In a study called “Money, Work, and Marital Stability,” Harvard sociology professor Alexandra Killewald made an interesting discovery: “husbands’ lack of full-time employment is associated with higher risk of divorce.” Killewald — who studies how gender shapes “the mutual relationships between family circumstances and work outcomes in the United States” — glumly concludes from her research that “the husband breadwinner norm persists.”
When asked recently by Steve Calechman of fatherly.com to speculate as to why husbands not working might contribute to higher divorce rates, Killewald talked about the harmful effects of this gender expectation. “If the expectation [to work] is from him, he could become depressed, drink more, and do other unhelpful behaviors for the marriage,” Killewald said. “It’s also possible that wives expect husbands to work full-time and when they don’t, they think that’s a signal about not being a good husband,” she continued. Her final speculation (none of these scenarios were backed by any research) was that “other people around the couple could have opinions about him being out of work and that could affect the stability [of the marriage].”
What Killewald doesn’t say, of course, is that men who aren’t working might become depressed because men, as a general rule, don’t find as much inherent fulfillment in homemaking as women do. What she also didn’t say was that women, as a general rule, aren’t attracted to men who don’t exhibit professional ambition and drive, and a desire to provide for the family. I mean, if we’re just speculating, we might as well throw a little realism into the mix too, right?
Interestingly, Killewald’s research indicated that the amount of money the husband makes does not play into this statistic. “It’s about something about work itself,” Killewald explains (we can just imagine her shaking her head in mystification about what this could be).
Dr. Lisa Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas’ Austin Marriage Project, conducted a study that found that “what reduces men’s stress is feeling competent,” while this was not a factor for women. Another study, out of Oxford University, found that “a man’s happiness is tied to whether he can beat his parents’ academic achievements,” while a woman’s happiness was not. Men are happier when they are working. But women’s happiness was not as directly tied to this kind of success. This is important because, while feminists like Killewald want us to believe that these “gender norms” are harmful to society, happiness studies indicate that men and women are simply made happier by different things. Work is very important to men’s happiness, whereas women, in general, can find happiness elsewhere.
Killewald says that “we don’t consider caregiving to be a high prestige role, so there hasn’t been a social movement that has men protesting for paternity leave.” But the logic of this is so garbled as to be almost incomprehensible. If caregiving is not “high prestige” but is valuable, then shouldn’t feminists want to raise awareness of its importance and women’s achievements within its sphere? But, instead, Killewald seems to be saying that men must become caregivers in order for caregiving to mean anything to society. Is the feminist perspective that men must take over all the jobs that women do well in order to funnel “prestige” to them? How would that be a win for feminism?
Surely a more productive — and realistic — approach would be to acknowledge that most men do not inherently find happiness in homemaking. Then we could also acknowledge that men feel competent when they work outside the home, and that feeling competent makes them happy. Then we could make an assumption that personal happiness contributes to marital happiness, and that marital happiness prevents divorce. But then we’d be living in the real world, and feminists would have to ask for directions if they wanted to find us.
The truth actually seems to be that Killewald’s research suggests that a more traditional family structure — or at least one in which the man is working outside the home — leads to both partners feeling happier and more fulfilled in their marriage. Instead of trying to disrupt the “gender norms” — which, presumably, would lead to more divorce — perhaps we could just acknowledge that traditional family structures work for lots of people. Not because they’ve been indoctrinated by an oppressive patriarchy, but because that is how those people actually want to live their lives. But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? Darn.