Over at the Guardian, I’m writing about the new stat that 40% of breadwinners in American families are women. With women making up half the workforce, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re an increasing proportion of primary earners. But the 40% stat doesn’t tell the whole story. For starters, the majority of that 40% are single moms — the breadwinners in their families, yes, but not because they’re married to men who make less. Those women make an average of $23,000 per year. The third of breadwinner women who are married to men are significantly wealthier, with a combined family income averaging $80,000. And when you look at divorce and marital satisfaction stats, the happiest couples are those who both work, but where the husband makes more money. Stay-at-home moms have higher rates of depression and marital dissatisfaction, and unhappiness comes in again at the end of the spectrum where a wife out-earns her husband. A strong majority of Americans also believe that the best situation for a child is with a mom who stays home (only 8 percent believe the same about a kid with a dad who stays home). These problems are complex, but traditional ideas about gender play a strong role, and those ideas shape the social policies that leave working parents between a rock and a hard place. Our particularly American gender traditionalism coupled with our idealization of individualism-as-freedom (without recognition that such individualism has generally been a male pursuit, enabled entirely by an unpaid female at-home support system) creates major cultural disincentives to implementing the kids of policies that could actually help families. The full piece is here, and a section is below:
Crucial to the American identity are the values of freedom, individualism and choice. We all want to feel like the lives we lead were built largely by our own hand, and that we select our own paths to happiness. That mythology, though, starts to strain when you add dependent human beings to the mix. Men have long had the privilege of marrying someone who would simply take care of all the at-home work, allowing them to pursue their jobs without much worry about the rest of their lives. But women, traditionally tasked with primary responsibility for children and home, simply haven’t had the nearly universal ability to put that burden on a partner while they seek out professional satisfaction and success.
Women haven’t exactly written the history of America, and so our nation’s strand of hardcore individualism means that we justify constrained decisions as our “choice”. The personal choice narrative results in a general apathy toward pushes for institutional change, and a lack of the political will necessary to institute the kinds of policies that would give working parents real choices.
Without policies that have caught up to profound social changes, families are largely on their own to navigate these new gender and economic waters. More often than not, a retreat to traditional roles is the path of least resistance.
The United States desperately needs basic changes to make it possible for families to survive in a modern economy. Paid federal (government) maternity leave is the international norm, but the US is one of three countries, along with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, that has no such thing. High-quality federally-subsidized daycare exists across western Europe; in the United States, wealthy families have access to excellent childcare, while middle- and low-income families either rely on one stay-at-home parent or gamble on a provider within a largely unregulated daycare system where providers range from excellent to abysmal.
We also simply need to work less. I’m sure, to more conservative readers, that sounds like liberal laziness, but Americans work more than people in any other industrialized nation. We have no federally mandated vacation, and we take fewer holidays than workers in other developed nations. One in four Americans gets no paid vacation at all.
We also work longer hours every day, leaving less time for basic life tasks like taking care of the kids, preparing and enjoying family meals, cleaning up, or even having a little leisure and play-time. It’s much easier to balance work and life when you have more than one or two waking hours a day for the “life” part. And it’s easier to share childcare and housekeeping responsibilities when both partners are home and awake for several hours in the morning and evening.
This is not just touchy-feely feminist social policy. With women now making up close to half the workforce, a system that burns out its workers before pushing out large proportions of them is not sustainable. It means not only fewer workers and the attendant fewer idea-makers and innovators, but many more workers who are ground-down and exhausted. Those workers have more physical and mental health complications, and so do their kids – all at great cost.