INTERVIEW WITH JENNY GARRETT, M.A. | BY IZZY CHAN
Jenny Garrett, M.A. is a London-based executive coach and the author of Rocking Your Role, a how-to guide for female breadwinners. Jenny is one of three experts featured in The Big Flip, a documentary on breadwinner wives and stay-at-home dads.
What inspired you to write a book for female breadwinners?
If I go back a bit, we were a dual income family. My husband was an accountant. The salaries changed considerably when I started my consultancy, and my husband decided to follow his passion to be a youth worker and work with kids who have dropped out of school.
What was it like, when you first took on the role of main earner?
I hadn’t really thought about it. Something as simple as, when you go to a restaurant, and the waiter still gives the bill to the man, what do you do? Do you slide the credit card under the table? Or do you make a joke out of it?
So I did some research. I sent some messages out on the Internet, just saying “Are you the main earner? How is it for you as a woman?” A woman sent a message back and she said, “I was the main earner for three years and those were dark days.” I just thought that no one should feel like that. It should be something we can celebrate, be proud of—not something we have to hide.
How common is it in the U.K, for the women to be the main earner?
A third of women in the U.K. are the main earners. Now that can be the sole earner, single parents, as well as those in relationships. But it is sizable and growing. There’s been a growth in stay-at-home dads as well, about 12% now in the U.K.
But to be honest, I was really concerned with the personal experience, to highlight the uniqueness of everyone’s experience. It’s really dangerous to group people all together and say this is it, this is how it is to be a main earner. I think it’s very personal.
Those “darker days” that the other female main earner referred to—what’s behind them?
The big thing is, there aren’t many people to talk to about it. The growth of female breadwinners is a little bit hidden, therefore you feel embarrassed about it. It sometimes feels like something you’re not proud of, like it is not right.
It’s around what a family should look like. Husband, wife, 2.4 children—the modern family is different but the media portrays it like that. And when you look different, it’s really hard. Particularly in the U.K.—everything is set up for the woman to be at home. School recitals, assemblies as we call them, will be during the day. They’ll have mummy and child days. Letters addressed to the mother. If your child is off sick or sick at school, they’ll call the mum first. They never think of the dad being in that role. It’s all set up to make you feel bad if you’re not there as the mum, if you’re not the person doing it. So the guilt comes from what society expects me to be doing as a woman. If I’m not doing that, then am I doing a really bad job?
How people might judge your husband, and how your husband might feel about himself, are big parts of it too. Often when I wanted to interview female breadwinners or invite them into my programs, they might say to me, “My husband wouldn’t like me having this conversation.”
What’s your advice for breadwinner wives who are feeling some unhappiness?
First is to ditch the guilt. I can see, sometimes, women walking around with that sense of guilt. It’s like a very heavy handbag on their shoulder, wearing them down. Drop it. Guilt is just a set of rules that we’ve created, decided that we can’t break them, and then we feel bad when we do. We need to re-write our rules around how we live our lives. Ditch the guilt and replace it with trust.
On a personal level, I trust my family to tell me if things are out of kilter. I trust my daughter to say, “Mum, you’re not home enough.” I trust my husband to say, “We’re not having enough date nights together” or “something is slipping because it’s not really working right now.”
Empower others to do things. As women, we have really high standards! We can think we’re the only ones who clean properly, we’re the only ones who can cook a proper dinner, we’re the only ones who can arrange the family’s schedule. But actually if you trust others to do it, they can do it really well. They might even do it better! And if the family dinner is not completely healthy and nutritious a couple of times of week, it’s not going to be the end of the world. So it’s kind of letting go and trusting. Trusting that it will all be okay. Trusting that the best judge of what a good family is, is you and your family.
Let’s talk about self-care and “me” time for main earners. You make a big deal about it in your book.
What I’ve noticed among women who are the main earner, including myself, was that it was work, work, work! And if it wasn’t work, it was doing everything for the family. There was never any time for me. That makes you really grumpy, exhausted. Having some time to nourish who you are, to re-energize, is a key part of being that main earner. Because otherwise, what kind of life is it, really?
Most women I talk to would agree with you in theory, but the problem is putting it into practice. What’s your advice?
Make a family contract. “You have your hobby, you go and play golf, or play the guitar or go for a drink with your friends. And I’m going to have my thing once a week or once a month with my girlfriends.” Explicitly say it. No one feels bad about it because we’ve agreed to it and we’re both doing it. That kind of contracting can be really helpful.
The other thing is—put it in the diary [i.e. calendar]. When I see women’s to-do lists and their diary [calendar]—it’s all the work requirements, then all the home requirements. Take the child to the dentist, call up about the home insurance. There’s nothing on the list which says, I’m going to diarize my girlfriend time or I’m going diarize my gym time. If you don’t put it in the diary, there’s never space for it. Prioritize it like you do all of your other activities on your to-do list. Put it in there and keep it sacred.
