What's it really like to be a mum - and the family breadwinner?

What is life really like when you’re a mum and the family breadwinner?

Figures show more and more women fall into that category. Women are the main breadwinners in around one quarter of Australian families (according to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling), while in the UK, the figure stands at one third (IPPR thinktank, Who’s breadwinning in Europe?).

It is one of the fastest social and economic shifts for women in the last 10 years. UK figures show that in 1996/97 only 18 per cent of families had working mums as the main breadwinner, compared to the most recent figure of 31 per cent. Experts predict these figures will continue to grow, particularly for single mothers.

We know the figures. We might even be living the experience, or have a friend who is.

We asked Kate* and Sophie* to tell us their experiences.

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Kate is 45, is a senior executive and has been the main breadwinner in her household for 15 years. She is married to Chris, a teacher, and they have two sons aged 6 and 3.

I leave for work before the kids are up. Sometimes Ben (3) is awake and I’ll have a quick chat with him, I’m dressed for work and sitting on his bed, and we’ll talk about what he’s going to do that day. I’m out of the house by 6.45-7am. Everyone on the executive team where I work is there by 8am so I need to be too. We can talk about flexibility but at a certain level, if you are not working for yourself, it just doesn’t happen and you don’t ask for it.

In terms of the day to day running of the household, I suppose our roles are clearly defined. I make the money and Chris works part-time and looks after the kids. If there are any issues with the boys, sickness or appointments, Chris handles it. I sometimes feel disconnected (and guilty, always a little guilty) because I will often get a text after the event. I’ll be in a meeting and there will be summary text: ‘Ben didn’t go to kindy this morning. He spent most of the morning in bed. Took him to DR this afternoon. All fine. 24 hour thing.’ That’s how we do it.


I want to work and I need to work. It just so happened about 15 years ago when I was 30 I started rising through the ranks really quickly. This was before we had kids so it was just all brilliant and exciting. I’ve always been a committed and hard worker and when we decided to have kids I was earning a good third more than Chris. So we were used to my income being the one we geared our lifestyles around, just like so many families gear their life to the highest income in the household.

Image via iStock.

I do feel different to a lot of the other women at work. The mothers on my staff take their kids to the doctors if they get sick and a lot of them have flexible arrangements. They see them more than I do day to day. It’s not that I feel jealous, I just wonder really if that would work. I do spend a lot of time doing maths in my head – if I took a job that was four days a week and earned X and Chris earned Y could I do it? But the numbers never work out.

There is one woman who I feel really gets me at work and she is on the executive team and also the main breadwinner. We both feel the pressure of supporting the family. It’s a constant pressure and I don’t think we acknowledge that for a lot of men. At least my husband takes on the home responsibilities, her's still calls to ask what he should defrost for dinner and where are one of their kids’ sports shirts. That would drive me crazy.


If a lot of the women around me leave a job because they don’t like it, and they end up somewhere else for a bit less money, it’s not the end of the world. But we are not geared up like that. We need all of my salary and so if I want to leave my job I better have a really good one lined up or we don’t get to keep the house.

I’m not jealous of Chris, but I don’t think he gets the pressure I feel. Maybe I’m a bit jealous because I’m just not as carefree as him. Sometimes I have to work on the weekends and I can see it annoys him, but it’s life. He’ll make little remarks about me putting my phone away and things like that. It’s really hurtful when it’s around the kids because I’m trying to do my best. I make it a policy to never work on Sunday's.

On the nights I work late or have a function I don’t see the kids because they go to bed before I come home. That means I don’t get to see them for two days really. I don’t like that and will only do it once a week if I have to. The kids understand I work full-time and daddy is there for them day-to-day because that’s all they know.

A couple of times the boys have cried about it but I have told them I like my work and I need to work to earn money so that we can pay the bills that people have to pay in life. I don’t want them to think I just work to earn money. I want them to know women like working just like men do. It makes them feel good.

Image: iStock.

Of course I love my boys and of course I wish I could be around more, but I don’t have that kind of job. When the boys were born I took the full year off I was entitled to for both of them.

I think Chris and I are really sharing parenting. That’s what I hope my boys do when they grow up, because I don’t want them to have all the pressure on them to earn the money in a household.

Sophie, 42, works in marketing, she has one son, 5.

This year has been life changing because Jack started school. His father has never been in our lives and when he was born I moved back in with my parents for a few years. I know I was lucky to be able to do that, but I actually don’t know how I would have coped on my own when he was really little. Now we have a place of our own and are in a routine.

I work five days a week and two are short days so I can pick Jack up from school. I’m by myself. I have to work and have no choice, but I would work even if I did have a choice because I’ve always worked, I like it and it’s security. You never know what is going to happen. I’ve seen women who gave up work to have a family and they get divorced 10 years later and they find it really hard to get a job.

It is hard if he gets sick, or something unexpected happens – we need our routine. Sometimes my parents can help, sometimes they can’t. He’s only been sick twice this year and I had to take one of the two days off.

I don’t own my own place, I rent. I’d like to own but I doubt very much I can save enough for a deposit. If I had a partner we would both probably be paying off a mortgage but I can’t even think about that because there’s no way I can make it happen on my own. I don’t have savings as it is, so I have to cross my fingers nothing goes wrong.

Jack is gorgeous but I get really tired and my life isn’t balanced, but I suppose who’s is? I can’t imagine dating. I go to bed really early – I think I’m making up for years of lost sleep. Jack’s whole world has opened up this year. He has new friends and he’s busy.

I don’t have a plan other than to take it one year at a time.

*Not their real names.

Are you the main breadwinner in your family? Tell us about your experience.