When the Wife Wears the Pants

In 2010, 41.4% of American women were the primary breadwinners for their families. When considering only married American women over 30, the number drops to 22%, which is still much higher than the 4% in 1970. Opportunity-cost effects are causing more women with higher education, and therefore higher earning potential, to choose employment over staying at home with kids. Across several countries, women with more education are more likely to be employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This trend has been inching upward for decades, and it raises the question: what is this doing to family dynamics?

The gender-role-reversal becomes pronounced when the couple has children. Only 22% of childless wife breadwinners felt a negative impact on their marriages, compared to 36% of wife breadwinners with children, according to a Daily Worth poll. This is the point where many women forgo their careers and choose to be the primary child caregiver. However, more and more often the woman’s higher earning power leads the man to adopt this role. Of fathers with working wives and children under 5, 20% of the dads were primary caregivers in 2010.

Another factor contributing to this shift is that men were hit much harder during the recession than women. Since 2007, men lost 4 million jobs while women lost just over 2 million. Often times the women becomes the primary breadwinner because the man is unemployed. This family dynamic is much different than one where the man chooses to be the caregiver. Oftentimes the man is thrust into a role that is unfamiliar and unintended. While many of the lost jobs have been gained back, unemployment is still higher among men: 8.3% compared to the national average of 8.2% in March.

Fathers simply do not have a lot of historical experience being primary caregivers. There are no long established cultural norms to go by, and they are often on their own in determining their role in society. According to a July SEI poll, female breadwinners are twice as likely to believe that their partner feels stressed by their role in financial decision making than their male counterparts. This could be that the women are more likely to perceive tension in the relationship, it could be a result of men struggling to adapt to their redefined roles, or some combination of the two.

The face of the American family is changing in other ways, too. About 42% of children are born to single mothers, which partly accounts for higher instances of female breadwinners in families (they are the only earner). The divorce rate is around 50%, but only accounting for first marriages the rate is 41%, according to the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology. Half of single mother families have an annual income less than $25,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, 45% of single mothers have never married, highlighting the diminishing prevalence of marriage in the U.S.

Additional Resources

The Wall Street Journal When the Wife Has a Fetter Paycheck: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444873204577537161203859878.html?mod=e2tw

Center for American Progress The New Breadwinners: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2012/04/epd_breadwinners.html

Daily Worth The Female Financial Paradox: http://dailyworth.com/posts/1168-The-Female-Financial-Paradox

Bureau of Labor Statistics Women’s Employment, Education, and the Gender Gap: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/04/art1full.pdf

The Huffington Post Women Breadwinner: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrea-doucet/women-breadwinners_b_828285.html

Slate Magazine She Makes More Money Than He Does. So? http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/02/she_makes_more_money_than_he_does_so.html

Divorce Rate: http://www.divorcerate.org/

CNN Money Stay-at-Home Dads: http://money.cnn.com/2012/04/30/pf/stay-at-home-dad/index.htm

Dads for Life When Mom Earns More Than Dad: http://dadsforlife.sg/fatherhood101/when-mom-earns-more-than-dad

SEI Quick Poll: Female Breadwinners Twice as Likely to Feel Tension from Partner on Financial Decisions: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/sei-quick-poll-female-breadwinners-twice-as-likely-to-feel-tension-from-partner-on-financial-decisions-2012-07-09

Legal Momentum Single Motherhood in the United States (2012): http://www.legalmomentum.org/our-work/women-and-poverty/resources–publications/single-mothers-snapshot.pdf

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