Women Breadwinners: Why We Must Be Sensitive to Our Slower-Moving Husbands

Just as the changes in women's roles have been difficult, so have men's. We need to acknowledge and respect -- not belittle -- the impact these changes have had on both genders.
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I belong to one of the couple types that Hanna Rosin described in her recent piece on breadwinner wives in Slate magazine -- the one where the "woman is a born workaholic and the man lives a slower pace." Although it is more complex than those labels, I have nevertheless lived a version of that story for about 20 years.

I'm a professor, researcher and author; my husband is a naturopathic doctor/acupuncturist whose work schedule goes up and down depending on the economy. We have raised three children together (one is now 20, and the twins are 16 years old).

I have also spent 20 years researching and writing about the changing stories of breadwinning mothers and primary caregiving fathers (www.breadandrosesproject.ca).

So I read Rosin's piece with interest. This is an important issue that requires alternative viewpoints and good debate. I share Rosin's interest in understanding the current social and emotional geography of breadwinning wives. I like the way she points to asymmetries between statistics on women's rising earning power and some evidence of their preference for part-time work. Our approaches are different: hers is more on power dynamics between breadwinning wives and men; mine on the constantly shifting relations around work and care for breadwinning mothers and caregiving fathers.

But beyond this, I have two main responses to Rosin's piece: a concern about her "relationship survey" and surprise at her depiction of men.

The "Relationship Survey"

Surveys, which are instruments used to measure changing social life or what Rosin calls the "emotional landscape," are difficult to construct well. But they matter greatly to the knowledge that comes out the other end.

One quick example is the way her survey defines and measures housework contributions. Rosin's survey includes only two items on housework: First, "Which of you does more housework -- tidying up, doing laundry, making beds, etc?" And, second, "Which of you does more cooking?" She also has one item on childcare: "Who does most of the childcare duties in your relationship?"

There are two problems here. First, only women are asked questions about a topic that is deeply relational, as well as taken-for-granted, invisible, and highly contested. As a family researcher I can say that getting an accurate picture of housework is more complex than getting people to talk about their sexual relationship.

A second problem is around a point that I make in my book, "Do Men Mother?" That is, Rosin is doing what many other writers and researchers do: using a "maternal lens" to assess the lives of men. The work that men typically do, either in housework or childcare, is left largely invisible when one uses this lens. My guess is that men are going to end up looking pretty bad.

The best example I can give of the problem with underestimating what men do is found in Scott Coltrane's book, "Family Man"; he notes that throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, researchers continually cited a statistic that stated that women did an extra month of housework ever year.

Coltrane, an astute sociologist, looked more closely at the studies and found that they excluded what fathers did on weekends, as well as tasks such as shopping, household repair, painting and even driving children to activities and playing with them. (There are some weeks when my husband spends about 20 hours a week driving our children; with teens, a lot of parenting happens on those drives). It matters how we define and measure these things. And in today's multi-tasking world, it is even harder to define work time and family time.

What we do know, based on successive waves of rich data on this topic is that, in most countries, the participation of fathers in household life has increased with each passing year. Yes, fathers still do less routine housework than women, although it does continues to rise towards a point of gender convergence. What is important to note: Fathers' contributions to childcare have seen dramatic change.

A Startling Portrayal of Men

What startled me in the piece? Not the "end of men," but the portrayal of men.

There are only four kinds of men mentioned in this piece. There is that slow-moving man. There is also the stay-at-home dad who gets startled looks when he is in the classroom. (There have already been some excellent reactions by men who were startled by that). There are only two other men in this story: the part-time mechanic whose wife calls him a loser; and the man who spends "all her money on dress socks" while also subscribing "to every damned sports channel and why will he never clean up after himself?"

While she points to some stereotypes that may bear truth in some households, there is also a subtle belittling of men who are trying to adjust to their new roles.

Just as the changes in women's roles have been difficult, so have men's. We need to acknowledge and respect -- not belittle -- the impact these changes have had on both genders.

Men's voices on this issue of breadwinning wives are crucial.

It matters, for example, how this situation of shifting gender roles has come about.

  • Is it a long-term situation where the woman is passionate about her career and a man works for a paycheck, which then leads to him being the stay-at-home dad (or sustained secondary earner) when the kids come along?

  • Or are they both working in jobs they hate and she actually wants to be the one at home?
  • Or did he suddenly lose his job?
  • If it's the latter, it can be tough. As one laid-off factory worker recently told me, "It's almost like you're on ice that's breaking up. You don't really know what or where your role is."

    What I know from my research on breadwinning mothers and caregiving fathers over the past two decades is that, while a small revolution in gender roles has occurred, men and women continue to be in a process of transition around issues of breadwinning and care.

    It's a relational dance, it changes each day, each week, each year.

    And an approach that pits women against men cannot get at the rich relational processes that underpin these 21st century stories, and our understanding of them.

    What do I know from 20 years of living this? Yes, sometimes there are tensions between this woman who works too hard and the man I share my life with, who "lives a slower pace."

    Yet, the differences and tensions in what, and how much, we each do are eclipsed by the fact that he has supported me at the critical moments in my career where I have needed unwavering and full-on emotional and practical support in order to achieve my goals. Lately there have been some pretty big things on my plate. And I have said to him, "This is what I need." And he has done that and more. His more laid back approach, meanwhile, translates into fun and balance in a household where I work too hard and stress about too many things.

    And the relationship he has with our three daughters, especially in facilitating their evolution as tough, athletic, independent young women, makes all those slow moving moments seem, well, just not that important.


    This piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project Magazine.