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?