I didn’t set out to be the breadwinner. I assumed that one day a guy would come along and I would marry him and, well, he’d take care of it. This is one of the fundamental ways in which men differ from women. Growing up, boys assume they’re going to make the money, or at least half the money. Rare is the boy who imagines that marriage will spell a free economic ride and so nurtures his incredible hotness to that end.
While I couldn’t imagine being my mother — vacuuming on Monday, dusting on Tuesday, etc — neither did I see myself as a high-powered earner. I switched majors from journalism to physical therapy to film. I got good grades, which was something I knew how to do, but beyond that ... well, there was no beyond that.
When it came to relationships, I was not a romantic ditherer. I liked someone, and either he liked me or he didn’t. If he did, we would become inseparable until the horrific breakup in which we would both shriek and sob and engage in a little stalking and, years later, wind up good friends.
In film school, I had a short, strange romance with a French guy, Guillaume, who wore silk shirts, had impeccable manners and paid for everything. I don’t think I opened my purse in his presence once. Even though I didn’t love him, I was happy.
Until the night he stopped by my apartment at 11 o’clock and caught me in a pair of paint-stained sweat pants. He was appalled, refused to come in. He felt that since we were in a relationship, I should always look my best, as if I were a babe-on-call, ready at all hours to be seductive and kittenish. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Adieu, Guillaume.
I met my first husband on the heels of my breakup with the ridiculous Guillaume. James and I lived together for an embarrassing number of years before we married and had our daughter. In the early years we were financial idiots, putting film stock on our credit cards to shoot the documentaries we were co-producing while subsisting on Top Ramen noodles. I was not the de facto breadwinner, but I had the steady job, at a nonprofit film arts center. James freelanced as a sound editor.
It didn’t start out as a terrible arrangement. But James wanted to direct and started to turn down sound-editing work. This left me making not just the steady money but all the money. His big break was always just around the corner.
By the time the marriage ended, I had published two books and begun writing for magazines. It wasn’t a reliable living, but it wasn’t bad. As long as I kept my overhead low, I could make it work, and did. I often wonder: If I had been dependent on James financially, would I have walked out so easily? It brings up a question that can only be posed uneasily: Is it better for the longevity of a marriage if one party (usually the woman) feels financially trapped?
It’s not just a problem from my mother’s era. Several years ago, a friend of mine decided she’d had enough of her arts administrator job. With the support of her husband, who worked somewhat unhappily as a doctor, she quit with the idea of taking a year off to decide what she wanted to do. The year slid into two, then three. She walked her dogs, attended yoga classes. Then her life became a third-rate show on basic cable: She discovered her husband was having an affair with a nurse, and worse, when she confronted him, he said he wasn’t going to stop.