The Hell of Being the Family Breadwinner

No one ever thanks dad for takin’ care of his business … What’s he get?  The big piece of chicken.”

- Chris Rock

Our society treats the breadwinner of the family much like we treat success these days, not well [1. For some reason being successful is viewed poorly now. I'm not talking corporations, but the people who work hard and succeed.].  We’ve focused so much attention on kids and everyone in the house that we’ve forgotten the one person that keeps the lights on and food on the table.  Does it need to be like 1955 when everyone cleared the way -- cocktail in hand when dad came home? Not at all.  Times have changed, thankfully.  But we need balance.

When one person provides most of the resources for a family, an enormous responsibility is placed upon them.  Not only by the family, but also by themselves.  Taking care of the ones you love is a very noble and primal thing to do, but the weight that responsibility carries can be suffocating.

It doesn’t matter which spouse is the breadwinner of a family.  While more and more families have both members bringing home income, the one income household is still alive.  I see examples watching the stay-at-home mom, stroller-aerobic class every Monday morning in front of Starbucks, and the stay at home dad that is largely ignored and feeling out-of-place during playtime at the local Gymboree.  So the breadwinner isn’t extinct … yet.

No one adult in the family is more important than the other; there has to be a balance.   It’s more about understanding another person’s situation.  Many of us wander through life thinking we know what another person is going through.  We don’t.  Even when we live in the same house [2. Sometimes especially when we live in the same house].

Adam Corolla, comedian turned podcaster, who owns the #1 podcast, commented a few months ago that when the breadwinner used to bring home the money, the family valued it.  Now, it basically gets you to zero.  It’s expected instead of appreciated and supported.

We need to be somewhere between 1955 and 2013.

Everyone has those ups and downs, and for the breadwinner, they’re magnified because so much is at stake.  When that job is threatened or struggling, it is devastating.  The spouse may worry, but doesn’t have the same fear and dread the breadwinner has.  The spouse knows the breadwinner has always taken care of the family and any company is lucky to have them.  But more often than not, the breadwinner doesn’t feel this way.  They feel like a fraud — like they’re constantly scrambling to make everything work — with mediocre results.  It’s defeating to give everything you have and barely have your head above water.

Corporate America doesn’t help much.  With slashed budgets, canceled projects, pitiful raises, diminishing benefits and office politics, it can really fuck with someone’s head and self-esteem.  It’s like being picked last for a kickball game that never ends.

As if the daily grind isn’t hard enough, companies have laid off workers this past decade like its sport.  While incredibly devastating to a family, the spouse is generally very level headed about a lay-off being one-step removed.  They cut back, put vacations on the back burner, don’t eat out and trim where they can.  The breadwinner is a psychological mess.  Denial is the first emotion to hit, but it quickly downshifts into the feeling he/she may never work again.  If that happens the family can’t pay bills, can’t eat, and then homeless … you get the picture.   While extreme and unlikely, the breadwinner feels this way.  And that’s when the pain really takes over.

When your family depends on you for food and shelter – the most basic of human needs and you can’t deliver; there is no more hopeless feeling.

Nothing in this world is worse than not being able to do the one thing those you love most count on you for.  When this happens – or even just the threat, the breadwinner can be moody, frustrated, bitchy and mean.  They’re not lashing out (even though it feels this way); they are struggling and feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.  I felt this way when I was laid off … three times.  I didn’t resent the people I was responsible for, I was mad at myself for not doing the one job I could not fail at.

The breadwinner doesn’t necessarily have it harder than anyone else; it’s just different.  Staying at home with the kids and being the breadwinner are both hard, stressful, emotionally draining, and noble.  The stay-at-home crowd just has a better public relations team.  We can’t forget about those who keep the lights on, the water hot, and food on the table.

They haven’t forgotten about you.