With more women earning a heftier slice of the family income, BYU couples adapt and thrive, no matter who brings home the bacon.
Mo Wolthuis didn’t go to business school to not work. “I aspired to leadership from the time I was born,” she says.
After graduating from the Marriott School in 1994, Wolthuis headed to a job at Black & Decker while her husband—former BYU football player Pete Tuipulotu—turned to coaching collegiate following a stint with the San Diego Chargers. But with three growing kids and business opportunities still coming Wolthuis’s way, something had to give. Together, the couple decided to bench Tuipulotu’s college career—he now coaches middle school sports—so he could take the lead in parenting.
“It’s awesome when a mom can stay home, but a lot of times that doesn’t happen,” says Wolthuis, who is currently a vice president at Valspar. “In our case, I had a unique opportunity to chase business and leadership roles. We have embraced that, and it’s been a blessing to us.”
While it may sound unorthodox, Wolthuis’s situation is not unique. In what the Atlantic hailed as the “greatest economic development in the last fifty years,” more women than ever before are reaping rewards in the workforce. Working women now earn nearly half of their family’s income, according to a 2014 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers. And the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that many working wives—about 38 percent—are out-earning their husbands.
However, these workplace gains haven’t come without challenges, especially as couples upset the man-as-breadwinner model. A 2013 study found that couples were less likely to describe their marriages as happy and more likely to consider separation if the wife earned more. Worse, a study out of Cornell suggested that out-earned husbands were more prone to infidelity.
But a reversal of fortune at work shouldn’t spell disaster at home. Family life experts and four Marriott School couples share how they’ve faced cultural expectations—and negotiated chore charts—to build thriving households and careers, regardless of who brings home the bacon.
Haircuts were once a thing of dread for Kevin Gordon. Facing the scissors, he braced for every stylist’s first question: “What do you do for a living?” Kevin was by no means ashamed of the answer, but he still hesitated. “I didn’t want people to think I was lazy and didn’t want to work,” he says.
Recognizing that Kevin’s wife, Jenna, a BYU accounting grad and EMBA student, had the more promising career as a healthcare company controller, the couple decided she would be the primary earner. As members of the LDS Church, the Gordons’ choice felt nontraditional. After all, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” outlines that women are primarily responsible for nurturing the family and men for providing for it.
“Sometimes I feel like the proclamation doesn’t fit my situation, like I’m forgoing my responsibilities of providing,” admits Michael Goepfert, another LDS stay-at-home dad. Michael’s wife, Paige—a 2004 MAcc grad and tax senior manager at RSM in Chicago—became the family’s breadwinner after he lost his job managing loan officers during the recession. “There wasn’t a lot out there for me,” he remembers. “At the same time, Paige was progressing in her career, and we were not willing to postpone having a family any longer.” It can be difficult to not fit the mold, Michael admits.
That’s because delineated roles for husbands and wives are not just a hallmark of religious creeds; they’re also woven into the tapestry of American culture. Perhaps recalling the rosy image of June Cleaver, half of Americans prefer a married mother not work, and 42 percent say she should only work part time, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Only 8 percent believe an ideal family includes dad at home; two-thirds believe a father should bring home the biggest piece of the family pie.
While Americans have clung to the Leave It to Beaver ideal, median incomes have dropped, and the percentage of middle-class households, defined as those earning between 67 percent and 200 percent of a state’s median income, has shrunk in every state since 2000. This new economic reality has forced many couples to rethink marital expectations but hasn’t yet changed the way society views couples who take a different approach.
“There’s a misperception that the husband is failing if he’s not doing the primary providing,” says Jeff Hill, a BYU professor of family life with a 1984 business degree from the university. And it’s equally challenging for working women, adds Sarah Coyne, who provides the majority of the family income as a BYU family studies researcher while her husband runs a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio. She’s faced difficult comments, fielding queries like “Are you worried your children aren’t going to love you as much? That they won’t be attached to you?” “But,” she says, “I know that this is what we should be doing right now. God knows our hearts.”
Miranda Barnard, a current EMBA student, and her husband, Zach, are not LDS but grew up in traditional homes, expecting to fulfill traditional roles. Both worked until their first son turned two, but when time together became scarce, Zach closed his restaurant while Miranda accepted a position as vice president of communications at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. For them, an equally shared family vision is essential.
“It’s just like a business,” Miranda says. “You determine your end goal and then get creative on how to achieve it. Our goal was to have a parent staying home, and we worked backward from there. Look at the whole picture of what works best for your family. That perspective is more important than getting caught up in individual roles.”
This approach—with spouses working as partners for the good of their family—also finds support in the family proclamation, Hill explains. “It says parents are obligated to help one another as equal partners in their stewardships. Husband and wife have the responsibility to see that providing happens and that nurturing happens. As partners, they can decide how to best fulfill those roles.”
In evaluating how to best make sure a family’s needs are met, “really get down to the basics,” Hill suggests. “Couples can ask, ‘What are we about?’ We all want our families to thrive. Decide together the best way for this to happen. And in some cases, that might be a dual income or a wife making more than her husband.”
Family doesn’t have to play second fiddle to a fast-paced career. Marriott School alums offer up some advice to help working parents—mothers or fathers—stay connected at home:
- Work remotely when possible.
Paige Goepfert works from home two to three days per week. She still puts in long hours but makes sure she eats lunch with the kids and puts them to bed before hopping back on the laptop.
- Leverage technology.
On business trips, Mo Wolthuis turns on FaceTime in her hotel room or remote office and hangs out with her teens digitally while she works and they do their homework. “We have all the same conversations as if I were sitting there,” she says.
- Go on dates.
