Interview with Filmmaker Izzy Chan: “Have we adjusted our expectations of what a man needs to bring to the table?”

Documentary filmmaker Izzy Chan has spent the last year following eight families in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Nashville to document what she calls the “Big Flip“: the increasingly common switch from “traditional” family life to a setup in which the wife is the breadwinner and the husband stays at home. The recent gender shifts in education and the workforce have been well-documented for years now, but our wider social expectations haven’t changed as quickly. Chan pointed me to these statistics:

  • Husbands whose wives make more money are 61% less happy (University of Virginia, 2010).
  • Wives who are primary breadwinners are also significantly less happy about their family lives than other women (Cornell University, 2009).
  • Men are 5 times more likely to cheat when they’re financially dependent on their wives (American Sociological Association, 2010).
  • 51% of Americans think kids are better off with mom at home instead of at work. Only 8% think the same about kids at home with dad (Pew Research, 2013).

Her documentary, The Big Flip, aims to show the day-to-day experience behind these numbers. We spoke on the phone last week.

How did you get the idea for this documentary? Did your own household “flip”?

Yes! It happened to me when the economy tanked—I became the accidental breadwinner. And I really wasn’t expecting it to be difficult. I live in San Francisco, I’m good at my job, I enjoy my job, my community is progressive, I love my husband, he loves me. I was surprised at how things started creeping up in our relationship, these expectations and resentments.

And, my background is in research and strategy, so I started looking for studies on the topic. The numbers didn’t look good. Another statistic is that divorce is 40% more common in households where the woman brings in more than 60% of the family’s income, and I was really disturbed by that. That’s where the idea for the documentary was born, because the numbers said a lot, but they weren’t helping. This situation is definitely not an impossible one, and I wanted to know—for those of us who are living this every day—what does work? How can families make these shifts better? How can we learn from our mistakes?

Am I wrong to locate the difficulty here in the unevenness of what we expect from men and women in family life? Is it not that society sees fatherhood as something performative and public, and motherhood as something that involves a ton of private, unseen work?

You know, I had a similar perspective to you when this happened. I was biased towards the idea that men just needed to step up. For me, my resentment wasn’t even in me having a problem supporting the family, but in me just expecting him to do more work. I’d have finished the dishes by now—why hasn’t he? How come, if he’s looking for a job, he hasn’t sent out ten resumes today like I would have?

But, having spent a lot of time with other families who are experiencing the same thing—and this is not a final conclusion, but something I’m still thinking about—I think it’s actually as much if not more about how women have to shift their expectations. It’s still very hard for me to say that, because I understand what you’re saying—I never thought this could possibly be my problem.

What do you mean by shifted expectations?

There are several things. The simplest is letting go of control. A lot of the resentment comes from expecting your partner to do things exactly the way you would. Like, with the dishes—is it better to just sullenly wash everything when you’re exhausted, or just wait till the morning, when he’ll wash them, as he says?

Another example is to examine whether we’ve adjusted our expectations of what a man needs to bring to the table. I hear this from a lot of young women, that they assume they’ll work and support themselves, but need to be dating a guy who will stand on his own and have a good profession. It never crosses their mind that they might one day have to find happiness supporting someone. And subconsciously, we’ll think things like “Not my type” if a guy is unemployed, or not making any money. I mean, I didn’t like worrying about supporting my husband, to be honest. When his job was in trouble, I had to step up and accept that this was something I was going to have to change. I had to realize that there was a big gap between my being comfortable taking care of myself versus my being comfortable taking care of him.

Is it just hard for people to stay home, period? Especially if they have to do so either out of monetary or social constraints?

Well, there are lots of families who believe that a child’s better off with one parent at home, and plenty of parents who want to stay at home. I don’t think anyone is wrong or right in an individual case; I think the most important thing is understanding that whatever works within each family is fine. Not every situation is for everyone, obviously.

The important thing is recognizing the importance of figuring this out mutually. Finding a partner who shares your values—either that you both want to be fulfilled by work, or that you both think that one person should stay at home. Children are happiest when their parents are fulfilled, no matter what that entails. And families need to be able to do what works best for them without feeling guilty or judged. If you’re a man who’s happier staying at home—or a man who’s learning to be happy while staying at home—your family and society should appreciate that.

What else helps families adjust when the breadwinners switch?

Talking about expectations. Even in a traditional family, talking about expectations is so important. And talking about money, too: I’ve observed that when a guy’s the one staying at home, he’ll be more cautious with the girl’s money. He’ll say things like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t have picked this, but it’s her money,” in a way that a stay-at-home mother accustomed to running the household budget wouldn’t necessarily do.

In a way, it points to how women in the past have embraced the true work involved in staying at home—they often more feel comfortable thinking of their husband’s money as their own than men do when the roles are reversed.

How conscious were you of class differences playing into this? I’ve always had trouble with the big articles on this subject for how much they neglect the privilege involved in a family that can make it work on one income, or how these issues often affect low-income families even more sharply.

It’s true that most of these media stories have the upper-middle class narrative, and it’s also definitely true that these issues cut across class lines. Blue-collar industries favor men, and so of course those families have been affected by the same flip, and even more strongly. And I think, absolutely, the strains on those families are different. You’ll have women carrying the load in the same way, but by working two or three jobs. For them, it is a lot more of a burden, and a different one.

I was conscious of class as I made this documentary. We’re filming a blue-collar family in Portland, but they don’t have children. It’s a little bit harder to find blue-collar families who are willing to let a film crew in their life, and I think it’s because they’re just busier—they are spending all their time making ends meet. They don’t have the mental space to let someone in to document their life.

Fewer lifestyle blogs in the working class community.

Right.

What would you tell women that haven’t had to experience any of this yet?

I’d say, consider that this might happen to you. Think consciously about what you consider an equal partnership. Do you define a date-worthy guy as someone who is as well-educated as you, or more? Someone who makes as much money as you or more? Would you be open to supporting someone? Would you have trouble respecting your partner in that situation?

And I wonder, for your readers: how do they feel about this? For those of them who graduated college into the recession, I wonder if some of them might have already had experience supporting a significant other, if their definitions of success in a partner have changed?

More information about the Big Flip documentary and project can be found here

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