The week after my mother’s funeral, my father started pestering me about her personal bank account.

It wasn’t about the money. She had been a nurse’s aide and a hospice home care worker, so she had hardly socked away a fortune. By the time she died in 1999 at age 62, she had saved barely $1,000. She dipped into it to buy greeting cards and the occasional birthday gift, but mostly she just used it as proof of her emancipation.

“I’ve been working for 20 years,” she said the day she slid the bank account papers across my kitchen table for me to co-sign on the account. “I’m done asking for permission to buy a Hallmark card.”

My father saw this as an act of treason. He had earned union wages for more than 35 years before taking the power company’s buyout in his mid-50s. For the first time in their marriage, they had no mortgage payment or kids in college and vacation plans that were more than just dreams.

“I’ll always give you money,” he told my mother over and over. “All you have to do is ask.”

He was describing the problem without even knowing it.

My mother objected to asking for an allowance from the money she’d earned with her own hard labor, so in her mid-50s, she opened her own account. Every two weeks, she cashed her paycheck, deposited a tiny bit of it in her savings and then handed over the rest to my dad. And every two weeks, he’d lodge the same complaint.

“What kind of wife doesn’t need her husband?” he said over and over.

To me, it was a silly question. This was the same wife who used to tell her daughters that every man needs to feel like a hero in his own home, and she made clear that ever since their first kiss in junior high, he was her Hercules. She sent him hundreds of romantic cards, all of which were bundled by year and stored in a closet. Three days before she died, she told him she still got butterflies when he walked through the door.

Nevertheless, Dad always saw my mother’s savings account as an indictment.

The memory of my parents’ struggle over who controlled the money hit me last week like a rough ride through a time tunnel after the Pew Research Center reported on the rise of the breadwinning wife. More wives are out-earning their husbands, in part because more of the lost jobs in this current recession belonged to men. But more women are getting college degrees, too, and pursuing careers. The equation of marriage is changing. As Pew reported, in 1970, 4 percent of husbands had wives who made more money. In 2007, that number rose to 22 percent.

Oh, boy. Lots of coverage about the “mancession” and “alpha wives” versus “beta husbands.” You’d think the overwhelming majority of women were now out-earning the menfolk and, in their spare time, lopping off vital parts of the male anatomy just for sport.

Of course, income disparity between genders has been a serious issue for a long time. Most women still make less than men, even in comparable jobs. But the public hyperventilation over the Pew report illustrates how too many of us — men and women — are burdened with a traditional definition of manhood.

Most men, it seems, still determine their worth as human beings by the number of zeros in their take-home pay. Some women buy into this; others don’t. Hence the latest flurry of stories and blogs about high-earning women insisting their husbands must make more than they do or lamenting that they can’t find men who make less and don’t care.

When it comes to marriage and money, progress comes in creeps and crawls, leaving wounded egos and broken hearts in its wake. That was true with my parents in the early ’90s, and it’s still true in 2010.

A week after my mother died, Dad insisted I close her savings account. Desperate to comfort a grieving father, I did what I was told.

“You were always her hero, Dad,” I said, handing him the canceled savings book.

He tucked it in his shirt pocket and headed silently for the door.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.

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