When the Husband Stays at Home

It's not easy, but more men are turning the breadwinner role over to their wives in order to pursue nontraditional occupations

By Toddi Gutner

I recently got an e-mail from a reader who asked why Business Week doesn't have a His.Online column. So even though I traditionally focus on women in this space, this week I'll look -- appropriately enough -- at the increasing numbers of men who are opting out of the traditional role of chief breadwinner. According to a 1999 study by Harvard economist Richard Freeman, approximately 30% of working wives are paid more than their husbands. That percentage jumps to nearly 40% when women have graduate degrees.

Male spouses who earn less than their wives generally fall into one of three categories: There are those who have achieved financial and professional success and decide to do something different, those who voluntarily stunt or abandon their own careers to stay at home with children, and those who are in lower-paying professions than their wives.

Many of the women in the breadwinner positions say the support of their husbands has been a key factor allowing them to flourish in their careers, and that they wouldn't have been able to achieve the same level of success without their spouse's sacrifices. Says one female high-level banking executive: "Everyone -- whether they're a man or a woman -- with a big job needs someone at home. I can't think of any senior executive for whom that's not true. It's just that most of [the spouses at home] are women." Her job involves both long hours and a great deal of international travel. "I know I've been more successful because of my husband's support," she says.


  But whether a man chooses to earn less than his wife or does so because of circumstance, it can be difficult for him. Society often measures a man's worth by his performance and achievement (translate, earning power) in the business world, says Jeff Jones, a clinical psychologist in Del Mar, Calif.

Take a look at Peter Carpenter. He was a man who already had made it in business when he left Alza Corp., a pharmaceutical research company, in 1990 to do pro bono work. Carpenter, now 60, serves on the boards of seven nonprofit companies. His wife, Jane Shaw, who also had been successful at Alza, went on to become chairman and CEO of Aerogen, a biotech company that went public in November.

Carpenter was plagued with wondering if he could have achieved even greater success if he had stayed in the corporate world. "Getting off the merry-go-round was more difficult for my ego and self-image than the fact that I was earning less than my wife," he says.


  "Jane had to be willing to [emotionally] support me in the dark days, as I struggled to find my new identity, and not many women would do that," says Carpenter. He says a book, Transitions by William Bridges, helped him to see life as a series of changes, with beginnings and endings, and to use the transition periods for reflection. And it helped him redefine success, which to him now means working only with people he likes and in areas where he can make a difference.

The transition to a nontraditional role wasn't as difficult for Jerry Evans, who assumed the role of stay-at-home spouse after retiring from 20 years in the Navy in 1984. But the ex-fighter pilot, who is married to former Navy Admiral Marsha Johnson Evans, says, "I couldn't have done what I'm doing [and maintain my self-esteem] if I hadn't already had a successful career."

Marsha Johnson Evans, who retired from the Navy in 1997 and is now the executive director of the Girl Scouts, says that as a couple, they decided together to focus on her career rather than his. "I was in a transition role in the Navy, and my husband was perfectly willing to take on the nontraditional role of the supportive spouse," she says.


  Many men who give up their careers do so to be stay-at-home dads. They are generally married to women who are in higher-paying professions, and it often makes economic sense for the lower-paid spouse to switch to part-time employment or give up work altogether. Approximately 2 million men are the primary caregivers for their children, according to a 1997 U.S. Census Bureau survey, the most recent for which such data are available. Says the female banking executive, whose husband cares for their two children: "Knowing that my children are not only safe but loved gives me the peace of mind and flexibility to put in the hours I need to at work."

Jay Massey has been home with his son, Tucker, since the child's birth in 1994. Massey supported his wife, Joann, while she attended graduate school to study psychology. Once she earned her degree, she wanted to work, so Jay opted to stay home and care for their son and work part-time at his home-based Web-design firm.

Massey, 42, values the times he spends with his son because he can see Tucker grow up on a day-to-day basis. Many men, he says, don't get that opportunity -- they leave for work early in the morning and return late at night. Men in this situation need to "remember why they're doing it and who they're doing it for -- the kids," Massey adds.


  But regardless of how much encouragement men get from their wives for their nontraditional choices or how sound the reasons for making them, it can still be difficult. On one Internet message board, a recent visitor asked: "I would like to know if anyone believes that the day will come when it will be as accepted for men to give up their own careers in order to help their wives advance?"

Stay-at-home dads can find lots of help on the Web at resource- and network-oriented sites. Some of the more useful ones include www.slowlane.com, www.dads.com, www.fathers.com, and www.daddyshome.com.

At-Home Dad, a quarterly newsletter, has national resources and advice, as well as a state-by-state list of other at-home-dad members and information about playgroups. If you're interested, contact athomedad@aol.com, or visit its site at www.parentsplace.com.

And finally, America Online hosts a "meet and chat" on Mondays at 10 p.m. Go to keyword: Parents Soup, click on the index, and follow the links to "Stay-at-Home Parents" and "At-Home Dads Chat."


  Eric Sampson, 31, loves his job as a special-education teacher and football coach at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, Md. He considers himself lucky, even though his wife, Joanne Zimolzak, 32, an attorney at McKenna & Cuneo in Washington, D.C., makes four times what Sampson earns.

"I made the choice before I was married that I was going to teach and knew that salaries were low," he says. "If my ego were tied to my paycheck, I certainly wouldn't have gone into education." He says his rewards, such as his football team making a touchdown, are greater than any financial ones could be. All in all, he believes, feeling good about yourself is about doing well at whatever you choose to do.

And while that's true for men and women alike, it's probably harder for men to accept that notion without tying it to a big paycheck. Thanks to men like Sampson, Massey, and Carpenter -- and their wives, who give both emotional and financial support -- it may become easier for more couples to opt for nontraditional roles.

Gutner is an associate editor at Business Week. Her twice-monthly Hers.Online column for BW Online complements Gutner's Hers column in Business Week magazine.

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Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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