Attitudes may have changed since the days husbands brought home the bacon and wives stayed home with the kids. But according to new research, deviating from conventional gender roles makes both men and women miserable. Despite the gains women have made economically, most don’t want to be providers and protectors. And men don’t want to be dependent on their wives.
Researchers Karen Kramer and Sunjin Pak at the University of Illinois examined data on nearly 1,500 men and 1,800 women between the ages of 52 and 60 and found that the more women’s paychecks increased, the more women reported symptoms of depression. But the opposite effect was found in men: their psychological well-being was highest when they were the primary wage-earners.
“The results supported the overarching hypothesis: well-being was lower for mothers and fathers who violated gendered expectations about the division of paid labor, and higher for parents who conformed to these expectations,” said Kramer.
This was true even for couples who took a more egalitarian view of gender roles. Modern views notwithstanding, men’s health took a hit when their earnings shrank, suggesting the traditional role of primary earner is still very important to men.
Pretending Sex Interchangeability Makes People Unhappy
The cultural answer to such findings is always the same: societal expectations regarding gender roles have been too slow to evolve. If it were considered acceptable for men to take care of the kids while women brought home the paycheck, there would be no issue. Thus, no depression.
Americans are forever being told that gender equality— defined today not as equal opportunity for women but as male and female interchangeability—is the road to a happy, fulfilled life. But study after study after study after study proves otherwise.
“Feminist ideals, not domestic duties, seem to be what make wives morose,” concedes Meghan O’Rourke at Slate. “Progressive married women—who should be enjoying some or all of the fruits that [Betty] Freidan lobbied for—are less happy, it would appear, than women who live as if Friedan never existed.”
So why is that? Why do women feel depressed as breadwinners while men in the same role feel empowered? Why do women not suffer mentally by leaving their jobs to become at-home mothers while men who take on that same role do? The answer isn’t rocket science. But nor is it politically correct. Hence it goes unsaid.
Here’s the Truth We’re Afraid to Say
Men and women are not the same; thus, they are not interchangeable. A man’s identity, or self-worth, is inextricably linked to his job—a woman’s is linked to her children. That this does not hold true for every woman and every man doesn’t change the fact that what drives most women is different from what drives most men. They may both be capable of being breadwinners and full-time parents, but that doesn’t mean they want to perform these tasks with equal fervor. And it doesn’t mean they’ll be happy if they do.
Childbirth changes everything. It becomes a woman’s unparalleled accomplishment. Her first instinct is to provide for that child physically and emotionally. A man’s first instinct is to protect and to provide for that child. That’s his unparalleled accomplishment. Thus, it is natural for a woman to want to depend on her man to take care of financial matters. It is not natural for a man to depend on a woman in this way.
Social expectations, in other words, are not the culprit. Human nature is the culprit.
That’s not to say no married couple can successfully navigate a role reversal. It is only to say that it’s rare. Even today, approximately 30 percent of married women with children choose not to be employed, and in families where both parents are employed, “70% consist of fathers who earn more than mothers.”
This approach to marriage swims with the tide, rather than against it. That is why couples who embrace tradition tend to be happier. They even have better sex! Anytime we do something that’s natural, we’re going to have an easier time of time of it. Conversely, when we try to hold back the mountain, or fit a square peg into a round hole, we’re going to be miserable.
The larger question is this: Now that women are positioning themselves to become the dominant sex, how can they ever hope to be happy?