Money and marriage: Last year my wife earned 100 times more than me

Im in the vanguard of gender-evolutionary change, and backing her all the way so why do I feel like a failure?

My wife and I are on conference call with our accountant, Ronnie. Ronnie works from a home office on 57th Street, looks a little like Larry David and has the kind of brusque New Yorker manners that border on the brutal.

Kate, he says, his voice tinny on speakerphone, it looks like youve had another great year. And those pensions are really starting to look good.

My wife smiles modestly.

So, Tom, Ronnie says with an ominous pause, I think the return is good, although were in a little danger of the government taking the position that what you do, essentially, is a hobby.

A hobby? I say, weakly.

Yeah, the Hobby Rule, its called. You got your stamp collectors, your comic book collectors, they go to conventions and then they sell some of their stuff. Its really just a hobby. I know yours is not a hobby youre a published author but theres nothing stopping them saying, Well, Tom basically is just writing because he enjoys it. If youre not making any money, they wont let you write off losses.

I see, I say, wrestling a mixture of hurt pride and indignation. But dont they understand the idea of the business thats just had a bad year?

You can have a bad year, Ronnie tells me. You cant have a consistency of bad years. If youre in the real estate business, yes, you can lose money, but you cant… You cant live on… If you were single, on your own. He is having problems spitting out the actual amount I earned. You cant live on that, he says finally.

My wife gives my hand a squeeze. Come on, you were writing two books and taking care of business with Juliet. Juliets our three-year-old. Do hobbyists write for the New Yorker?

Ive been freelance long enough not to dwell on this setback. Soon, I am joking about the conversation, taking an inverted pride in the story with each retelling a stamp collector! A bad year, yes, but a bad consistency of years! until Kate starts to frown. Its a familiar ritual for us: me joking my way out of how wounded I am, my wife keeping a watchful eye to see if the jokes are going to turn serious again.

Secretly, I wonder if we havent turned into one of those couples where the wife is always making excuses for her husband: Oh well, he was never a Master of the Universe type. Or: Hes good at maths. I know I have no cause for complaint. Who could ever complain about a wife who earns six times more than them (actually, last year it was more like 100 times more than I did, but well leave last year out of it, OK?). The company where she is vice-president pays for everyones American healthcare; the mortgage is in her name, because my credit rating is nonexistent, and she pays more of it than I do. Her hours are brutal: from 9am to 8pm, sometimes later, which means she doesnt have time to get our daughter to school and arrives home just in time for her bath.

That leaves me in charge of getting Juliet ready for nursery, picking her up mid-afternoon, then running the show park, play-dates, dinner, bath until Kate comes back from work. When she goes away on a business trip, I take over full time. We have a thoroughly modern marriage post-heroic, in the words of historian James MacGregor Burns. I thrill to my wifes victories at work as much as I used to thrill to my own, and offer good advice when it comes to negotiating her office politics. But as jazzy and loose-limbed and modern as my marriage sometimes makes me feel looking after our daughter while my wife goes to march against Trump on inauguration day! Pointing out which pink pussy hat is mommy on the TV! this only heightens the small pinch of shame I feel whenever a waiter returns Kates Amex card to me rather than her in a restaurant. Or when our accountant compares my livelihood to that of a hobbyist. What are these burps from my reptile brain?

Tom Shone with his wife, Kate, and their daughter, Juliet. Photograph: Dave Morrison

Clearly I do care. On some level, I care deeply. I also know that I shouldnt, and this creates a rather volatile dynamic in me that has taken a lot of handling. Ive read all those articles in Forbes and Businessweek about how stay-at-home dads are the new feminist heroes, illustrated with photographs of Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorinas husband, Frank, and former Yahoo boss Marissa Mayers husband, Zachary, all standing there with their aprons and smiles. Thats the point. They have chosen this life for themselves: their smiles are the smiles of men letting you know how OK they are with this, and how many ideas for start-ups they have had on the school run every morning. My smile is a little more the strained, polite smile of a man who may well have chosen this life for himself, but cant for the life of him remember when or how it happened.

