What Marriage Looks Like With Me as the Breadwinner

by Joy Qualls

Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.



Several years ago, while lecturing a class, I asked my students several questions about gender roles. What is great about being a woman/man? What is hard about being a man/woman? One brave young man in the back raised his hand. His name was Billy. He proudly proclaimed, “It is great to be a man because we get to lead women.” You could hear the air go out of the room and all eyes were suddenly on me.

Servant Leadership and the Stay at Home Dad

I walked to the front of the large lecture hall and laid my arms on the front tables. “Do you know how my husband leads our family?” I asked. “My husband walked away from years of education and work experience to become a full-time stay-at-home parent to our two little ones. He cooks, cleans, and takes care of our children, and he does it with a glad and grateful heart. He leads our family because he gave up himself, he died to all of his own ambition so that I could be in front of all of you today. He took on roles that other men (and some women too) mock and he endures scorn from those who think he is diminished as a man because he stays home and I work for an income.” I proceeded through tears to tell that room full of students that I believe my husband is one of the greatest leaders I have ever known because his leadership is the most Christlike I have ever known.

My husband gave up everything and daily has to die to self and expectation to love and serve our family. That is leadership.

Surprised by Our Own Marriage

We did not set out in our life and marriage to be some sort of pioneer couple in reversing traditional roles. We did however, take stock of where we were in our lives, educations, and careers. I was nearly done with my Ph.D. coursework and had spent several years working in government and higher education. I came to our marriage with a salary, healthcare benefits, and a meager retirement account. Kevin, my husband, had spent several years working in social services where he was overworked and underpaid.

If there were assumptions about our family and our roles, it was that both of us would work and that our long-term plans included academic careers for each of us. Yet, like many couples in the 21st century recession, student loan debt and challenging wage stagnation forced us to rethink the ways we approached work and family. In addition to economic uncertainty, we became the parents of two beautiful children within thirteen months of each other and in the midst of my defending my dissertation. Shortly after giving birth to our second child, I was offered a full-time teaching contract. While it appeared as if our dreams were becoming a reality, our true reality was one where we were struggling to pay our bills.

When an opportunity came for me to accept a role as Department Chair and be placed on the tenure track, we thought a lot about how this would affect the dynamic of our family. Two years earlier, after having finished a graduate degree and achieved licensure in Professional Counseling, my husband had made the decision to join two million other American men and walk away from full-time work and assume the role of primary caregiver for our two children. Now, our babies were three and two, childcare and household help were stretching us to the limit, combined with a challenging work environment, the opportunity for a break was welcome for both of us. Kevin quickly secured adjunct teaching assignments that allowed him to be home during the day and still pursuing his own career development. A move to California seemed to offer new opportunity for us both, but once again, we would navigate uncertainty and discover that our lives were never going to fit into some pre prescribed ideal for life, career, and family.

Making it Work, like Christ and the Church

While we may not have set out to live a life that is “nontraditional”, it is the life that we lead and we have trusted the Lord to guide us in our family choices. Ephesians 5 is often cited as a reference for how husbands and wives are supposed to relate to one another and to their families. In verse 21, Paul writes that we are to submit ourselves one to another as unto the Lord; a reciprocal and mutual relationship. Paul continues, that wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ and that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. This has been our primary aim as a couple and for our family: that we would live in mutuality toward one another and choose to defer to the other regardless of cultural, societal, or even religious expectation.

There were no standing ovations or cheers when I explained this to my class that day, just quiet murmurs as students left class. But in the years since I have received many messages from students in the room that day and colleagues who heard about it from others. Many have said they had never heard anything like that before, but that they were proud of my husband – and of me, too. I, too, am proud of him, and I do believe he is a leader. I am proud of us as a family, too. I know that the God who calls is who leads our family so that together we more fully reflect his nature and being.




Joy Qualls is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and an Associate Dean at Biola University.  A nationally recognized writer and speaker, Joy also serves on the teaching team at her church where her husband, Kevin, is an Elder.  Joy is the author of God Forgive Us for Being Women and a contributor to Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith and the Academy, from which this piece is excerpted. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.