What the experiences of breadwinner workers tell us about work (and home)

Modern Family - Series 06

by Noelle Chesley

Have you ever noticed what is not “modern” about ABC’s celebrated sitcom Modern Family? Spoiler alert: all of the households in this TV world are headed by a breadwinner father. We get to see a gay couple raising a daughter and a second inter-ethnic marriage with children, but we can’t seem to get rid of the idea that men, and especially fathers, work to support their families while at-home parents (often mothers) do the bulk of caregiving and domestic tasks.

Breadwinning is both an economic arrangement supported through policy (think maternal leave policies) and a gendered social arrangement that pushes men into primary employment and women into primary caregiving roles. While a number of key trends undermine support for breadwinner employment—stagnant wages, increased job instability, and women’s growing educational attainment among them—2013 research by Karen Kramer and her colleagues documents that about 30% of U.S. married couple families with children maintain male-breadwinner households, and this number has held steady for the past two decades.

Social commentators have also noted growing numbers of female breadwinners. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 40% of mothers were breadwinners, up from just 3.5% in 1960.

In a time when work and family arrangements are increasingly diverse, what can the experiences of contemporary breadwinner workers tell us more generally about work, and life outside it, today?

The research makes clear that links among gender, work, and family are still present. For instance, in spite of the hype about breadwinner mothers, few married mothers are breadwinners. The PEW report that documents overall trends in female breadwinning is careful to note that only 15% of married mothers serve as the family breadwinner.

Thus, most breadwinner mothers today are single, not married. This means that while working for pay is generally accepted for most mothers, taking on a breadwinner role in the context of marriage remains culturally counter-normative for the mothers that do it.

Research that investigates the experiences of breadwinner/caregiver families highlights some of the difficulties parents who engage in gender counter-normative work/family roles face. For instance, Sarah Flood and I analyze the American Time Use Survey to compare housework and child care involvement among breadwinner mothers and fathers.  One central finding? Time availability matters in different ways for breadwinner mothers and fathers.

While we find that all breadwinner parents do less housework and child care on days they work than on days they do not, for each additional hour worked, mothers reduce time in child care less than fathers on a work day. In addition, when we compare at-home and breadwinner parents on days breadwinners aren’t working, the housework and childcare behaviors of breadwinner and at-home mothers look very similar. Yet, breadwinner fathers differ from at-home fathers by doing less housework and childcare work on non-work days.

That breadwinner mothers and fathers have such different domestic time use patterns on days their time availability is high suggests that these parents face different – and gendered – cultural pressures around housework and childcare, in spite of their similar roles as primary financial providers for their families.

Indeed, some research suggests that women find greater meaning in housework compared to men. Women also report more stress and fatigue and less happiness in parenting than fathers.  Some of my work indicates that married breadwinner mothers perceive deeper conflicts between employment and parenting than breadwinner men might feel. Breadwinner mothers also believe that they face greater social judgement around their time with their children than breadwinner fathers do.

Overall, gendered dynamics around work and parenting appear to create a different set of constraints for breadwinner mothers and fathers.

However, there are also indications that engaging in counter-normative gender roles, like breadwinner mother, can open up possibilities for weakening links among gender, work, and family.

Some of my research shows that married breadwinner mothers can start to see their role as the family provider as a kind of care, which is how breadwinner fathers are often able to reconcile their employment and family obligations. Some breadwinner mothers also start to take their work and career planning more seriously. They pay better attention to issues like compensation, and they expand their work hours and work travel in some cases. Their spouses may also do more “female” housework tasks on days breadwinner mothers work, showing that fathers can step in on the domestic side.

While the persistence of the breadwinner/caregiver model in many contemporary families tells us how difficult it still is to combine paid employment and dependent care, the possibility that we can weaken gendered scripts for daily life that comes out of research about breadwinner mothers is good news.

Sociologist Kathleen Gerson has documented that millennials, who are currently in their career and family building years, want more gender-flexible strategies. Flexibility—at work and at home—is still weighted by outdated male breadwinner/female carer cultural ideals and policies. However, individuals who engage in work and family practices that run counter to gender expectations appear to be producing some disruptions to the status-quo.

And who knows? Maybe the next big sitcom will tell more stories about the gender flexible lives of the next generation.

Now that’s a modern take on work and family life.

Noelle Chesley is associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


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