There are many of us out there. One of the things that I struggle with in terms of how I see myself is that theres no real precedent in this role, says my friend Nathan, who a few years back let his 13-year copywriting career slide in order to pursue a career as a photographer. His wife has an executive position with a large media company. They have two children, aged five and six. From the moment theyre awake, he is getting them dressed, making breakfast, brushing teeth, making lunch, getting them to school, then he picks them up again mid-afternoon. Introduced to people, he will describe himself as either a photographer or a stay-at-home dad, depending on the level of trust he feels.

It makes me want to cringe when I hear that term, because I havent committed 100% to this, he says. Its no big deal in 2017 for a mom to be at home with the kids, but its still murky and weird for a dad. I notice it the most on Fridays. I dont want to start a dad club. I dont want to deal with it.

The majority of my male friends are in the same boat out-earned by their wives and girlfriends, to varying degrees, which may say something about my social circle, but also about huge shifts in the way women and men live, work and marry.

The post-industrial economy is indifferent to mens size and strength, writes Liza Mundy in The Richer Sex, a book I sought out in 2012, just a few years into my marriage. Within a generation it is likely that more women, married and single, will be supporting households especially households with children than men.

Wrestling with a king-sized depression about my work, or lack of it, I took solace in Mundys soothing statistics about the recent Mancession in the US, in which three-quarters of the eight million jobs lost were lost by men, and the share of sole male bread-winners declined from 35% in 1965 to 18% in 2009. Women are now the primary breadwinners of 40% in US households. There are as many as two million stay-at-home-dads in the US, nearly double the number there were in 1989. In the UK, the numbers track in similar proportions: 31% of British women are the main financial provider in their family, a rise of 80% in the past 15 years.

For the first time, men will start thinking of marriage as a bet on the economic potential of a spouse, exactly as women have done for generations, Mundy writes, while women will place even greater value on qualities such as supportiveness (a glass of wine at the end of the day, a chance to unburden), parenting skills and domestic achievements, not to mention that old masculine standby: protection. They will use their economic resources to find men who are good at sex, but also equally important good at washing dishes.

Bah! I can remember thinking when I read that. You try being in the vanguard of gender-evolutionary change: its not all glasses of wine and fun with Fairy Liquid. Its painful and confusing and humiliating in ways you cant put your finger on, and find hard to talk about.

My mom still thinks that me staying home with my kids and being present, and accountable, is not a worthwhile effort, says another friend, Jack, a sculptor and father of two, a six-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, whose wife is a lawyer. She thinks I need to be on an artists residence in Italy for a month. She doesnt get that I choose to be there for my children in a way that my father wasnt. Its something that I have to deal with every day, this notion that in some way Im not doing anything because Im not out there earning money, basically.

Absent fathers seem to figure a lot in the back stories of my male friends pushing this trend. In my case, my parents divorced when I was six; my dad didnt pay my mother child support. She raised us, got us through school and university by herself, even though our finances were a little rocky. We moved house a lot: 13 times by the time I was 13. I craved stability, and made up for it with a wild and prolonged burst of overachievement, first at university and then in my career. A film critic for one of the Sunday papers by the time I was 26, a home-owner by 27, my ideas of love and romance were forged in the heat of that early success. My relationships were always infused with a slightly condescending gallantry: I was always falling for slightly lost girls, whose resistance to male authority kept my own company, but who did not take their careers anywhere near as seriously as I did mine. An artist, a poet, a yoga instructor all women I could woo from a position of superiority, win over with my achievements, dazzle.

Tellingly, my wife was the first woman I dated who was my professional equal. I can remember my friends surprise upon meeting her: a job! A good one! For a company they had heard of! I had come out to New York to work for a new magazine whose lavish $1m launch party on Liberty Island was attended by Madonna and Henry Kissinger, the assorted A-listers lounging on pillows and blankets beneath trees hung with Chinese lanterns, while George Plimpton narrated a fireworks show. The evening seems a little phantasmal now, like the last days of Versailles, or a Gatsby party, the magazine world artificially buoyed by the last of the pre-internet advertising revenues and a dotcom bubble that was about to burst. We didnt know it but the industry in which we worked, in which I had found such early success, was about to walk over a cliff.

