Behind the picket fences in some of our richest suburbs

In an era when most couples with kids both work, having one parent who’s the sole breadwinner is a luxury ... and sometimes a burden. Hilary Stichbury goes behind the picket fences in some of Auckland’s richest suburbs to investigate.
Breadwinner and advertising executive Craig McCann, with wife Luci McCann and daughters, Isla, 8, and Evie, 11, at their Herne Bay home. Picture / Nick Reed
Breadwinner and advertising executive Craig McCann, with wife Luci McCann and daughters, Isla, 8, and Evie, 11, at their Herne Bay home. Picture / Nick Reed

It's 4.30 on a still Sunday afternoon, the kind that feels like the city is holding its breath before the onslaught of Monday morning. I am taking a drive through Auckland's Herne Bay, where the streets of groomed villas in neutral tones, with their hyper-manicured gardens and European cars give the neighbourhood a soothing, Pixar-like feel.

And behind these softly closed doors are some of New Zealand's best-educated, most senior business people: lawyers, doctors, bankers, chief executives, business owners, creative executives. High-stress careers that pay off financially but usually come with a long period of tertiary study, a hefty dollop of responsibility, and stress of the kind that keeps the cardiac ward at Auckland Hospital humming.

There are many families in Herne Bay and its surrounding suburbs that are powered by a single engine. It's certainly not the norm: nationally in 2010, more than two thirds of two-parent families were dual-earner families, up from a half during the early 1980s.

But with big incomes often comes a sole breadwinner who shoulders the financial responsibility for the family while their spouse manages the home.

I want to know how it plays out for them. Whether they sleep well at night, knowing that supporting their families in the most expensive neighbourhood in New Zealand is all down to them.

For the majority of these high-powered sole breadwinners, the bulk of the stress comes from the work itself, rather than from the lack of a second income. Stress is standard in the corporate world: intense environments with long hours, shareholders, and pressure to deliver ever-greater returns.

"There's an immediacy expected, an always 'on' feel to everything," says Craig McCann, an advertising executive who lives in Herne Bay with his stay-at-home wife Luci McCann and their two daughters.

Recently, Craig tried to explain to some fresh graduates how things worked before the mobile phone: "You had a secretary," he explained. "She would take a message, write it down on a piece of paper, and put it on your desk for when you got back." One of the graduates, incredulous, asked, "But what if you didn't get back until the next day?"

Despite the pace, Craig likes the challenge. He would be working just as hard, with or without a family to support.

But he admits that like Parkinson's Law, where work expands to fit the time available, so their family's spending has increased with his rising earnings.

"For professional people who are driven and high achieving that's how you look at it" he says. "Your mindset is to be able to afford a certain lifestyle and do the things that are important to you. I think that's what drives me."

He and Luci appreciate the teamwork possible with one parent at home. It means their children always have a parent on hand to pick them up from school, oversee homework, be on the sidelines at swimming sports, and hundreds of other tiny things that are so much harder with both parents working full time.

When their first child was 10 months old, Luci returned to her job as an advertising executive. "We were both working a million hours a week and it was really stressful," she says. "The whole family unit was stressed." She was regularly up working until 1am to keep up.

She threw in the towel after a couple of years. Now she manages every aspect of their home and finances with dedicated efficiency. "We've got a great household CFO," says Craig. "I spend my entire time doing that in my working life, it's nice to not have to do it at home."

Toby Moore* is managing director of an investment firm while his wife Isabel Moore, a lawyer, looks after their three children at home in neighbouring St. Mary's Bay.

Although his job contributes the lion's share of his stress, he wouldn't have it any other way - he's always been super-ambitious. He remembers sitting on his grandfather's knee when he was 5 years old, going through the share tables together. "I've always been fascinated with money and wealth," he says. "The process of making it."

But it does take its pound of flesh. He recently turned 40, but already he is on medication for high blood pressure. "The minute I had children, health and wealth, my ability to earn, became overwhelming," he says. "If something puts them at risk, my stress goes through the roof."

Toby (the son of two doctors) says his mother elected to stay home to look after him and his siblings. For him it was an idyllic scenario he'd always wanted to repeat with his own family.

So it works perfectly for him having wife Isabel at home full-time. But if she wants to work - which she sometimes does - he's happy to support her.

"I try not to be the picture the whole time," he says. "I try to be the frame sometimes."

The minute I had children, health and wealth, my ability to earn, became overwhelming. If something puts them at risk, my stress goes through the roof.
Toby Moore

Ultimately, it's a trade-off. With two incomes there is more money, and who doesn't want that? But it can come at a cost. In 2015 Washington's Pew Research Centre released data showing that for more than half of families, having both parents working full-time means family time gets squeezed, parenting is more stressful, and life feels perpetually rushed.

It makes sense then, that many sole breadwinners are happy their spouse is at home managing the family.

It's an arrangement reminiscent of 1960's inspired American drama Mad Men, with its frustrated housewives and aloof, self-doubting career men. But unlike the trademark behind-closed-doors angst of the show, most couples I interview say they are satisfied.

