Life used to be a scene out of “Pleasantville”—an intact nuclear family with Mom, Dad, brother and sister, maybe with a family dog. Mom was the homemaker and Dad, the breadwinner. And the kids? Well, they were either in school—just about to finish high school or college—or were already beginning to head off towards the “real world” and be part of the labor force.
These days, it’s not quite like that. While some families still live that way, more have become dual-earning families where both husband and wife are the breadwinners. Other families have only the female partner as the breadwinner. Sometimes, the working children take on that role.
Women as Heads of the Family
Sources like ACTIONAID, a global non-government agency, say that in developing countries like the Philippines, more and more women take on the role of breadwinner for many different reasons. But almost always, most women are not breadwinners by choice. They are thrust into the role and are unprepared to take on the responsibility of earning the money for the family.
“I didn’t know the concept of a ‘breadwinner’. My dad worked and my mom stayed at home,” says Marie, then a freelance writer. “So the concept of being the head of the family was pretty alien [to me] until my dad suddenly became very ill and had to go on disability.” This was in the mid-80s. Marie was just about to finish college at the University of the Philippines. The rest of her family, including her father, were then living in the United States. In the late 1980s, Marie’s father died. That event came with the realization that aside from losing a father, they had also lost their family’s income earner. “I was a fresh grad,” Marie recalls, “and had four siblings in school in the US: three in college and one in high school! A college education in the US is no joke.”
It was also during the late-80s, recalls Jan, a radio producer, when her father succumbed to naso-pharyngeal cancer. At that time, she had just been out of college for a year. Her two brothers were still in school (one in college and the other in sixth grade). Their mother had never worked in all her life. They learned about her father’s cancer too late—it was already in the advanced stages when they found out. By that time, he only had a few more months to live. “I was in a panic,” she says. “Because I didn’t really have a stable job yet. I was already working but I was still in that stage when I wanted to try out different things before I would finally settle down in a real, long-term job. I was still finding myself.”
Making the Sacrifices
For Marie and Jan, putting off marriage became a given, especially when family members depended on them. “Huwag muna kayong mag-aasawa!” was a plea they would constantly hear. “As if I were in a hurry to get married!” recalls Jan. “Far from it!” Both knew their responsibilities. Jan, being the eldest, knew that the fate of her family was in her hands, at least for a time.
Marie, on the other hand, was the second child who took it upon herself to ensure her family’s survival. “I’m the eldest emotionally and psychologically,” Marie shares. “Though I have an older brother who is not as dependable as I am. So I actually look at myself as the eldest. Plus, no one else would take the responsibility, and it would not be fair for my siblings not to have college degrees when I just earned mine.”
So Marie worked hard at getting the good managerial jobs she held, which included a post at the US subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation. She earned good money, and learned quite a lot, too.
Although taking on the role of breadwinner is admirable, psychologist Dr. Allan Bernardo says that sometimes close kin tend to become overly dependent on her. They don’t contribute to the family income, or worse, they don’t work at all. This cycle of dependence, says Bernardo, must be broken. “It’s like parental responsibility; you cannot forever baby your children. At some point, you should be able to let them fend for themselves.” Bernardo says that part of the breadwinner’s responsibility is to empower the dependents, and clearly articulate her goal in doing so by helping the irresponsible sibling to get a job and giving him an ultimatum, making it clear that if he does not make it work, then he will have to go it alone. One way to do this, says Bernardo, is for the breadwinner to stop lending money if the money will not be used for an activity that will help the borrower get a job or a business. Remember, if it’s a loan, then the terms of payment should be very clear. No freebies, please. “She has to do this,” says Bernardo, “so that her siblings will try harder at being responsible for their own lives, and she should make this clear to them. This is tough but it’s the only way to improve the situation.”
Dealing with Guilt
Jan put in a lot of hard work in the media company she joined. The pay wasn’t much at first but as she grew with the company, she eventually took on managerial posts that paid a little bit more than the earlier assignments. She admits, though, that she felt that she wasn’t giving enough. Guilt feelings were eating her up.
Bernardo says that the guilt feelings come from an abasement syndrome. People who do not feel empowered and in control of situations always feel guilty about their inability to be what they are not and their inability to do what they may not be doing. These feelings of guilt come when one is thrust in a role with lots of responsibility, a lot of expectations, and very little empowerment. “It’s as if people gave you a very important job,” says Bernardo, “but did not prepare you for it. What’s more it’s the kind of job where they don’t reward or appreciate you when you do it well but they pounce on you when you make a mistake.” One way to deal with that, says Bernardo, is to re-evaluate or re-frame the situation. “By looking at the situation in the most positive and self-affirming perspective, the breadwinner may see the positive and empowering aspects of what she is doing.” Bernardo suggests looking for role models, people who are in similar situations yet view their circumstances differently.
Doing What It Takes
Zoey was a TV director and operations manager of a TV station. She was seven months pregnant when she separated from the father of her son and was forced to fend for herself and her child. “We have been living together for two years, but he had been courting me already for four years before that. I saw a letter inside his car and found out that he was having an affair. It had been going on for a year na pala. I confronted him about it and he said it was only a fling.” But Zoey was able to muster enough strength to send him away and move on. She took a leave from her job at a government institution she was working for at the time and demanded for financial support from the guy. He agreed to support her until she was financially stable. “I even asked for a hospital suite when I gave birth,” she says. “Of course I wanted to give birth in style! After all, he had to obey my wishes because what he did to me was unforgivable.”
