What's your Problem?

How do I cope with not being the main breadwinner?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: Until recently, I had a lucrative career as an IT consultant. But since the beginning of the year, my earnings have all but dried up. I'm anxious about the situation, but my wife, who is an HR director, has been able to go from working part-time to full-time to cover our financial shortfall. That has taken the immediate pressure off, but I'm ashamed to say that I'm taking it quite hard that my wife has become the main breadwinner and I'm left at home looking after the children. I'm very unhappy.

A: When I first read your letter - rather too quickly - I thought you were saying that you were ashamed that your earnings had dried up and that your wife had become the main breadwinner. Had that been the case, I'd probably have told you to snap out of it. But that's not what you're saying.

You're saying you find this abrupt reversal of roles very, very difficult to adjust to - and there's absolutely no shame attached to that. It's more or less inevitable. (Though I once had a letter from a woman whose husband had been made redundant; and, to her slight dismay, he didn't seem to mind a bit and took to being a house husband with unnerving ease. No shame in that, either.) Being the person you are, you'll probably go on finding it tough to come to terms with - but please don't feel ashamed about it, and try very hard not to show it.

Jobs can be disproportionately important to people - and particularly, perhaps, to men; if only because they don't give birth to children and don't have the initial prime responsibility for nurturing them. So bringing home the bacon becomes their instinctive role.

Now you must try to see this development as an opportunity, however uninvited, to build the sort of relationship with your family that most men don't enjoy. Above all, try looking at this through your children's eyes. If your reluctance to take on this role becomes evident to them (and it will), they'll begin to feel that you resent them; that you find looking after a family an inferior and rather demeaning role; and so, by inference, that mothers are the inferior parent. You must be very careful indeed not to do that.

Do all you can to show you enjoy spending time with them; you'll find it surprisingly rewarding. There's overwhelming research to suggest that children benefit hugely from time spent with both parents. Celebrate the fact that you and your wife can each play both parts. And between times, keep on looking to rebuild your IT work; not out of desperation but in the knowledge that you're good at it and that one day it will surely return.

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