Archive for the ‘Reverse Traditional Families’ Category

Magazine musings

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

This week, the new issue of Parenting magazine showed up at our door, addressed to my husband.  Our best guess is that the subscription is a gift from T’s parents, replacing the Money magazine that they’ve given us for several years.  T’s reaction is somewhat mixed.  On the one hand, as RebelDad has been complaining for ages, Parenting clearly doesn’t see fathers as a real part of their audience — the subtitle is "what really matters to moms".  On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to have his parents acknowledge that parenting is the biggest piece of what he’s doing with his life right now, and he takes it seriously.

The funny thing is that I think I’m going to continue the Money subscription. The first year we got it, it helped me catch a major mistake in our taxes that would have cost us several thousand dollars. It hasn’t saved us anything like that since, but it’s generally interesting and reminds me to think about things that I’d otherwise avoid.

Money is also consistently progressive on family issues.  The current issue includes an article on how a same-sex couple can best protect each other and their young daughter, given that Maryland doesn’t recognize their civil union.  In the February issue, a feature on Fix Our Mix helped one of the featured families "save enough so that Mom or Dad can stay home with the kids."  (I see that I pointed out a similar article last year.) In an article on spouses who travel separately, the authors acknowleged that "very few couples earn equal paychecks" and went on to say:

"Frankly, that shouldn’t matter. If one spouse is the sole or majority earner, does that mean he or she should be able to dine on steak and caviar with the gang while the other orders takeout with a friend? Of course not."

What I’m most impressed about is the matter of fact tone in which these issues are discussed.

I also wanted to point out Business Week’s new Working Parents blog, which I also found via RebelDad.  They’re still getting their blogging legs, and the posts are somewhat uneven, but I’m encouraged that they’re giving it a try.  The most recent post is about one of the writers’ battles with their insurance company over her son’s medical bills.  One thing that I hadn’t thought about until I read it was that one of the advantages of employer-based health insurance is that it offers some means of leverage in claims disputes. 

On that note, I do want to point out that Annika’s donations page is now up and running.  It’s through the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA), which makes contributions tax-deductible, and assures that they’ll be spent on medical expenses. (See this post for background.) 

Bringing Home the Bacon

Tuesday, February 21st, 2006

Today’s book is Bringing Home the Bacon: Making Marriage Work When She Makes More Money, by Harriet Pappenheim and Ginny Graves.  It was on display at Powells when I visited over Thanksgiving, and the cover literally made me swivel my head as I walked by.  As soon as I got home, I hunted down the book and requested it from the library.

I’ve been taking an excellent free course at Barnes and Noble online on Thinking Like An Editor and it’s helped me understand why this book was appealing to an editor.  Improving your marriage is one of the perennial hot-selling book topics, and this book is aimed at a clearly defined and large group of women (1/3 of married women earn more than their husbands) that hasn’t been addressed before.  The authors’ credentials are impressive — a therapist and a journalist.  On the book jacket, they promise to address such important questions as "why working women still do more housework than their husbands — even when their husbands stay home" and "how couples can navigate financial decisionmaking when the breadwinner’s reins rest firmly in the wife’s hands."  They promise to answer them based on Pappenheim’s professional experience and interviews with 100 couples.

Unfortunately, all this didn’t actual make for a very good book.  As it turns out, 100 interviews is a challenging number to write a book about.  It’s not enough to say anything statistically valid about overall trends, but too many for individuals to stand out from the mass.  All the Susans and Bills and Daves blurred together, so you never got a clear picture of any one couple across the topics covered in each chapter (sex, money, housework, etc.)  Pappenheim and Graves never really answered the gripping questions that they posed.   And the advice they offer is so generic as to be useless.  (Their top recommendation for how to make marriage work when she earns more is "Make mutual respect priority Number one."  As opposed to every other marriage, where mutual respect isn’t important?)

Overall, I think the problem is that they discovered that marriages where the women earn more than their husbands don’t necessarily have that much in common.   As I could have told them, a lot depends on whether it’s voluntarily chosen.  In other words, is the husband a SAHD, a low-earning artist, or umemployed?  Some of the generalizations they reached for totally missed the mark for me (fatigue and lack of time may interfere with our sex life, but not lack of respect), while others seemed right on target:

"Women’s hunger for options, for leeway, for relief from the relentless grind, were recurrent themes in our interviews.  Perhaps when women pine for a male provider, what they’re really craving is greater latitude in a life that’s come to feel too restrictive. What’s clear is that when a career becomes just another kind of trap, limiting our options, dictating the course of our lives, many of us become disenchanted and start trying to find a way out… It’s possible (maybe even probable) that male breadwinners feel the same way about being trapped in the daily grind, but unless they are very wealthy, it never occurs to the majority of them that they have an option to stop working… They certainly don’t seriously feel that they are entitled to be taken care of by their wives.  But many women, consciously or unconsciously, feel entitled to being taken care of by their men."