The last thing is, remember—if you are a parent, you’re role modeling. What your child sees about life is how they envision life. Do you want them to grow up thinking, “I need to be a martyr. I need to work myself into the ground. I should not value me.” I’m sure as a parent, that’s not the message you want to give! So make sure you’re giving out the right messages by the way that you’re living your life.
But many women who are main earners tell me they feel bad about leaving their husbands in “overtime” when they take “me” time!
We make a lot of assumptions about how the other person feels. We don’t know. We assume that they’re not going to be happy about something. But unless you ask that question, you don’t know for sure.
Perhaps there’s a trade-off you can do. You can go to the gym today and tomorrow they go to the class that they’ve always wanted to do. The fact that you went to the gym might just mean you’re a much nicer person when you go home. They might prefer for you to go to the gym for another half an hour so that when you are home, you really are the best you can be with them!
It’s all about having conversations, and not assuming how the other person will feel. We often overlay our judgments, our impressions, our perceptions onto other people without asking them.
I agree with everything that you say! Yet in practice, this is still a very difficult thing to do for many of the female breadwinners that I’ve met.
Women who are the main earner often think that looking after themselves is being selfish, because they are already out at work and not at home as much as they’d like to be. But actually, not looking after yourself is the selfish act. Because if you don’t, you can’t be there for your family. You’re going to run yourself into the ground. You may become ill! And you won’t be able to do all of the things that you are currently doing.
There’s a really wonderful author, Deborah Tannen. She talks about what women are taught in school, and we’re rewarded for being compliant, for being good girls, for being self-sacrificing. Boys are allowed to be boisterous and care about themselves. But that’s not very feminine, that’s not very well-behaved, that’s not what a good girl does. In the world of work and in the world of families, we need to ask for what we want more, and not assume people will know. And not assume we will be rewarded for being a martyr, because we won’t. We’ll just become very exhausted.
Tell me about the men you’ve met, whose wives are the main earner. How are they coping in general, from your experience?
Some men love being the stay-at-home dad, particularly men who are creative and maybe have an unpredictable career. It could be music or art, and being a stay-at-home dad can give them real freedom. But other times they’ve been laid off from work or made redundant. Or they’d love to be the main earner, but their careers are just not happening for them. It can feel like the woman is rubbing it in their face—that I’m able to earn, and I’m doing really well, and I’m taking the role you want to have. Some of it is upbringing. If you were brought up in a traditional family and believe that’s what families should look like, then when it’s not the same, it can cause a lot of stress and tension.
Can you share some best practices of men who do well in their big flip?
The men who are really rocking it are embracing the role. I had an interview with a man recently, and he described himself as being in the McLaren pit. His wife comes home like she’s in the Grand Prix, and he changes her wheels, buffs her up, and then she goes again. Men who can redefine their masculinity in their role make it work. They know what their strength is. They know as a unit, they can make it work and embrace that.
Sensitivity is needed on both sides. If it’s new for the woman to be the main earner, you have to be thoughtful, particularly if the man is being laid off. But not so sensitive that you over play it, and end up damaging yourself as a result.
Some people question if men can be good caretakers. In the U.S., only 8% of Americans think kids are better off with dad at home instead of at work. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve got quite a confession to make. When I first had my daughter, and my husband said, “I’ll stay at home.” I said, “If anyone’s going stay at home, it would be me.”
My view has changed completely. Men can nurture. Men can teach. Men can look after children just as well. Woman have learned what a woman is. Men have been taught what a man is. We can unlearn that, and we can be whatever we want to be. There’s a huge amount of freedom in that. I think more men could be really happy taking on that nurturing role at home. And I think that a lot more women could be happy going out to work and being that main earner.
It’s time to shake it up, and do not what’s expected of us, but what we are really strong at, and embrace our gifts and what we can bring to relationships. Really, this is not about female breadwinners. It is about families and it is about relationships. It is about how we move forward into the future really successfully.
Any last words of advice or thoughts for big flip families?
Remember, you’re pioneering. You’re doing something new and different, and you’re paving the way for other people. It’s okay to make mistakes. My big tip for couples is to talk, to communicate about money, about every aspect of their relationship. Really work it out together.
It can work. It can work really successfully. I think like everything, take it one step at a time.
You have to remember what is essential to families: love. Couples need to love each other, and children need to be loved. It doesn’t really matter then who earns the money and who doesn’t. Love is the thing that will hold you together. As long as you’ve got that, you’ll be fine.
*NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
For more on Jenny Garrett and her work, please visit her site here.