Paige goes out with her husband regularly, and Jenna takes her oldest on “mommy-daughter” dates.
- Unplug at home.
“I try to be conscientious about not having my phone near me,” Jenna Gordon says, “making sure we are taking advantage of all the time we have together so we can create as many memories as possible.”
- Check in.
Communicate with your spouse beyond daily logistics like what to grab at the grocery store and who bathed the kids, Miranda Barnard says. “It’s hard in the day-to-day craziness to check in on long-term goals and what you both want for your family, but it’s really important.”
Question: if a woman starts providing the greater share of the family income, should she take on less housework?
The logical answer might be yes, but the numbers tell a different story: a 2013 study found that the more a woman earns, the more chores she takes on. And a Pew
Research Center study noted that 50 percent of women in two-career households take on more child care, with only 4 percent of men taking on a greater share.
Division of chores in any family can trigger marital tensions—or, if done right, prevent them. In 2013 BYU researcher Erin Holmes found that husbands and wives are happier when both feel at peace with how the housework is split.
“We found that it didn’t matter who did what, but how satisfied people were with the division of labor,” Holmes says. The study also showed that couples are more satisfied when they do housework together.
But finding a happy balance when women earn the bread can be tricky, especially because many are raised to be homemakers. That’s something BYU family life professor and working mom Lauren Barnes can relate to if she comes home to a messy house. “Research supports that if you hand over the homemaking to your husband, you have to back off,” she says. “And that is really hard as a woman because I feel like I’ve been trained that this is what you do at home. But I have to remember the cleaning can wait; I’m home to spend family time with my kids.”
Similarly, in the childhood homes of Jenna and Kevin Gordon, boys mowed the lawn and girls cooked—which presented Kevin with somewhat of a learning curve when he took on more duties at home. “Cooking regular meals was frustrating for me because I had zero experience,” he says. But he and Jenna worked together, and as she tutored him through family recipes, “I became a decent cook.”
The key to tranquility in labor division is to talk it out, setting clear expectations and making sure spouses are on board with their responsibilities. “We had to be very specific and articulate in almost every aspect,” Jenna says. “We regularly talk about how things are going and revise our methods.” For example, adds Kevin, “I rinse dishes and load the dishwasher, and Jenna will unload. I do the laundry and Jenna will put the laundry away. I am responsible for vacuuming, and Jenna will do the mopping.”
Keeping communication open also allows couples to make adjustments and raise
concerns. “Sometimes Michael will have to remind me to pitch in with the household duties,” Paige Goepfert says. “It’s about making sure the other person is aware of any stresses, because otherwise we will just go along our merry way and build up frustrations.”
Though Mo Wolthuis says her family’s arrangement is a blessing, like any marriage, it’s not without challenge nor sacrifice. “Even though you try to communicate and work as a team, there are still times when it’s hard or somebody doesn’t meet somebody else’s expectations,” she says.
With statistics blaring that tensions in mom-as-breadwinner relationships are more likely to lead to marital discontent, it’s essential that each spouse stays happy. Keeping connected and emotionally healthy begins with open dialogue.
“The key to making it work is being really transparent and honest with ourselves and with each other,” Jenna Gordon says. One feeling she’s faced is a fear of assuming a strong family leadership role. “I wanted to be with a guy who could lead in every aspect,” she explains. “I finally realized that there are certain things that I am really good at, and there are things that Kevin is really good at. Once I recognized and owned my strengths, I became a lot happier.” Jenna’s drive to succeed and Kevin’s sense of humor balance their family. “She works so hard at her job, and I am much more laid back, and that works for us,” Kevin says. “Even after a rough day of being with the kids, I’m still able to help her wind down from work, relax, crack a joke. Humor is a great way to deal with a lot of situations.”
Finding fulfillment at work is another key to a breadwinning parent’s emotional health, adds Miranda Barnard. “Having a job you enjoy adds a lot to the family dynamic and can make you happier with your role,” she says. “I absolutely love my job, and that makes it much easier to leave my house for the day.”
Happiness at home has also been improved, say the couples, when caregiving dads find a hobby or outlet—an important principle no matter which parent takes the lead at home. Michael Goepfert prizes his favorite toy—a Mustang—and connects with fellow car enthusiasts weekly, while Zach Barnard coaches high school baseball. “Coaching is something for Zach that is not connected to his day-to-day life at home,” Miranda says. “Since he started doing it, it’s been a really big benefit for us.” Mo Wolthuis, whose husband also coaches, adds that “he has felt like he has been able to make a big contribution, and that is really a big part of what has made our family work. People have to feel like they are adding value.”
When Jenna Gordon’s children were born and she took on the primary provider role in her family, she wasn’t sure how it would work out. “We jumped in and took that risk,” she says. It was a decision she and her husband, Kevin, made prayerfully. “We recognized that there was going to be a lot of give and take, and we would have to do a lot of reassessments on how it was going. For us, it’s still a work in progress.”
So far, the arrangement is a success—but that’s not to say what works for the Gordons will work for every family. “Be open to looking at what is best for your family,” adds Miranda Barnard. “If people really look at their options with an open mind, they might be surprised. This isn’t what we had planned out years ago, but it works great for our family now, and we’re really happy.”
More essential than who does what and who brings home the biggest paycheck, Mo Wolthuis says, is teamwork. “You can define marriage as teamwork,” she says. “Life is full of challenges and opportunities, and the best way to get through that is working together with the person who is your equal stakeholder in the success of your family.”
Winning the Family Bread Percentage of working women who out-earn their husbands
Source: US Department of Labor
Written by Sara Smith Atwood
Photography by Bradley Slade