June 5, 2013

Breadwinner Moms: It’s Complicated

(Photo Credit: Aiminglow.com)

(Photo Credit: Aiminglow.com)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

The Pew Research Center released a study last week on “Breadwinner Moms,” which found 40% of American households with children under 18 “include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.” Some of the responses to this study have been a bit simplistic in their assumption that American women are usurping the “dominant” place of men, trampling over their husbands and children as they clamber up the corporate ladder.

At the same time, others present this news as a monumental gain for women’s equality and downplay the fact that 63% of “breadwinning” mothers are single and have a median annual income of $23,000. Most people (65%) still agree the rising number of single mothers presents a challenge for society, and it is a tragedy for children to grow up without their fathers.

But these reactions miss complexities about the real lives that make up the statistics. I wonder how many married mothers want to be working away from their children. For how many is it just what makes sense for their families? It’s not always a straightforward matter of choice which spouse can make more money, and for many families, one income simply is not enough.

Education and work experience dramatically limit our options, especially in an economy where a college degree earns significantly more than a high school diploma. For example, a woman who is a pharmacist will earn significantly more than her husband who is a family counselor. Such an example may sound atypical, but it happens, and there is little room to change careers in such situations.

Further, the study does not present a breakdown of mothers who work according to the age or number of children, but simply reports the findings for “households with children under 18.” The average American family has two children, these two children are likely to be close in age, and they are overwhelmingly likely to enter school full time around age six. What is a mother to do at this point? (As an aside, there are many good arguments to be made for having larger families and homeschooling, but these are not the reality for most American families right now).

All mothers inevitably come to a point when their children don’t require constant nurturing and care and there is a big difference between a two year old and a twelve year old. The Pew study simply reports that 37% of married mothers with children under 18 earn more than their husbands. In reality, we simply don’t know the stories behind the statistics.

I am not saying these findings do not indicate legitimate problems in American families. They certainly do and there is room to critique the rise of single motherhood, mothers of young children working away from home, or even the matter of wives earning more than their husbands.

But to make sweeping statements about the demise of American men and the obliteration of gender norms is unhelpful and misses the complexities of the situation. According to the study, most Americans agree mothers working outside the home makes it more difficult to raise children, despite making it easier for families to live comfortably.

It seems the practical realities and assumptions of modern middle class American life, such as sending children to college, maintaining multiple cars, taking annual family vacations, etc. are quite expensive. And often even without luxuries, for many families, one income simply doesn’t cut it. Perhaps the Christian response, instead of chastising the world for blurring distinctions between men and women, should be to examine and critique more holistically the cultural and economic shifts that have led to this new family structure.

One contributing factor is that our our culture redefined marriage long ago regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling this month. Many (if not most) Americans would readily agree that marriage is not primarily about raising children, but is rather an intimate emotional bond between two adults. In this view, marriage is two individuals seeking happiness and companionship through their relationship.

We don’t think of the family as the basic unit of society. We are individualists living in a culture that values careers, busyness, and measures our self-worth by those things. So when two people marry and have children, it is little wonder the question is “how can I have it all?”

Second, the modern home is a place of consumption; a pit stop along the journey through the outside working world where significance is found. We have enough money and technology to significantly lighten the burden of homemaking, which is good in many ways, but renders the domestic sphere a different place than it once was. “Homemaking” no longer demands sewing clothes, kneading bread, churning butter, and scouring floors. The carpets only need to be vacuumed so many times a week. To be sure, keeping a home today requires significant time and effort, but it’s not the back-breaking, productive, and purposeful work it was throughout most of history.

There are innumerable factors contributing to this trend, and ultimately, Christian mothers and fathers must place their family at the center of their lives. And at the end of the day, self-sacrificial love for one’s family does not leave room for an all-consuming competition up the career ladder for either mothers or fathers.

4 Responses to Breadwinner Moms: It’s Complicated

  1. […] “Breadwinner Moms: It’s Complicated,” Juicy Ecumenism […]

  2. […] “Breadwinner Moms: It’s Complicated,” Juicy Ecumenism […]

  3. […] This article first appeared on the Institute on Research and Democracy’s blog and is used with permission. […]

  4. […] mothers: The rest of the story.. The majority—two-thirds—are single mothers; Breadwinner Moms: It’s Complicated … (lifesite, […]

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