The traditional family is dead, so we’ve been informed. It’s been replaced by blended families, cohabitation, single-parent families, and, if the latest scientific controversy regarding mitochondrial DNA pans out, multiple biological parents for a single child.
It’s not wrong to declare that the face of the American family is changing (even if most of the changes have been for the worse), but it may be overwrought. The only way to sing a dirge for the “traditional” family is to define it exceedingly narrowly — and even then, it’s not dead, just diminished. If you define “traditional” as a father working and mother not working outside the home, and 2.4 children (OK, kidding about the .4), then yes, only about 23 percent of families fit that model today. But if you broaden the definition a bit to include households in which one spouse, usually the husband, works full time and the other, usually the wife, works only part time in order to care for children, then you get a majority of married couples. Among parents of children younger than 6, married mothers are less likely to be working at all, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, making those families look very traditional indeed.
The mode for married parents today is supposed to be egalitarian — that is, mom and dad sharing equally in the tasks of breadwinning, housework and child care. Remember the great hubbub about the rise of so-called breadwinner moms? That was much less than it appeared, a case of media exuberance untethered to facts. They counted, for example, single moms on welfare as “breadwinners,” which is quite a stretch of the definition.
Examining married parents, Brad Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies, finds that most are following a “neo-traditional” pattern. Mothers do nearly 70 percent of the child care and housework in these households, while fathers do 65 percent of the breadwinning. Though scorned as outmoded, this pattern actually matches women’s preferences. Fifty-three percent of married mothers say that part-time work is ideal, and another 23 percent prefer to be stay-at-home moms.
Surveys consistently find that women do much more housework than men, even in cohabitating relationships. Feminists howl at the injustice of it, and economists attempt to measure and quantify it. It’s really no mystery. Men do less housework because they don’t care! Is the sink getting rust stains around the drain? Are the potatoes in the pantry sprouting green shoots? Does the TV screen have fingerprints on it? How many men would notice, and what percentage of those would care?
After my first year of marriage, I suggested that the best place to hide jewels would be in the back of the refrigerator since most thieves are men, and men can never find anything in the back of the refrigerator. Raising three sons confirms that it’s testosterone-induced blindness.
This is not to disparage the stronger sex. Married men tend to earn more money than single men — as much as 44 percent more after controlling for age, IQ, education, experience, race and number of children. Economists call it the marriage premium.
Speculation as to the provenance of this bounty includes “ability bias,” i.e., those men who are able to earn more money are better able to attract spouses; “signaling,” meaning that being married signals reliability and other valuable traits to employers; and “human capital,” i.e., being married makes men work harder, curb their tempers, and otherwise perform better at work.
I lean to the human capital explanation. Brain research has shown that, on average, women are better at understanding emotions than men. Married men have advantage over their single co-workers, in that they can consult their wives regarding interpersonal conflicts and questions. Their wives can help them to understand what’s really going on. My mother performed this function for my dad for years.
This is only part of the explanation (which is pure speculation I freely admit). By itself, this feminine psychological insight would suggest that women should earn more than men, and that isn’t the case. No, the other piece of the puzzle regarding married men and work is love and appreciation. Married men work harder because they know they are working for the welfare of those they love. Married women probably convey their gratitude to their husbands for providing the security they and the children need, and this cements a man’s place in the world.
The “marriage premium” doesn’t work for cohabitating men, nor for those who father children they don’t raise. The “piece of paper” matters. Something to consider the next time someone celebrates the decline of “traditional” marriage.
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