Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

When mom earns more, it's tough on dad

By Peggy Drexler, Special to CNN
June 3, 2013 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
A stay-at-home dad helps his daughter. A study finds that more mothers are the chief breadwinners in their families.
A stay-at-home dad helps his daughter. A study finds that more mothers are the chief breadwinners in their families.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Pew study finds that in one in four families, mothers make more than fathers
  • Peggy Drexler: Men say they support equality, but are struggling with this new reality
  • She says husbands feeling low self-esteem must talk it over with spouse to find real reasons
  • Drexler: It's important if a man is not working or is earning less, he is still an equal partner

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- A new study by Pew Research Center finds that, more and more, married mothers are earning more than their husbands -- about 23%, up from 4% in 1960. That's nearly one in four families. And although men say they support equality, they are struggling with this new reality.

Take Mina and Rich. They had been married for five years when Mina was appointed dean of admissions at an elite liberal arts college across the country. The couple decided that Rich, a busy attorney in private practice, would take some time off to stay home with their two children, who were 1 and 3, until they decided whether the new town, and her new job, would be a long-term fit.

The new arrangement worked out well, at least at the start. But a few months into her new job, Mina wondered if Rich was really as happy as he insisted he was. She wondered the same about herself.

Although Rich was home all day, he still often expected Mina to cook dinner. Laundry piled up. He hadn't made an effort to make friends or form any connections outside the house. "I began to worry about our marriage for the first time ever," Mina told me. "As if I'd forced some change on him. He'd become a different person."

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

Although most men say they support -- even welcome -- the idea of a dual income household and equality in marriage, evidence shows that men whose wives earn more may actually be suffering on a number of levels. And that although the social pressure that once discouraged women from working outside the home has given way, the pressure on husbands to be the primary earner remains.

Samantha and Andrei were both struggling artists when they met. But when they decided to start a family, at least one of them needed a full-time job. They decided it would be Samantha, who had sidelined in real estate for a few months after college. Turns out, she was very good at selling houses.

Although Samantha's job afforded Andrei the ability to continue with his art, he seemed to grow more discontent by the week. He began to see a therapist, who suggested that he try antidepressants.

"I kept having to tell myself that not having to go out and sell houses was a good thing," he told me. "It sounds horrible, in fact. I was not jealous of her at all. And yet, she was the reason we could afford to pay our mortgage, or go on vacation. She was the one who made life possible for our daughter. And that was hard to accept, even when I could recognize I was thankful I didn't have to make the sacrifices she was making."

Moms increasingly becoming breadwinners
Women who are breadwinners face hurdles
Moms increasingly becoming breadwinners

Andrei's feelings are entirely common. In "Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry," Randi Minetor writes that many unemployed or under-earning men feel wounded by what they see as their diminished status. Their self-esteem can suffer. This can eventually lead to feelings of resentment toward their spouse — sometimes conscious, but often unconscious — even if a guy has purposely opted to stay home, take time off, or willingly embark on a less fruitful career.

A recent study of more than 200,000 men conducted by Washington University's Olin Business School and published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that men whose wives are the primary earner are about 10% more likely to require medication to combat such issues as insomnia, anxiety and erectile dysfunction.

Research conducted at Cornell and presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, meanwhile, found that men who earn significantly less than their female partners are five times more likely to cheat than those in relationships where incomes are more comparable.

But the answer, of course, isn't for women to revert to their traditional roles of cooking, cleaning and tending to the children while the man of the house is off bringing home the bacon. As more and more women rise to powerful positions in the workplace, the incidence of female breadwinners will continue to grow.

Husbands of these wives who may be experiencing feelings of depression and low self-esteem would be wise to have an honest conversation with their spouse, and themselves, to find out what's really bothering them. Oftentimes, it may not be the fact that their spouse earns more, but that their spouse may have less time to spend at home, or may be neglecting other areas of the relationship.

For those men who are considering following a less career-oriented path, it's important for the couple to make a decision together. Neither member of the couple should feel as if they were forced into a decision, or "trapped."

Keeping dialogue open between partners helps reinforce the fact that although the man is not working, or is earning less, he is still an equal partner. In the case of stay-at-home fathers, it's important for men to counter any issues of isolation and boredom by making sure they maintain friendships and interests outside the house.

Eventually, through hours and hours of conversations with Mina and many ups and downs at home, Rich came to not only accept his role as stay-at-home dad, and the lesser earner, but also to enjoy the opportunities it afforded him.

He was able to coach their son's soccer team, and he never missed a ballet recital. Once the kids began school, he reopened his private law practice part-time, taking only those cases that truly interested him. "I'd been worried he was becoming a different person, and he did become one," Mina told me. "But turns out different was better. At least for us."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT