More Mom Breadwinners Challenge Our Notions of the Traditional Family

It’s not easy to diffuse the impact of long-held stereotypes, especially when biology is involved.

It looks like my situation  — I’m a working mom and my husband is a diapering dad — is becoming more common. And according to the Pew Center’s recent numbers, the radical change in society in the past 50 years looks like this — women are now the sole or primary breadwinners in four out of ten households up from 11% in 1960. The study also found that family income is actually higher when the mother is the breadwinner.

A change like this one does not come easily — it alters people’s fundamental notions of family structure, and may not be a perfect fit with the human biological reality. I’d argue a mom can make the money and have thriving kids and a thriving marriage — uterus, breasts, estrogen and all — as long as we don’t pretend those biological differences don’t exist.

The Pew report came out a few days after the release of hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones‘ statements to a group of business school students about the unsuitability of mothers as global macro traders, an intense profession. He said, “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it” and motioned to his chest, arguing that becoming a mother made women lose focus. His remarks were immediately criticized, especially by those of us who think we were focused pretty well after having babies.

It’s my experience that what Jones was saying, many are thinking, at least to some degree. Others are actually saying it out loud. A male partner at my law firm asked me if I was “serious about my career” when I asked for a slight (and temporary) reduction in hours and pay. A doctor told me recently it’s too hard to have women as partners in a practice, even if they are skilled, because they will not devote the hours necessary when their kids are young. As Liza Viana points out here at The Broad Side, a Cornell University study shows that even with equal resumes and job experience, moms were offered jobs 80 percent less frequently than women without children.

A few male pundits at Fox Business Channel used the occasion of the release of the Pew “breadwinner mom” survey to emphasize their collective preference for patriarchy. “Having mom as the primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage,” uber-conservative commentator Erick Erickson said, later doubling down on his statements on Twitter and on his radio show. Juan Williams, another Fox contributor, said the Pew findings “indicate something terribly wrong is going on with our society.”

I am the primary breadwinner with a “diapering dad” for a husband, and I think my kids are pretty happy and my marriage seems pretty good. At least I don’t think I am contributing to the deterioration of our society.

The diapering dad with one of our daughters

The diapering dad with one of our daughters

Stereotypes are often based in a kernel of truth. Tudor Jones is not totally wrong; breastfeeding at the beginning may make some moms — me at least — a bit out of it. Men will never, ever have to take the myriad pumping breaks I took with my last daughter during the many months I nursed her while working. Not even Robert DeNiro in Meet the Fockers.

But stereotypes crumble the broader one’s worldview gets. Maybe Tudor Jones hasn’t worked with that trader who can nurse her baby, hand that baby off to her husband, and run to work and stay focused all day (maybe with the help of a hands-free pumping bra?). If Erickson or Williams knew a lot of well-adjusted families with this gender role flip, perhaps their views would change. It’s not unlike knowing people who are gay or who are atheists; you may think they are immoral in the abstract until they are your really nice next door neighbors.

It’s too easy to simply dismiss Jones and the Dobbs crowd completely out of hand, though. Clearly, some of it is chauvinism. But unlike other civil rights struggles, women and men are indeed different biologically. After the obvious differences — men won’t have to be pregnant (and suffer the maladies associated with that), recover from birth, or breastfeed — teasing out what is nature and what is culture is difficult. It’s something I have struggled with during the past eight years of my working motherhood.

Some commentators say it’s a “mistake [to assume] that people make the choices they make purely because they want to or out of some innate gendered quality, and not out of a negotiation between what’s possible, what they’ve been taught to expect is normal, and what they might really want.”  It’s true, few make these choices in a vacuum. I didn’t. But doesn’t the preference of the parents play some role in most two-parent situations?

Maybe the right questions aren’t whether women “want” to work more or are “more suited” for it. When Erick Erickson says women are more “nurturing” than men, it sounds hollow in the face of the reality of families’ economic situations. As family life commentator Stephanie Coontz writes, “shouldn’t we stop debating whether we want mothers to work and start implementing the social policies and working conditions that will allow families to take full advantage of the benefits of women’s employment and to minimize its stresses?”

Joan Williams, the founder of the Center of Worklife Law at the University of California, Hastings School of Law wrote about the “hours problem”, citing a study that found that only 9% of mothers work over 50 hours a week, and 29% of fathers do. She argues that men work longer hours than women not because of money but because of “manliness and morality” — working long hours outside the home is, well, manly. And as NBC News separately reported in the wake of the Pew study, some guys who lose their role as primary earners are known to lose sexual steam and may deal with insomnia and other issues. A new study out of Chicago’s Booth School of Business finds that men are not always so comfortable with a wife who out-earns them.

Men and women both seem uneasy with the flip. “We can’t get mothers to work more hours,” Williams says in her article for the Harvard Business Review. “We’ve tried, and failed, for forty years.” It’s because women want to see their kids, she argues, and men increasingly do too, perhaps chipping away at an ingrained male identity in a “culture that associates manly heroism with long hours.” Men may be benefiting from more women in the workplace as well.

When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (who previously has shown her feminist stripes, stridently defending her maternity leave) confronted Erickson about his views on the evils of working motherhood, he defended his ideas that working women are a perversion of the natural order by saying most people agree with him.

The Pew survey suggests, ostensibly at least, that the vast majority of people don’t approve of a father staying home. 8% of respondents said that the children are “better off with the father home,” while 76% said the children are “just as well off if the father works.” Fifty one percent said the children are “better off with the mother home” and 34% said children are “just as well off if the mother works.”

Does that really capture it? As K.J. Dell’Antonia notes in New York Times’ Motherlode blog, the study lumps together very different situations. Aside from what the public thinks, the “more women as breadwinners” narrative should include the idea that women are not, for the most part, working like men, and they are not reaching the “top” of the business world.

So more women are breadwinners, but they are a different breed of breadwinner who have chosen not to act like men. Can women remake the workplace as they enter it? Can they make it friendlier to their preferences, whether those were shaped by culture or biology, or both?

I can’t wait to see the next generation answer the Pew questions about stay-at-home dads and women breadwinners. Many of them will have grown up in households where the mother earned most of money. I have long thought one of the great legacies of my own family situation is that my three daughters will think that a stay-at-home dad and a working mom (albeit one that works in a way that she thinks fits her needs better than the traditional model) is not a perversion of gender roles, but is just a choice that we made that worked for us.

Originally posted at The Broad Side


More Mom Breadwinners Challenge Our Notions of the Traditional Family — 6 Comments

  1. I’m a corporate mom and have made adjustments. I think that women in the workplace have brought forth conversations about whether crazy hours make sense. A recent study found that “working too much” is one of the top ten regrets for most people who worked (men or women). I work over 50 hours regularly, but I’ve done so from home since my daughter was born so I could maintain my family life. I’m entering a stage in my life where I have other goals outside of work and not all of those relate to my children. Some are about my health, others about my writing. So, I’ve chosen to cut down my hours and pay permanently and I’m grateful for the cultural changes that allowed me to do that. I hope more women get these opportunities in the near future because we work to live, not live to work.
    Maggie Amada recently posted…We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight.My Profile

    • Maggie – Agree! We work to live, not live to work. But it is easier said than done, as you know.

      It was hard for me to decide to cut down on my hours and my pay at my law firm, but I did it for my own health, for my kids, etc, with the idea that I would not look back on my life and think I should have spent more hours at the office.

  2. Great summary of all that has been unfolding in the media on this topic. I’m with you in that I hope our generation of kids will see both moms and dads as individuals who can juggle career and family, in whichever way best suits their respective family. I have a daughter, who will hopefully see she has many choices and a strong father figure who is engaged in every aspect of parenthood. And I hope my two boys will see a great example of a marriage – where we are equals and men are just as likely to run a household as women to go out and be a breadwinner.
    Kerry recently posted…What Does it Feel Like to be a Breadwinning Mom?My Profile

  3. So very informative. Both my husband and I work full-time. For several years, I have earned more than he did. Not that we disclose all this information to our children or our friends, but I’m happy that they see in us a couple who are equal in most ways!

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