“Breadwinner Moms” Challenge Our Notion of Traditional Family

Family Enjoying Day In ParkIt’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.

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.

Rebecca Hughes Parker is a journalist and attorney who lives in New York City with her three daughters and her stay-at-home husband who keeps the house in order with help from their dog Fozzie. She is the Editor-in-Chief of The FCPA Report, a legal publication providing analysis and insight about bribery and corruption issues.  Previously, she was a litigator at a large law firm and an award-winning broadcast journalist. Rebecca is on Twitter @rhughesparker, and her pieces about working motherhood have appeared in the Motherlode, the Huffington Post, the Albany Times-Union, Twiniversity.com, and Professionelle.me. She also writes at rebeccahughesparker.com.

Image via iStockphoto/Catherine Yeulet

  • Amy S.

    Great post! One of the few that truly acknowledge the differences between men and women. I believe the answer — not just for women or men, but for families — is to create a more family friendly America. The extreme work culture in our country benefits no one. Couldn’t agree more with your point that it will likely take women in the workforce to change how we work. While I am not the primary breadwinner in our family, I do work and enjoy my career. And while I enjoy working, I also want to be available for my kids. I have blazed a path for a more flexible work environment for myself and subsequently other young mothers in my own department. That is what Sheryl Sandberg’s misunderstood and misinterpreted “Lean In” is all about — helping and encouraging women who choose to work to forge a path to leadership in their own lives so that we can help reshape the way we work to allow even more women to hang on to their careers if they so choose.

  • Amy S. – Thanks for the comment. Totally agree with the role model point – all the more important when we don’t want to simply leave the workplace as it is.

  • Tina

    When our kids were little, I worked full time and my husband stayed home. I loved my job, he hated his, I out-earned him. I’m still amazed at the number of seriously bone-headed comments we got during those years. One work friend asked, “Oh, is he disabled?” Seriously? The only reason a man would stay home with kids is if he had a disability? One male colleague (with an at-home wife and two small kids) said, “Wow! Where can I get a sweet deal like that?” As if my husband was sitting home watching TV all day. We now both work about 3/4 time, and even now, the perception of men who don’t work full time means they must be lazy, and women who don’t work full time must be virtuous and great moms.

    • Tina – I am not surprised by those comments, unfortunately! Some young dads at my law firm said something similar, like “he must have it easy!” He most certainly did not!!

      But I really do think it will change, slowly….

  • Dana

    The trouble with talking about biological functions is we now live in a culture that punishes us for having them. In our evolutionary milieu, women DID work. We gathered plant foods and we made clothes and sometimes built shelter and definitely raised the kids. The thing is that we were allowed to have our kids along with us when we worked, and the work itself permitted that–no complex, heavy machinery or noxious chemicals that would have been a danger to small children. There isn’t really anything “traditional” about mothers being trapped at home with kids. Industrialism means they don’t need as many workers, and women being needed to raise the kids meant it was the men going to the factories to work, and so it has gone to the present day.

    Well, except for poor mothers who were expected to work for a wage and put their children in workhouses. The modern-day equivalent is poor mothers encouraged to give their children up for adoption rather than go on welfare. And bringing your children to work is still considered a bizarre indulgence on the part of employers, a fad that many hope will die away soon, when they hear of it at all.

Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
I Married for Health Insurance
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
Fascism Facts
I Married for Health Insurance
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread