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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT