Originally published over there at The Atlantic
My professional life has been, by most measures, an exercise in small-bore self-indulgence: modest in scope and ambition, of arguable intellectual merit, meagerly compensated. The carcasses of two novels and a collection of awful short stories rot, as they should, in a closet in my mother’s house. As the inspiration for my first book, she is understandably loathe to cast aside any potential hints of my early genius, so I can hope only that the ink will fade or the paper crumble before any of my children stumbles onto them. Sex Tourist, a satirical novel-in-stories set among the whoremongers loitering in Southeast Asia’s backpacker districts, is a literary experiment about which I prefer they remain unaware.
There were the obligatory Los Angeles years and the doomed foray into screenwriting, which mercifully concluded with my application, at age 30, to law school. (I was rejected.) My resumé would not be complete without a quixotic career divertissement, mine being a journey to the fringes of reality television. The fiscal highlight of this venture was $500, for the sale of a bank-heist game show called Mastermind, which was no such thing. It was optioned and then forgotten by the same company that had elevated this nation’s cultural conversation with American Gladiator.
When that fizzled, I vowed to give up creative pursuits and accepted a $25,000-a-year job as a secretary for an international non-profit. But who was I to keep a vow when an unpaid internship for a monthly magazine of fading literary glory was on offer? The magazine hired me as an editor not long after the internship, whence I embarked on a meteoric march to the middle of the masthead which halted when I was laid off while earning $45,000, the highest salary—by far—of my life to that point.
My book, of which I am proud, seems likely to prove an aberration. I found a reputable agent, who sold it to a good publishing house for far more than it was worth. Shortly after publication, I topped Amazon’s “Hot New Releases: Jewish biographies” for a day or so, and even now I occasionally zoom past the 400,000 barrier on the website’s rankings with a certain insouciant flair.
Did I mention that I have a master’s degree in something called “professional writing”?
Never fear that I have confronted this catalog of unrivaled success alone. Women do in fact exist willing (even eager, at times) to immerse themselves wholly in the financial quagmire known as Theodore Ross, potbelly, balding pate, and paucity of retirement assets be damned! Yes—pick up your jaw, please—I have been married on two occasions, to well-educated, high-functioning, practical, hardworking, successful women who have never—not for a month or a moment—failed to make more money than me. Some might reckon divorce as evidence of interpersonal shortcomings, but not in this context. Consider that two, living, breathing, actual women consented to a relationship with me; perhaps I should end the current one just to prove I could again do so successfully.
Last year, I happened by chance into an editorial job at a national magazine that pays well by the standards to which I’ve educated my women to become accustomed. That, combined with a tidy little book payment or two, has swollen the balance of my semi-hidden-checking-account-for-which-my-wife-lacks-the-password to levels she had never dared dream, even when we were dating and I wanted her to think I earned a living. And yet she still outdid me, without breaking a sweat, if one’s cold, hard cash could be said to sweat.
Which, leads, finally, to the subject I would like to address with my DadWagon colleagues. I understand, and am grateful for, my great connubial good fortune. To be blessed, as I am, with the affection of a woman who surfs and cooks, finds Jewish men attractive, and who will always make more money than I do and has yet to show signs of resenting that fact, would seem to preclude the possibility of complaining.
The gentle kiss of undeserved providence has not relieved me of a fair amount of, say, irritation, at my wife’s enhanced procurative powers. I find it a little annoying that her bottom line is bigger than my bottom line (or whatever).
Before anyone overreacts, my spouse among them, let me be clear: I love my wife and I don’t begrudge her the success she has achieved, particularly in those moments when I am without regret spending her loot. She’s worked for everything she has, and she can hardly be faulted for having chosen a career—advertising executive—more pleasingly remunerative than mine. Likewise, she has never indicated any unease about my paltry earnings—although when my current job became available she didn’t talk me out of giving up my plan to write full-time.
These character traits are superb, hard to find, and not easily replaced. Yet, still, I continue to wish I made more money than she did, even if only once, and merely so that I could brag of it, in public, perhaps at a cocktail party, child’s birthday party, or some other peer-group social gathering.
I have only my uncorroborated word that I am not an inordinately competitive man, not blindingly macho, or sexist, or a misogynist. Yet these feelings persist. I suspect it has less to do with my relationship to my wife than with my chosen profession. For me, the writing life has been one of failure alternating with frustration mixed with dashed hopes combined, at long last, with a measure of success that I’ve never truly accepted as here to stay.
People who know me generally don’t rate me a monster. I am as good to my wife as I know how to be. Like her, I have worked hard, provided for our children and our household as best I am able, and struggled for whatever success I’ve been able to enjoy. But it’s never felt nearly enough. The question is why?
I am reminded of the concluding sentences of Ann Beattie’s famous 1979 short story, “The Burning House,” in which the husband, Frank, explains to his wife, Amy, why he will leave her:
“All men…I’m going to tell you something about them. Men think they’re Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars.” He takes my hand. “I’m looking down on all of this from space,” he whispers. “I’m already gone.”
I have no super-heroic delusions of grandeur, and unlike Frank, I intend to stay with my wife for as long as she will have me. But I feel a form of grim and guilt-ridden satisfaction when she worries, as all modern-day Americans must, about losing her job. I reassure her, tell her that we will be fine whatever comes. We can, I say, betraying no irony, get by on what I make.
In the early evening of November 1, I rode my bicycle south from Times Square, dodging first the remaining tourists wandering in a post-Sandy haze, then slaloming through the lightless intersections, and finally powering past the legions of dilettante cyclists on the Manhattan Bridge. By the time I got home, the autumn sun was starting to set, and I climbed the stairs to my fourth-floor two-bedroom co-op with the glow of physical exertion in my chest.
At the top of the stairs, I opened the door, and my nearly 4-year-old daughter, Sasha, looked up, yelled “Daddy!” and sprinted into my arms. This was, of course, a heartwarming moment, but mixed in with my fatherly pride was a new and unusual feeling, one I didn’t quite recognize at first: not just happiness but satisfaction. And the source of that satisfaction? Readers, I had gotten a job.
In fact, I had been in Times Square nearly every day for the past two weeks, serving as the new editor for the website of a fairly large food magazine—the first full-time job I’ve had since 2004. And not just a full-time job but a job I liked, a job I was good at, a job that was earning me twice as much as I’d ever made before in my working life. This, I thought to myself as I hugged little Sasha, was what it feels like to be a man.
Now, it’s not as if I hadn’t worked in the intervening eight years between full-time gigs. For most of that time I was a travel writer, jetting around the world in the service of large, dying publications. It was glamorous, certainly. Also, extremely poorly paying. If it wasn’t for my wife, Jean, and her substantial salary, I never would have been able to indulge in that high-status, low-wage endeavor I loved. What’s more, I never resented Jean’s earning ability. I’d never needed to be a breadwinner, and I knew that my other talents—for cooking, for organization, for childcare—would make up for what I lacked in my bank account. I wouldn’t have minded being rich(er), but unlike my colleague Theodore (who I can aver is highly competitive and occasionally a monster), our internal income disparity didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t about to do anything that might begin to elevate my earning potential.
But then, a few months ago, my world shifted. At just about the same time Jean was preparing to give birth to our second daughter, I was growing frustrated with my inability to earn a living. After hundreds of articles and loads of appreciation from my peers, I was making less than I ever had. I was tired of it—tired of working as hard as ever, and writing as well as ever. With the new kid on the way, I would be neither able nor willing to travel like I had been, and full-time daycare would stretch our budget precariously thin. And so I made that momentous decision. I would get a job, any job. Who knew that I would not only find one in this economy but would actually like it, too?
Of course, I’m still nowhere close to making what Jean does (not that either of us particularly cares), but I am enjoying the satisfaction and freedom this new gig brings. Soon I’ll be able to cover my (modest) credit card bills without having to ask Jean for a loan against a coming freelance payment, and I’ll still get home in time to whip up dinner. (Tomorrow: seared Moulard duck breast.) One of these months, I might even pay the mortgage—just for kicks, you know. I wouldn’t want Jean to think she’d married a rich man.
What does it mean to be outearned by your wife? I had better figure that out, because after some back-and-forth over the last 18 years—times when we were both broke, or living off of her student loans, or off my lousy salary—we have now reached what is likely a permanent income imbalance. As my colleagues here have pointed out, wordsmithing doesn’t pay what it used to. And my wife now has an advanced degree and an actual profession.
We are part of the vanguard, I suppose: as Liz Mundy recently pointed out in The Atlantic , nearly 40 percent of wives outearn their husbands, and that number is growing.
So, does income disparity flip some kind of gender switch? Do I take over that section of home life that my wife used to inhabit (among her duties: sewing, light cooking, choosing Pandora channels, putting the kids to bed, giving a shit about the PTA)?
With us, so far, the answer is no.
Yes, I take the kids to school in the morning because she goes to work at first light. And sometimes I’ll have to cover things solo if she’s running late at the end of the day because her work schedule can be non-negotiable in ways that mine isn’t.
But when Mundy wrote in her same post that wives outearning husbands “can powerfully affect relationship dynamics,”,I don’t see it. My wife and I still maintain the same mix of unpredictable gender assignments. I still do the majority of the cooking, but that’s because I enjoy it and the men in my family have always been the cooks. My wife still puts the kids to bed, no matter her outside workload, both because she wants to, and because I usually have some sports that need watching.
A useful parallel for me is driving. My wife is a better driver than I. She’s from LA; she’s got smog and road rage in her DNA. I’m from Key West, a small island where traffic still stops for conversations between drivers and on the weekends many of us are too drunk to even ride bicycles. But when my wife and I are together, in big cities and small, I like to drive, and she likes to have me drive. Men have been driving their wives around since long before Apollonia Corleone got blown up, and that’s exactly what my wife and I do.
Gender is not a house of cards that collapses when you take away one element. I am still hotheaded, broad-shouldered, sports-addicted, and foolishly optimistic about home improvement projects. Those things and the other dozen typically male characteristics I have won’t change just because my wife makes more than I.
You know how some people like to talk about a post-racial society but it’s complete bullshit because no matter who is president, race still matters in this country? Well, it’s equally fallacious to think that changing income structure alone will change the power balance of the sexes, in the home or outside the home. We are not post-gender, no matter what the economic trends are. Women who earn more than their husbands still earn less than their colleagues. They still have their basic reproductive rights threatened constantly. They still are underrepresented in every level of leadership.
And on a more personal level, they still have to solve one of the oldest and most intractable problems of all: how to share their daily lives with men. That’s because, no matter what my wife says, I am still the man of the house, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.