09/04/2014 06:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How We Did It, How We Do It: When the Wife Makes More Money Than the Husband

Corporate America is like an onion. Multiple layers. Vast flavor and diversity. The power to move you to tears, yet keep you coming back for more.

As I've worked my way through the layers of corporate America over the past three decades, there's something that has made my journey all the more difficult. And it wasn't as though my journey was easy to begin with. I mean, as an African American woman working in the tobacco industry, you can only imagine the barriers I had to overcome and the biases I fought on a daily basis.

One of the unspoken challenges had to do with my family. My husband. My heart.

It was simply this: I make more money than my husband, Mike. It's been that way for the majority of our 30+-year marriage. And it's been hard. One of those "silent struggles" many couples in corporate America deal with alone.

But once again, it's time we talk about it. Because we are NOT alone. And research shows that newlyweds today are experiencing this phenomenon at much higher rates.

In her New York Times article, U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner, Catherine Rampell shares census finding from Pew Research Center:

...Four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family...This share, the highest on record, has quadrupled since 1960.

...Of all married couples, 24 percent include a wife who earns more, versus 6 percent in 1960. (The percentages are similar for married couples who have children.)


...Norms are also changing: Newlyweds seem to show more openness to having the wife earn more than her husband than do longer-married couples. In about 30 percent of newly married couples in 2011, the wife earned more, versus just 24 percent of all married couples.

In our case, one of us HAD TO stay home due to an unfortunate accident. Our Down Syndrome son, Adam, fell through a ceiling and required a 9-hour surgery. The recovery was intense. Mike could stay home at that time and was open to staying home. From that time on, that was it. That was how it was. He would work part-time in his field (TV production) here and there, but it was my job that supported us.

But when Mike first started staying home, our families didn't understand it. Some in my family would say to him, "Why are you making my sister support you?" When, in fact, HE was supporting ME. Some in his family would say to me, "You're being so selfish making Mike stay home with the kids."

And it did cause a disconnect between the two of us at times.

I didn't know how to value all he was doing. In my mind, I was out "slaving away" while they were home having fun. My kids talk today about how precious that time was with their dad, and I'm beyond thankful they had it with him. Beyond thankful. But at the time, I was selfish and tired.

When Mike and I would get in disagreements, oh yeah, it would get ugly. For a man, it messes with his identity and his self-worth because society places so much emphasis on professional achievements. Not on a father having quality time with his children. We've been socialized to believe there are certain roles that people must play. That men and women must have. And when they don't play those roles, stress occurs.

When you enter into marriage, into any relationship, you have stress. That is natural. But when the wife makes more than the husband, or when the husband stays home, extra stress is added. Extra biases and stereotypes are added.

Now, I can sit here and talk until I'm blue in the face about how it was for Mike or how he felt, but really? Why not just have him tell you himself?

So this. From my husband, Michael Bourgeois', wise perspective. A man ahead of his time.

Question #1: What are the key lessons you would like to pass on to other men and women about this dynamic you and I have lived through?

Let me begin by stating that the most important lesson for me in all of this has been achieving a full understanding of the concept of teamwork -- working in the interest of a common cause.

The dynamic of a wife being a primary breadwinner, or having a more powerful corporate position than her husband, goes against many societal standards. I must admit that it was a blow to my ego to learn that my wife would out-earn me (many times over as a matter of fact). And though I pouted and sulked for a time, I always realized that this would be for the good of our family, which is our ultimate and common goal.

Another factor for our family was that we have always subscribed to the "one pot" formula. That is, regardless of what either of us earns, it all goes into one pot. Still, there was negative pressure. Not only from society at-large, but even within our own families. There are simply those who don't accept as right the fact that a woman should earn more than her husband. But once I pushed aside my ego, I began to fully embrace the words of the Psalmist, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." Abiding in these words has enabled me to enjoy, in a more satisfying way, the fruits of our labor.

Question #2: If you had to do it all over again, what would you change (if anything)?

If I could change anything it would be my initial response to the situation. I would like to think I could've been a bit more proactive in toning down my testosterone. That is to say, to not have the "macho male" attitude.

I wish I had been quicker to realize that, at times, it takes a follower to be a more effective leader.

Question #3: How have the decisions that you have made regarding professional choices impacted your legacy?

For me, this question of legacy has come down to one statement:

I would like to be remembered only as a humble servant of The Most High God.

Speaking from a secular viewpoint, I recall the days when we left California to move to Kentucky where Trudy would experience her greatest success in corporate America. As I drove east across the United States, all alone in my Chevy Blazer, I felt as though I was committing career suicide. As it turned out, while we were based in Louisville and Trudy worked at the home office of her company, I commuted to Chicago for work. As difficult as this period was, the work I was able to do in Chicago remains some of the most gratifying work of my 37-year career in television production.

So, legacies aside, for me what is most important is the dynamic of teamwork in a marriage. The oneness that is achieved when partners work together regardless of the circumstances they must face.

I could not state it better myself. True wisdom.

So what about you?

Are you a female who is the breadwinner? How are you and your partner, spouse or significant other handling this piece of corporate stress? If you haven't had this conversation, please just STOP and get intentional. This is an important conversation that must be had. There is nothing more powerful than being proactive. Hindsight is always 20/20, but by Mike and I sharing our story, we are hoping that you will be able to avoid going through the school of hard knocks that we went through.

I worked my way through college as an administrative assistant for the departments of Religious Studies and Philosophy. While there, I reported to two priests. The head of Religious Studies was a gentleman named Father Fagin. After I left the position, they replaced me with two people. When I asked Father Fagin about this development, he offered this advice that I have carried with me to this day. He said, "Some people sow the seed, others reap the reward."

Take advantage of the seed we have sown, my friends!