The Pew Research Center recently released a report on the shifting economic characteristics of marriage in the United States. As women receive more education and make strides in the job market, the dynamics of the institution of marriage have changed, leading to fewer marriages, and more couples in which the wife supports the husband, or both spouses mutually contribute to the household income.
This shift has also resulted in a transformation of gender roles in the family. A greater number of husbands, historically the breadwinners, leave the workforce for the home. Since the mother is working, the father must take on greater domestic responsibilities.
There are several positive effects of this change. Fathers now take on greater responsibility for their children and housework. Parenting, and the marriage itself, is popularly accepted as a partnership rather than a hierarchy. This shift is correlated with intellectual equality between and compatibility of spouses. On the other hand, however, it must be acknowledged that it has led to difficulties in establishing the roles of each partner. As pointed out in a New York Times article on the Pew results,
“With women taking on more earning and men taking on more caring, there’s a lot of shifting and juggling,” said Andrea Doucet, a sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her study, the Bread and Roses Project, tracks couples in the United States and Canada in which women are the primary breadwinners. But the dynamic is “not as easy as you’d think it would be,” she said. “You can’t just reverse the genders.”
Families adjust the traditional norms that guided past generations. The article notes that many couples find it difficult to relegate their traditional role to the spouse of opposite sex. This can lead to stress in the relationship, and some evidence suggests that it has a negative effect on the husband’s health.
While this shift works for some couples, gender role reversal is not going to solve the problems of marital inequality or disunity for the larger population. Rather, we would do well to emphasize the power and value of the institution of marriage, in which husband and wife work together in the building and maintenance of a family and a household.