After giving birth, she went back to work and stayed at the same office for four more years. The father of her son continued to give her monthly support, enough to cover rent, groceries and expenses for the baby. But her government salary was not much, so she needed to augment her income by selling just about anything to friends and acquaintances. She sold shoes, bags and other imported items that she got from an aunt who was in the business. When she was really hard up, she would borrow money from friends, pay them back on payday, then borrow again to tide her over till the next paycheck comes.
“It was difficult in the beginning,” she recalls. “But somehow I’ve gotten used to it and even consider it a challenge. I knew that help from my parents and relatives was just a phone call away, but I didn’t ask them for help. I brought my son into this world, so he is my responsibility. My son gave me the courage and the strength to move on. I worked and still am working hard for him to give him a good future and for him to be proud of me.”
A Material Girl No More
Research reveals that apart from the fact that more and more women are becoming major breadwinners for their respective families, the income they earn “is more likely to be spent on human development” rather than on themselves first. Women would rather make the sacrifice of doing without small luxuries for a while for the sake of their families.
Bernardo agrees. “Women care more for the welfare of others, especially for members of the family. Men, too, feel a strong sense of responsibility, but I suspect that for most men, this is coupled with the need to assert and prove their ‘power’ as providers. With women this sense of responsibility is probably coupled with a sense of compassion. It is a more selfless act.”
This holds true for even single women like Marie and Jan. Jan says “I’d spend for myself once in a while, go out with friends. But that was very seldom. I gave most of my money to my family. Very little was left for me. Apart from my bills, I was giving my mother a bit of money—monthly. I was also in charge of my youngest brother’s monthly baon for school, and his school supplies. Now that was really magastos because when he reached college, he decided to study architecture. Ang mahal ng gamit! Buti na lang nung time na iyon, yung second brother ko naka-graduate na and was chipping in. He found a high-paying job as a software programmer, first abroad and next in a couple of multinational companies here.” Marie says she also left very little for herself. “Zip, zero for myself,” she says. “It was a selfless act. Everything for them. And I hoped that someday, they’d look back and repay me somehow. But if it happens again, I think I would show more restraint in giving. Again, I was only thinking of my Mom and easing the burden.”
“Savings? What savings?” Jan asks jokingly. “Even when my second brother started working and earning more than I did, I was still giving a considerable part of my salary to my mom. I’d tell myself to set aside 10% of my paycheck every month so that I’d have savings. Pero wala rin. I’d receive salary increases but then that only meant giving more to my family. I never took it against my family, but it was a great source of angst.”
When Enough is Enough
This selflessness could be either good or bad, says Bernardo, depending on whether or not the woman feels like she’s giving too much of herself in the process. Only the person making the sacrifices can know if she is being taken advantage of.
Marie says that for a time, she felt a little resentment towards her being the one shouldering the family’s expenses. She had wanted to go to graduate school but couldn’t because of her commitments. “I have a friend who worked her way into her master’s. She was not really obligated to help her family since all of them, including her parents, had jobs. She only had to fend for herself. If she didn’t work, she’d starve. If I didn’t work, everyone would starve and have to stop school. Somehow, I thought I was master’s material and that was compromised because of the situation I didn’t get to where I wanted to go.” But Marie, now married with a daughter of her own, says she is not one to dwell on regrets.
“Who knows where I was headed anyway?” says Marie as she reflects on the situation. “On hindsight, my not pursuing graduate studies made me more streetwise to the ways of the world. I became a pretty good freelancer instead. Perhaps one day, I’ll go to school—maybe when my daughter goes to college, I’ll join her.”
Zoey has no regrets either. The experience, she says, has not only sharpened her financial skills, it has also helped her discover and hone her own strengths. She has since left the government agency and is now working for a media foundation as one of its managers. “After surviving the experience and having overcome the pain and fears, I know I am ready to face any challenge now. Even the most difficult ones. I appreciate life better, and am careful with my decisions, especially those concerning personal matters. Modesty aside, whatever success I have now in my career and in my life, I owe it to myself.”
All of Marie’s sisters, on the other hand, except the youngest have since graduated from school and are now working. The youngest, she says, will graduate this year. The financial burden on Marie has also lightened considerably. While she still gives money to her mother and youngest sister, the other siblings can now chip in. “Iba ang relief na nararamdaman mo kapag nakapagtapos na yung bunso,” Jan says. “Nakaraos rin!”
Wiser if not Richer?
It is good when the breadwinner has no feelings of bitterness or regret, says Bernardo. “These two feelings, if left unchecked, eat up people inside. People should be conscious of their feelings and put them in perspective. A positive response would be to channel these feelings and make a better life for oneself and others, set and achieve new goals for oneself and for others.”
Jan still gives a considerable part of her earnings to her mother, too, even as both her brothers are now working and are also contributing to the family income. But, she says, even if it still feels like a game of survival, it is not as stressful as before.
Marie, too, has emerged wiser. “I guess I’ve learned how soft and compromising I can be. And how giving I can be—thinking that I can get something back,” she says. “I just told myself karma will compensate for all the money I gave. One of my sisters thinks I’m pretty dumb giving so much and not getting any in return. I guess it’s more psychic gratification, plus the peace of mind it gives me knowing that my mom’s not worrying over her kids.”
But the most important lesson of all is the lesson on practicality. “Budget your money well,” shares Jan. “Set goals and work for those goals. Find ways to minimize expenses. Encourage your brothers and sisters to help out when they can. There is always the great temptation to just carry the burden by yourself. But everybody else has to share the responsibility sooner or later.”