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The Female Breadwinner Conundrum


My husband has so far been man enough to let me be the sole family breadwinner at different points in our marriage. So far, I have not been woman enough to let him say the same. While I admire his humility and very dedicated attempts to be Mr. Mom, through trying just about every constellation of work-family arrangements to keep the kids cared for with our own hands and food on the table we have both come to agree that everyone is happier when mom is not full-time.

A new global study finds that our family preferences, however, do not necessarily translate to a general rule for everyone. On average, there seems to be no increase in happiness either when both mom and dad work full-time or when dad works full-time and mom stays entirely home.

How couples with children divide paid and domestic work is not closely related to their levels of happiness. Instead, having a partner to divide work with is more strongly linked to parents’ happiness than how that work is divided. Men and women are equally satisfied with arrangements that overtax themselves as with those that overtax their partners (except in Western Europe). Couples are also no happier with more egalitarian arrangements than with unequal ones. Modern couples typically share equal responsibilities in the public and private spheres, traditional couples specialize, and yet they are equally happy almost everywhere.

In other words, one particular set of work arrangements is not ideal for everyone. But one particular life arrangement does tend to make people more happy: that’s being married. The “Lean In” crowd and full-time housewives, however, can put down their grass-is-greener resentment and defensive comments about other women’s work choices and celebrate individual liberty together.


Alas, not quite so fast. Enjoy that glass of bubbly then come back when you’re sober, because this one study finding touches on many other important considerations regarding working women, and particularly working mothers.

The Asymetrical Interest in Housework

First, a side issue. These studies on “women’s work” always seem to calculate who does how much housework of the female variety, but I have yet to see one that gauges who does how much housework of the male variety. We see a lot about who cares for the kids and cleans the bathroom, but not so much about who does the taxes and mows the lawn. In other words, I have a sneaking suspicion that surveys underestimate how much men put into their families outside of bringing home the bacon.

I never hear anyone interested in evaluating whether and how much wives pitch in with the yardwork.

We have a pretty egalitarian household. My husband supervises most kid baths and puts them to bed most nights. He does other “women’s work,” like washing dishes, vacuuming, and making meals, too; but I do the bulk of it. I usually clean bathrooms and do laundry, for example. Right now, I make most of the meals, but he used to do that when I worked more. We actually pretty seamlessly trade off on household tasks depending on who has more work that week or month, and I’m grateful for such an unselfish, stereotype-unconscious husband. His generosity and sacrifice do, indeed, make me happy.

They do so when he acts in stereotypically male ways, too. When our mixer broke and needed a new part, he took care of that. He does our taxes and handles all the budgeting and bill paying. He keeps the house in good repair. He mows the lawn and makes sure the garage doesn’t rot to pieces. Etc. All of this takes many unpaid hours, but I never hear anyone interested in evaluating whether and how much wives pitch in with the yardwork, while I hear way too much about the “second shift” working women face when coming home from a full day of outside work to make dinner, supervise homework, and hustle the kids off to bed. I’m just saying, it’s highly unlikely most husbands are sitting around chugging a beer and zoning off in front of the TV while their wives busts their butts 24/7.

I said this was a side issue, but I do think the stereotype this lack of information perpetuates is harmful to men and marriage. It reinforces the age-old Al Bundy caricature, and encourages people to demean men’s character and dedication to their families. I’m not saying we should never note that some men are lazy slobs. They certainly can be. But not all, and in fact, it’s less true of married men than of singletons. Research also shows that marriage makes men work harder and smarter, and spend more time contributing to their families and communities.

What Kind of Happiness Are We Talking?

As for the juncture between women’s happiness when both raising a family and pursuing a career, my experience and that of my social circles tends to be that women with children generally prefer part-time work. That has been consistently what American women keep telling pollsters is their ideal situation. It makes sense: The kids aren’t going to feel abandoned if mom’s gone two days a week, or three half days, or something, and mom gets a nice break from spitup and a chance to keep up with her profession and an opportunity to engage the adult world.


I previously preferred full-time work, even with kids, because I tend to be a workaholic, and because mothering children requires me to be a far better woman than does wearing a nice, clean, coordinated outfit and sitting in a chair staring at a computer screen while comfortably sipping coffee and jamming to my tunes. For me there has been no better cure to the comfortably selfish disease than sad little round eyes peering at me just beyond the computer screen for what feels like the umpteenth time. (Not that I’m no longer selfish; but I have noticeably improved.)

So I guess my question about these results is that many people probably conflate comfort with happiness. Aristotle’s understanding of happiness—as an activity of the soul in accord with virtue—is as rare today as it was in his time. Therefore, another question I would like social scientists to ask, beyond the husband housework, is of the children inside and outside families with working mothers, both full- and part-time. Are the children happier when mother is home more? Some rather compelling research indicates the answer, in general, is yes. Just recently another study added to these questions by finding that cheap, universal government childcare in Quebec increased mothers’ participation in the labor force from 45 to 75 percent, while their children committed more crimes, had worse health, and were more unhappy.

I know my kids’ answer would be yes, they are happier when mom is home more. I can see that yes on their faces every time I close my email tab and become available to them again. My husband and I can feel the difference in the home atmosphere between when I’m gone on a business trip and he is (the kids are far more settled when I’m home alone caring for them than when he is, and it’s not because he’s an ogre). Reducing my work hours has notably increased the peace and joy inside our home. I wonder if we’re not the only ones. Perhaps some other ladies could try it out and let us know.