19 July 2023

As a society, are we past the concept of the 'breadwinner'?

| Zoya Patel
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Man being welcomed home by children after work.

Has the term ‘breadwinner’ become outdated and gendered? Photo: File.

Finances in relationships are always a bit tricky. Do you combine everything, or keep things separate?

Do you have some joint bank accounts, and some private, and meet each other somewhere in the middle? What happens if one partner has time out of work for health reasons, or caring responsibilities?

What happens when you retire and you have different retirement savings? And worst case scenario, how does it all land if you split up, when you consider all the contributions that can’t easily be tallied up for their financial value?

These are questions that are regularly mulled over in my peer groups, especially as more of us tackle the task of having children, and confront the way adding a dependent human complicates our financial setups. Where it seemed easy enough to have equal contributions to living costs when both partners were working full-time and earning similar amounts, now things are a bit different.

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I have friends who have taken maternity leave, carried the majority of the caring load in their child’s first year, and have returned to work at a reduced capacity grappling with what their financial input looks like at home, and feeling uncomfortably reliant on their partners.

Even in the healthiest of relationships, dependence can feel awkward when you’re used to being self-sufficient, and it’s worse when people start referring to your partner as the “breadwinner”, as one friend recently experienced.

It irked her, because until she took maternity leave, she was the higher income earner, and no one had ever called her a breadwinner, even when she contributed more to certain expenses when needed. Despite now taking care of their very young child full-time (with an eventual plan to return to work), it’s like her status in the eyes of society has shifted to secondary to her partner, because his income is the primary source of resources for the family. (Never mind the fact that she is saving them thousands of dollars on childcare).

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In fact, statistically women who earn the higher income in their relationship are still more likely to also undertake a greater share of the household caring and domestic responsibilities – so maybe we need a term for the breadwinner who doesn’t really win anything except more work in every area of life.

Ultimately, these things do tend to come out in the wash – over the course of a child’s life, and the course of a long term relationship, the financial contributions of each parent or partner will fluctuate and shift. But the idea that there is a labelled income earner, who is known as the ‘breadwinner’ of the family is an outdated one and one that feels gendered. I rarely hear it ascribed to women, or used in the context of queer relationships, yet it’s been thrown around in the heterosexual relationships I know of often enough to feel gross.

Is the concept of the breadwinner officially past its expiry date?

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Maybe we aren’t normal, all monies go in the same account, no one is a bread winner, if someone has time off, we deal with it.

Patel your friends must be hell scared of talking with you, they, and their lives, always seem to be the feature of your articles.

There is the possibility of not using the word, or expressing a view that one finds it personally offensive, without insisting that the word be no longer used by all – cancel culture in action.

…probably also time we accepted that if 25% of people do something (no source quoted so might just be one person’s opinion), that means 75% (or a HUUUUGE majority) didn’t!

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