The Real Reason Most ‘Breadwinner Moms’ Aren’t Happy

This article was originally published at the Washington Examiner.

In 2013, the media praised the Pew finding that mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of American households. What they didn’t tell you is that a whopping 63% of this group is comprised of single mothers. Ergo, the real story is the enormous swell of single mothers in America.

But we didn’t talk about that. Instead, the media lumped all employed mothers under one umbrella as if they were one and the same and touted this phenomenon as though it were a sign of progress.

Fortunately, new data from the American Community Survey breaks this demographic down further. To be clear when it comes to what we call “breadwinner moms”: Among married, heterosexual couples, only a quarter of American wives are the primary breadwinners in their family.

What’s more, they’re not doing well.

“Breadwinner moms are 55% less likely to be very satisfied with their family life than mothers who are not the primary breadwinner, even after controlling for the household division of labor, family financial status, gender ideology, and an array of other background variables,” writes Wendy Wang, Director of Research at Institute for Family Studies. She adds, “On other measures, including marital satisfaction and whether the couple feels close and engaged in the relationship, female breadwinners also score lower than their peers who earn less than their husbands.”

To be clear, this is not a comparison of employed mothers vs. at-home mothers; it’s a comparison of all married mothers who who earn less than their husbands and married mothers who earn more. So: at-home moms, yes; but also mothers who work part time or in less demanding/lucrative jobs than their husbands.

If you’ve read a fair amount about marriages in which both parents work full time and year round, you’ll notice a theme: that the wives in these families are often stressed out and guilt-ridden. They’re simply doing too much and, understandably, can’t get it all done.

You’ll also notice that the proposed solution to this problem is almost always the same: men need to step up their game! If husbands did their part at home, their full-time working wives could handle the load. “At a time when more women are family breadwinners, perhaps it is time for husbands to step up and take on more responsibilities on the home front,” writes Wang.

In other words, it’s men’s fault. As if men don’t take enough heat as it is, what with their very nature being viewed as toxic, now they’re to blame for their wives being overburdened for choosing to do the impossible.

But how can men be to blame when Wang herself admits married fathers “devote about as much overall time to work and family as married mothers”? Indeed, when we compare the total amount of work mothers and fathers perform both inside and outside the home, they’re practically even (although for the record, we shouldn’t be keeping score). Women spend more hours on housework and child care, yes. But men put in significantly more hours in the labor force.

The real stickler in these marriages is, as Wang notes, conventional gender norms. Although here again she gets it wrong. Wang blames these norms on societal expectations rather than on the innate desires of women and men. We simply refuse to acknowledge biology when it comes to the work-family dilemma, and it is this denial that creates inertia.

Conventional gender norms exist for a reason: they move with our biological propensities rather than against them. Accepting this truth doesn’t mean there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any overlap in sex roles—there’s never been more overlap!—but it does mean that when marriages swim with the tide rather than against, they have an easier go of it.

When wives out-earn their husbands, it weakens the marital dynamic—for several reasons. Wives tend to view the home as “their” domain and are attached to it in a unique and primal way. As a result, they take on the more emotional aspects of parenting—Did the baby just cry out? Does Susie’s outfit match? Is the house clean enough?—and are more attentive to daily household chores.

Husbands, on the other hand, tend to focus like a laser beam on their jobs for one reason: to provide and to protect are at the core of their identity. A husband’s job is not his singular means to care for his family, but to him it’s paramount. Thus, a man who is stripped of this role feels unsettled.

And as it turns out, wives who earn more feel unsettled as well—mainly because the relationship becomes, ironically, less equal. Why? Because the dynamic between husband and wife winds up feeling more parental than sexual.

When a wife knows she can rely on her husband, irrespective of whether or not she’s employed, her respect for him comes naturally. Women want to feel as though they’re protected and provided for, even if they don’t technically need it. That’s part of what fuels sexual attraction—and it’s the reason why, when the roles are reversed, the sex often dies and both partners are unhappy.

I know it’s not popular to suggest conventional sex roles are, to a large degree, fixed. But the evidence suggests they are. Thus, it makes perfect sense that married breadwinner moms are 55% less likely to be satisfied with their family life than mothers who are not the primary breadwinners.

They’re fighting human nature. And that’s a losing battle.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, columnist and relationship coach committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.
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