Divorce and Reverse Traditional Families

By Jeremy Adam Smith | July 26, 2007 | 0 comments

Stop the presses: Breadwinning moms are divorcing their stay-at- home husbands!

Not really–there's absolutely no evidence that this is happening– but you wouldn't know it from a recent wave of essays, articles, and blog entries by and about moms who are disappointed with their marriages to caregiving spouses.

Two of the most recent examples: an instantly notorious blog entry by career coach Penelope Trunk on why her stay-at-home husband doesn't love her anymore and an article in the UK Daily Mail on a "househusband backlash" trend that the reporter seems to have invented.

Reports the Daily Mail: "Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt says that in her experience, the decision to allow the wife to be the main wage earner will have a detrimental effect on as many as half of these relationships, and that divorce statistics in these cases have risen by at least five percent in the past two years."

I can't attest to Ms. Lloyd-Platt's experience, but I do know that the vast majority of all marriages are troubled for the first three years after a baby is born–the Gottman Institute puts the number at 67 percent for more-or-less traditional marriages. So if only half of the reverse-traditional marriages Ms. Lloyd-Platt encounters are having problems, then they're actually doing pretty good.

But about that divorce stat she mentions–"five percent." The article doesn't compare the divorce rate of reverse-traditional families to traditional or dual-income families, so we have no idea what "five percent" means. We do know that the number of "househusbands" (as they're called) in the U.K. has risen by 83 percent since 1993. If the divorce rate for that group (and I'm impressed that someone in the UK is keeping track of it) has only risen five percent–and again, we have no idea what's happening with other family groups–then I'd say that's not too bad.

Some historical perspective: Non-traditional family forms are always entail some degree of internal and external conflict during their period of emergence–that is, until they become traditional, i.e., widespread and normal. This was, for example, the case when people left farms and extended families and moved to the big city and into small nuclear families — a period of tremendous stress and conflict, and, incidentally, high rates of divorce and abandonment. Then all of a sudden (around WWII), the nuclear family was considered ideal. Family configurations aligned with the economy, and thus a post-war culture was born. In 1957, J.M. Mogey of the University of Oxford predicted that "the divorce rate should continue to decline for some years to come."

Ha! History is cruel. That very same year, divorce rates started to once again rise, after a thirty-year decline. One in three couples married in the 1950s would ultimately divorce. Today the divorce rate stands at about 50 percent, and guess what: according to many studies, today's egalitarian marriages are the most stable. "Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework," reports psychotherapist Joshua Coleman in Unconventional Wisdom. "Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad."

Today, traditional families have their own problems–most of them will fail. And so the question isn't, Are reverse-traditional families more unstable? That's a dumb question, given the context. Instead, the question should be (to adapt a phrase from Stephanie Coontz), What can we do to help reverse-traditional families minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths?

I'm not saying that the stories of unhappy breadwinning moms aren't interesting and important, only that they are not as representative as they pretend to be. Some of these moms explicitly blame at-home daddyhood for their problems — they seem to feel that the arrangement robs their men of masculine authority and self-respect. This is true of Trunk's blog entry, in which she reports being shocked and dismayed to discover that her husband describes himself as a "stay-at-home dad" in an online professional networking profile. "Surely writing stay-at-home dad on a LinkedIn profile cannot be good," she writes, clearly ashamed of her husband.

It's a digital variation of an image that keeps recurring in these stories: the public moment when a coworker or old school friend asks the breadwinning mom what her husband does for a living, and she feels a deep sense of shame. She marks that as the moment when the marriage declined.

It's really quite horrible, when you think about it. I think there's two things going on, socially. One is that some women seem unprepared for the pressures of providing, just as some dads must struggle with the demands of caregiving. They weren't raised for these roles, they never imagined themselves doing it, and they have few role models. The second thing is that social support is extremely important — this is one of the insights that came out of a recent University of Texas study of at-home dads, and it's certainly true in my experience. If you spend all day, every day, walking uphill with the wind in your face, you get tired. Much better to have people behind you, pushing you forward.

But we have tended to focus on social situation of the at-home dad, sometimes at the expense of the breadwinning mom: they need support, community, and role models just as much, if not more. The pressures they face are enormous: all the usual breadwinning pressures, plus sexism, plus the social ambiguities of role reversal.

Despite all that, however, many moms are very happy with their roles; I've interviewed some of them for my book. Their stories also need to be told–and then maybe women like Penelope Trunk won't feel so ashamed.

* * *

A post-script: In an article posted to her old website, Kidding Ourselves (1995) author Rhona Mahony asks: "When the sexual division of labor in the home has melted away, what will divorce mean for children? No one knows for sure. In all likelihood, though, it will be less harmful to children than it is today. I suspect that the average breadwinning mother will be more emotionally attached to her children than the average breadwinning father is today, because of the lingering emotional echoes of her pregnancies and her breastfeeding, if she breastfed. Even if her primary-parent husband catches up with and surpasses her in emotional attachment, she is starting from a higher base than the average father today. Concretely, that means that fewer, absent breadwinning parents will fail to visit, fail to send money, and go AWOL completely. More of them will be mothers. Remember, too, that improvements in child support assurance, and in other programs, will probably be necessary to attract millions of men into primary parenting. Those improvements will also cushion the effects of divorce for children whose fathers are breadwinners, too."

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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