I stumbled onto an intriguing article in U.S. News, “Female Breadwinners and Love in a New Economy.” Rachel Pomerance begins her column by mentioning NYC Dads Group founder, Lance Somerfeld, who left his job as a teacher to become a Stay At Home Dad.
His lifestyle is cited as
… an updated approach to managing the demands of modern parenthood.
Sounds great to me!
While this arrangement may not work for everyone, wouldn’t it require a considerable meeting of the minds on issues such as money, discipline, and schooling – to say the least?
How many of us actually discuss these topics before we marry – regardless of who brings home the bacon as opposed to frying it up in the pan? And when it comes to domestic matters, if not her sole domain, doesn’t the mom – stay at home or otherwise – generally execute veto power? How willing are women to surrender some measure of this power, even to the most reasonable and flexible spouse?
My Checkbook, My Decision?
Looking back at my marriage, while both of us earned a good living, I carried the lion’s share of domestic duties. This wasn’t an express decision; my spouse traveled and we quickly fell into traditional roles. Except of course, I also brought in a breadwinner’s income, and we split expenses roughly in half.
However, disagreements arose early over the type and expense of childcare, the necessity of preschool, and education in general. Our views were dramatically different. Neither of us discussed these matters before becoming parents. We assumed, like most, we’d “figure it out.”
Our ultimate arrangement? If we disagreed, as long as I picked up the tab, everything was fine and my decision would be accepted. That held true for furnishing the house, selecting childcare, covering the cost of preschool, and a year of private school for a developmentally advanced child who was too young to attend the local public school.
So there was no negotiation; arguments ended when I paid the bill. We both lived by “My checkbook, my decision.”
As a model for a functional marriage?
Pretty lousy. But hindsight is 20-20, right? We hadn’t fundamentally understood each others values before walking down the aisle, much less having children.
The Challenges of the Female Breadwinner
The article in U.S. News focuses on the female breadwinner, and the cited data makes for an interesting read. But don’t expect a neat fit or an easy set of ready-made conclusions. Family dynamics are never so simple.
The puzzle pieces involved are variable and shuffling: individual couples bring their temperament, history, education, career experience to this particular mix. And let’s not forget that demographics – including geography – play a considerable role.
Then there is cultural (or possibly biological) conditioning; the article points out identity issues for men and women both:
Women may feel shame and guilt about missing time with their children; men may feel emasculated by doing or earning something that lacks social status…
Even in countries with ample social safety nets, where higher quality of life indicators exist (vacation, family leave, healthcare, education), as more women take on the breadwinning role, interesting impacts seem to appear.
Specifically mentioned is a study from Denmark suggesting that women who out-earn their husbands (even slightly) have a higher incidence of anxiety, sleeplessness, and use of related meds, while men are more likely to need drugs for erectile dysfunction.
I’m not in a position to dispute these findings, but I wonder about the many mitigating factors.
Women on the Money-Making Upswing?
I will say, when I see the following cited – and I’ve read variations on this theme many times before – I see red. I find these statistics utterly misleading.
… data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that working wives out-earn their husbands by nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, among the American workforce, women outrank men in college degrees. And, in some American cities, single, childless women under 30 out-earn their male peers according to a 2010 analysis of U.S. census data. As a result, men and women face unprecedented opportunities in their home and work lives, respectively.
How old are these “working wives?” If we’re talking about lower rates of pay, out-earning by 40% doesn’t mean a great deal, does it? Are the husbands unemployed or underemployed in these instances? Are there children in this picture? What are the educational qualifications, and the fields in which they’re working? As for women outranking men in college degrees, that’s swell, except for the reality that women still earn approximately 77 cents on the male dollar, and a female MBA begins her career at $4,600/year less than her male counterpart. Naturally, the cumulative impacts of lower initial earnings are significant.
The blanket statements in the cited passage lead some to believe that women are blowing the roof off the glass ceiling, and earnings discrepancies are no longer a problem. Any such belief is patently false.
As to the latter part of that paragraph, “some American cities,” that just may mean New York, where demographic anomalies skew the results. Moreover, “single, childless women under 30” is not the issue at hand. Family is. Family with all the sticky logistics of sick babies, problematic school schedules, insufficient childcare, skyrocketing expenses, not to mention, the financially corrosive impacts of divorce.
Want more detail? With a respectful nod to an excellent piece in the New York Times by Stephanie Coontz, you might check out “Matriarchy, My Assets!”
There’s Good News and Bad News
Generally, I find this sort of article both refreshing and relieving. The very fact that we are addressing the pros and cons for women, for men, and potentially for children seems like a step in the right direction toward improving systems that support families. This isn’t about men per se; this isn’t about women per se. It’s about moving closer to a flexible, equitable, and realistic approach to the complexities of family dynamics. With less judgment concerning individual choices.
It is – or should be – about what makes sense for each couple and their children.
I find references such as those cited from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be irritating. How many times do we have to debunk the same old inadequate and misleading findings?
What troubles me most is what’s missing: data that includes the half of us who are divorced, the millions of us still parenting at 45+ and older, not to mention the millions of us caught between elder parents and middle school carpool while trying to figure out how we can afford a dentist.
What appears workable at 35 and married can change in a flash. Two parents, one child, no unemployment? You’ve got it made. And if circumstances falter? If a medical problem knocks either breadwinner out of the picture? If a layoff does the same? What about divorce, a few more kids, a child with medical or mental health issues, a family emergency?
Then all bets are off. You’re not concerned about who does what. You’re worried about survival.
Connection, Communication, Community
I’m pleased that we’re shining a light on shifting roles, including their challenges. Only good can come from these discussions. But we cannot forget those families in which education, economic opportunity, or geography requires dual-earning couples; marital status makes sharing responsibilities improbable; family status (aging parents) renders any option for help impossible – and in the end, we suffer as a society.
Is there an upside?
I contend that’s a yes, while admitting that life has yet to obliterate my fundamental idealism: I still believe in the good in people, in the willingness to help a neighbor, and the power we exert as we raise our voices, form communities, and continue to seek solutions. Among those solutions? Supporting our men who wish to support us by caring for the children – hands-on, and at home.
But we must communicate like adults. We need to stow the stigmatizing and the finger-pointing. Instead, we need to band together and generously support each other with skills and opportunities – as we speak up, stand up, connect, inform, educate, motivate, inspire – and then act.
That means not excluding the unemployed, the underemployed, those without an employment relationship, the working poor – a term I loathe that I nonetheless find accurate – and the utterly disenfranchised. Let’s not make assumptions about the “who” or “when” or “how” these individuals may have gotten where they are. Let’s insist on data that supports the realities of those who are older, those who live in our most expensive regions, those with little access to adequate or safe public schools, those who carry the special burdens of physical or mental health issues, and those who deal daily with the complications that arise from divorce.
Where are these statistics in a broader picture that we can then address?
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