up until the tiny hours of the morning working in the glow of my laptop screen.
Even though I was now earning more than my husband, we both still gave his job as an assistant headteacher priority over mine.
I think it probably would have continued in this way had I not reached a point in my business where I could finally afford to take on some help. This coincided with my husband, Rory, feeling increasingly jaded in his work in education, and the logical choice was for him to stay at home and take on some of the burden.
Within a span of 12 months we were faced with an absolute domestic role reversal that no book, movie or real-world relationship had ever prepared us for.
Overnight, my husband was immersed in the trials and responsibilities of modern-day housewifery. All the emotional labour of wash loads and shopping lists, birthday cards, prescriptions, hair tangles and cat sick, fell onto my husband’s plate. He had to grapple with unfamiliar feelings of failing to contribute, of being defined as ‘just’ a parent, of feeling that so much of the work he did went unseen.
Over coffee one day he mentioned wondering what might be said at his funeral, now that he no longer had a job title to define him by. “I don’t want my legacy to be that I was good at washing up”, he joked.
We laughed, but I couldn’t help thinking of the generations of women before us whose legacy was exactly that: they raised the children, kept a tidy house, and supported the men in earning the money to keep everyone fed. My mind hovered over my great grandmother, Mary, whose entire legacy at her own funeral was boiled down to her excellent homemade apple pies.
Now, when the dinner is an hour late because our daughter’s being a demon and the milk has gone bad, my husband will come to vent to me about how difficult it is to juggle it all. And of course I listen and try to hold space for his frustrations, but there’s also a part of me feeling quietly glad that he gets it now.
Rory could not be more comfortable in his new role in life. And yet, the differences in how we both experience our shared finances has really highlighted to me the disparate ways men and women are encouraged to take up space.
There were days during my maternity leave where I could not afford to leave the house. Friends would invite me out to a cafe or a group, and I’d have to decline because I didn’t have the necessary £3.50 in my account.
Not once did it occur to me to take this money from my husband, or even ask him if I could have it. We had some joint finances, but I felt no claim to them. I was a burden being carried; any luxuries or frivolities ought to go to the breadwinner. And they did. He’d buy himself an expensive shirt or sweater, vinyl records or bike parts – something nice to treat himself after the gruelling hours at his desk.
I still see this mirrored in so many of my female friendships today. They’ll hunt for bargains in charity shops while their boyfriends invest in the latest X-Box. They’ll feel unable to afford babysitters for occasional nights out, but their partner’s football season ticket will be renewed every year.
But now, in the upside down, Rory doesn’t feel the same way I did back then. He’ll still buy himself that sweater or that record, secure in the knowledge that he has worked hard to earn it.
If I’m honest, I probably admire and resent this in equal measures. He is absolutely right: this is how couples should share their finances. But it’s hard not to lament the memories of cutting into my favourite dresses with scissors to try and make them breastfeeding-friendly, during a time when I couldn’t afford replacements.
But I can’t put the blame for that onto him. If anyone, the blame lies with the ‘me’ of the past, who never thought to speak up to request or demand help from my partner in life.
Trading breadwinner roles has fundamentally altered the dynamic of our relationship. We talk about work and effort and time and money in stark new terms now, and really appreciate the contributions one another makes that would previously have gone unseen. I know first-hand how exhausting it is to juggle all of the emotional work of keeping a family running, and he understands the pressure of being responsible for keeping the wolf from the door. We’re getting there, mainly, but there are still occasions of spectacular friction.
For example, shortly before Christmas, a large Amazon box arrived at our house. Inside was a large, expensive suitcase in a bright shade of purple that I’ve been known to leave hotels over. It definitely wasn’t for me, but my name was on the label, and the cost had been charged to my account.
It transpired that my husband had hopped on and ordered it, buying a £250 suitcase as a gift for his mother. A discussion ensued – heated enough to ward off the December chill – in which we both groped around for the new boundaries of our financial partnership. I had bought my mother a bottle of wine, so there was clearly some disparity at work, but I was also in a short term place of vulnerability within the business. About to launch my new book, feeling exposed and anxious, I was holding close to the purse strings for security – a fact that I had totally failed to communicate to my husband. When you’re both a business owner and the breadwinner, money gets tightly tangled into your sense of safety and control, and it’s impossible for somebody outside of that to intuitively know what the money barometer is saying today.
But what is the solution here? My business pays my husband a decent salary each month that mostly goes towards joint costs of living – petrol, car insurance, childcare and food. These are the exact same things my wages went to when the shoe was on the other foot, but unlike the me of old, my husband does not experience financial anxiety at this.
I wholeheartedly celebrate this. It represents the joyful openness of our relationship, and our shared trust and finances, but I can’t help being fascinated by how easy he finds it. As someone who has always been financially secure, with the capacity to earn for himself, Rory can stake his claim on the income that I am creating with confidence, safe in the knowledge that it is as much his as mine.
This instinct was never given to me. Nor, judging by their behaviour, was it ever instilled in my any of my female friends.
Some of our friends have observed the changes in our financial life with an edge of concern. Doesn’t it bother him, they ask, to not be the one who’s providing for the family? I count myself fortunate to have married a man who puts no stock in such things: we both know society still insists it’s a man’s job to bring home the bacon and that their worth is defined by this. We credit his hardworking mum and stay-at-home minister father for his ease with a more modern family set up. Rory can still remember hearing somebody talk about “house husbands” as a child and secretly hoping he could become one.
After the purple suitcase discussion, we agreed that he would take the time to chat with me before making any large purchases in future. But even that feels uncomfortable – I don’t want to hold the purse strings and give out all the permissions. In an ideal partnership, perhaps neither person would ever need permission from the other to spend money or exert their own agency. But unless a couple are bringing home equivalent salaries, or have perfectly matched attitudes to spending, it sort of feels inevitable.
Over time, I’ve found that communication helps, especially in refusing to shrink away from the hard topics of money, self-worth and defining success. We’ve come to know each other more messily and intimately than we ever would have without this change, and it’s made us stronger and more resilient in the long run.
Friction still occurs whenever we hit a question that has never been asked of our relationship before. Should he buy me presents with money from my own account? Should I be doing as my grandfather did with my grandmother, and slip him £50 now and then to ‘buy himself something pretty’? But when we pause to break down our responsibilities, the day to day labour, the brain space and physical energy required to keep our house and our business running, we both agree that we’re drawing pretty much even. We haven’t gotten it all figured out yet, but I’m hopeful that our daughter will grow up with one layer less of the internalised bulls**t we’ve both had to wade through around gender roles and what partnership means.
In switching financial roles we’ve had a rare chance to see the other side of the story, and to walk a mile in our spouse’s shoes. It’s made me love and appreciate our marriage even more.
Pictures © Sara Tasker and James Melia
Sara Tasker is author of Hashtag Authentic: Finding creativity and building a community on Instagram and beyond, out on White Lion this month