Vicky Mair, an early childhood teacher, is married to software contractor Frank Mair. Vicky has been at home since they had children. "I love being at home, and he loves working," she says. "Our roles are clearly defined."

It does mean however, that they have to keep an eye on the spending, something that can become harder in a big spending area, where the badges of belonging can run to the thousands, or even millions of dollars, and where there is pressure to fit in, to reflect the norms of the neighbourhood.

Breadwinner Frank Mair, with wife Vicky Mair and their children, Marlon, 7, and Ruby, 9, at their Herne Bay home. 
Picture / Nick Reed
Breadwinner Frank Mair, with wife Vicky Mair and their children, Marlon, 7, and Ruby, 9, at their Herne Bay home. Picture / Nick Reed

Clinical psychologist Julian Metcalfe says fitting in with your "tribe" is a primal human instinct originating thousands of years ago. "You couldn't hunt and gather on your own," Metcalfe says. "If you didn't fit, you were dead."

The Mairs however, have made a conscious decision to keep the costs - and stress - down. "We're old fashioned," he says. "We're frugal. We could shift somewhere bigger with a pool and a $1000-a-week mortgage, but I'd be stressed out. We'd rather reduce costs and not be bound by that stuff."

Frank and Vicky bought in Herne Bay 13 years ago knowing nothing about the area. Their criterion for purchase was to reduce stress by being in close proximity to work.

Part of their low-stress approach is to reduce debt and pay for things with cash, so they have almost paid off their mortgage. Now they are using the equity to peg up some modest investment properties to finance their retirement.

Frank rides a small motorbike to work, a sedate 10-minute journey with almost no petrol costs. He is back home at 6pm every night to spend time with his family. Their home is humble by Herne Bay standards but there's an ease about them which suggests their stress-reducing decisions are hitting the mark.

What about when the roles are reversed? It is much less common for the mother of the family to be the sole breadwinner. About 7 per cent of New Zealand fathers manage the family while their wife works. There's the danger though, that mother breadwinners will end up bringing home the bacon, and cooking it too. Add to that, that she is risking her marriage: research shows when a wife earns more than her husband, divorce rates rise.

Sole breadwinner Alice Wright*, a lawyer on track to becoming a judge, works while husband Jake Hudson manages their home in Grey Lynn. Alice's job is nail-bitingly stressful. She regularly gets death threats - emailed, or sometimes handwritten. She is escorted to and from her car by bodyguards at hearings, and has protection in the hearing room. Sometimes she is kept in a separate room to guard against mishaps.

But it's being the sole breadwinner that is more stressful for her. "If you know everyone is counting on you, " she says, "it's a constant source of worry."

Even so, she wouldn't want to be at home full-time. She thinks Jake does a much better job. "There's absolutely no way I could do what I do without him," she says. "It's money we're earning together."

It has panned out that she is not only the decision-maker at work, but also in the home: she is the planner, Jake is the executor.

She decides what goes on the dinner table at night, and has a hand in most domestic decisions. It means more to juggle but she doesn't want to change it. She admits she finds it hard to let go - she wants to be a part of the family life.

Also, there are tasks that can't be delegated. They have two children, one of them 6 months old and still breastfeeding. For Alice, the last six months have been punctuated by broken sleep and long hours spent expressing milk. "I do more as a female than my male counterpart," she says.

She has set things up so she doesn't miss out on her children. With gritty determination she compresses her working day into eight hours, with a 3pm knock-off. She takes time off for school trips and children's concerts. It's a mammoth effort, and she is rewarded with a lack of guilt and separation anxiety.

In the end though, work stress is a privilege of the employed. Economist Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy of Auckland University says losing a job or becoming too ill to work is the worst pressure a sole breadwinner faces, particularly if their mortgage is underwater.

Alice knows this only too well. Unsurprisingly for a lawyer, she is insured up to the hilt - $2 million in life insurance, as well as income protection and health insurance. She's as close to bullet proof, financially speaking, as she can get.

While $2 million may seem like a lot, it's only just enough to buy a family home in these parts. A cliff-top home in Herne Bay sold for $24 million late last year, and to buy a moderate family home here is more than $2 million. That means monthly repayments of over $9000 on a loan with a 20 per cent deposit, enough to put a sweat on the brow of most sole bread-winners - even the top 2 per cent in the country, who earn $150,000 and over. And by the time the mortgage is paid off, the total interest handed to the bank is close to $1.7 million.

Ultimately, the driving force behind these families' decision to live on only one income is the children. These parents have turned down extra money in favour of a parent at home on the front line, full-time.

It's a luxury outside the grasp of many, and one which in some ways is a traditional 1950's solution to a very modern problem - with the fundamental difference that three out of four of these stay-at-home spouses see the situation as temporary. They're biding their time until their children are old enough to allow them out of the gate and back into the race.

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.

- Canvas

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 21 Oct 2016 11:59:59 Processing Time: 562ms