The magazine had closed by the time I met Kate. Dozens more would follow in the next few years, along with hundreds of newspapers, newsrooms shedding jobs by the tens of thousands. Her industry, meanwhile, remained firmly recession proof. 6,000 drop in number of UK journalists over two years but 18,000 more PRs runs a headline from the Press Gazette in 2015, which could easily be the story of our marriage. Newly wed, fielding polite inquiries from my in-laws into how the writing was going, I hustled in a newly choppy freelance market and watched in horror as my income began its slow, steady descent to a point roughly half of what it had been when I was 26. It was a little like pedalling furiously on an exercise bike on which someone is secretly switching up the difficulty level.

As my wifes income and mine began to pull further apart, we began, unsurprisingly, to argue about money: did the wedding need to be that big? Did we need to get cabs all the time? How many times could we afford to eat out? She thought I was penny pinching her family prided itself on their largesse and extravagant gifts and here was I, heading into my 40s, for many men their earning prime, essentially budgeting like a student again.

I dont care who earns what, was my wifes constant refrain. Its not my money, its our money. For richer, for poorer, right? Once marriage vows came into it, I knew I had to concede the point, which only made the shame I felt all the more acute, something to be addressed in private. I could see you were in pain, and I wanted to help, she says now, but every time I came near the subject, you were so angry and down on yourself, it just seemed to make it worse. In private, she now tells me, friends of hers were asking, Why doesnt he just go out and get a different job?

Now, it seems obvious. Why didnt I? Why does the frog sit still in a pan of slowly boiling water? Its amazing how slow we are to recognise broad, historical forces at work in our own lives. Pride and a little inverse egotism were at play, as Im sure they are for many whose livelihoods have slowly evaporated, be they blacksmiths or elevator operators: wed rather blame ourselves than be seen to complain about the state of our industry. On some level, I felt this was just happening to me and me alone, and as such I ought to keep it to myself. I had started my career in the middle of one recession, so why start beefing about another now? If I had looked around, or been in closer contact with my peers, I would have seen a different story, part of a larger reconfiguration of the media landscape in the age of the internet: those jobs werent coming back. The profession that had once given me a mortgage and a pension, and put me on a private jet to make small talk with Gwyneth Paltrow, was now something closer to, well, a hobby.

Its telling that what finally pulled me out of my funk was the arrival of my daughter. Its true what they say: a baby arrives with a loaf of bread under its arm. Its almost as if one big change burst the dam and allowed me to take stock of all the other changes that I had been so resistant to, and had been sheltering within my marriage to avoid. I got a job teaching. I started writing summaries of legal briefs for a non-profit organisation. I wrote and sold the screen rights to a novel. Money from books would eventually form a more reliable revenue stream than that from journalism. Most importantly, I started to believe my wife when she told me she didnt care how much I earned. And to do that I had to stopcaring myself, just a fraction at first a crack in the door that my daughter has pushed fully open. Because I know she doesnt care how much I earn. She doesnt know anything about tax returns or the internet or mancessions or post-heroic marriages. Shes three. When she looks at me, all she sees is the guy who drops her off at school and makes her lunch and cooks her dinner. And I have turned out to be pretty good at those things.

I just know my kids more than a dad who doesnt get to spend as much time with them, Nathan tells me. In some ways, I know them better than my wife does. Shell always kind of trump that with her maternal instinct, and thats cool. But there are things about their interests, their tics, their behaviour that I know just from spending the extra hours with them. That doesnt seem like something our fathers generation ever really knew about.

The slight twinge of shame I still occasionally feel when going over our numbers with our accountant, or when my wife pays for a meal, I now shrug off like a phantom-limb twitch. Another time. Another life. One day, I may tell my daughter about it.

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Author: Billy Roland

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