Do only rich families have at-home parents?

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

RebelDad asked today if anyone could find the Census data that journalists are using to say that there were 147,000 SAHDs in 2004, up from 98,000 in 2003.  Of course, I took that as a challenge, and dug it up.    It’s this table, cell I7.

However, the part of this table that caught my attention was rows 27-38, which have income data for different types of married couple families with children under 15.  This is the first hard data I’ve seen on the subject.  I have seen lots of conjectures, including Stephanie Coontz’s statement (in Marriage) that the only two segments of the population in which male breadwinner families predominate are the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution and the top 5 percent, and Nathan Newman’s provocative suggestion that SAHMs are "luxury goods."

So what do the data say? First, that married two-parent families are overall fairly well off — over 40% have incomes over $75,000 a year, and only 7.3% are poor.  Second, at the level of detail the Census provides, such families with SAHMs are generally worse off have lower cash incomes than average — only about 31% have incomes over $75,000, and 12.2% are poor.

The income categories most likely to have a SAHM are those with annual family incomes between $10,000 and $25,000.  The women in these households are likely to have low potential earnings, and between child care costs and the phaseout of some tax breaks, it probably doesn’t pay very much for them to work.  I would also guess that many of them are from cultures that highly value at-home mothering.  At the other end of the spectrum, married couple families with incomes over $100,000 are slightly more likely than those with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 to have a SAHM.

Turning to the families with SAHDs, I was surprised to see that they were generally worse off had lower cash incomes than families with SAHMs.  Less than 22% have family incomes above $75,000, and 15.6% were poor.  This presumably reflects the overall lower earnings of women compared to men. But I would have guessed that the influence of selection would have pushed the average family incomes up.

Revised 10-20-2005 to reflect Parke’s suggestion.

Preschool, etc.

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

Today was D’s first day of preschool for the year.  He’s going to the same school as for the past two years, with mostly the same group of kids, so it was pretty much a non-event for him.  I went in late so I could help take him to school, but 5 minutes after we got there, the teachers were lining them up to head out to the playground and he was off without a backward glance.  I was misty-eyed anyway, looking at the little kids in the two-year-old class, and being boggled at how big D is compared to them, and trying to wrap my head around the idea that he’ll be in kindergarden next year.

Suzanne at Mother in Chief wrote an post last week about the pressure she’s feeling to send her daughter to preschool, as most of her playgroup friends are going.  I’m sure her daughter will be fine either way.  We freely admit that preschool is as much about giving T a bit of a break from D’s constant desire to be entertained as it is because we think it’s useful for D.

Preschool has also helped T break into the social world of SAHMs and their children, which really wasn’t happening before.  They were happy to have their kids play with D at the playground, but no one was inviting them to playdates.  I think women are just very reluctant to invite a "strange" man into their house, or to accept an invitation from one.  And T was more focused on playing with D than with schmoozing up the moms, which made the social connections even harder.  Since D started preschool, he’s invited to many more parties and playdates.

Men and “having it all”

Monday, August 8th, 2005

I wanted to highlight something that Chip wrote in his comment on yesterday’s post: "I think part of parenting is making hard choices, realizing you can’t have it all."   This remark would have been commonplace if he had said "part of mothering," but it’s still surprisingly rare for anyone to say it about being a father as well.

Even people who should really know better fall into the trap of assuming that men can and do have it all.  In the introduction to The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild writes about envying the "smooth choicelessness" of men with stay-at-home wives, who were able to work undistracted by child care responsibilities or guilt.  In Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Sylvia Ann Hewlett says that she heard from professional men who spoke of their distress at having essentially missed their kids’ childhood for work, but then blithely dismisses their pain with "well, at least they procreated and can get to know their grandchildren."

Even I fell into this trap.  I used to sit on the metro, and mutter to myself that I bet there wasn’t a single working father with a stay-at-home wife caring for their children who was beating himself up for working a whole 40 hours a week.  And then I realized that if that was true, it was their loss. 

If fathers think they can "have it all", it’s only because they’ve accepted a limited definition of what that "all" could be, that doesn’t include even the possibility of the intense relationship that women are taught to expect as their birthright as mothers.  If that’s the price, I’ll pass on "smooth choicelessness." 

Your mommy hates housework and your daddy hates housework

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

Last week, Cynical Mom wrote about a conversation she once had with the wife of a SAHD.  In response to a comment about how cool their arrangement was, the wife responded:

"Yeah well it’s great, except when I get home the house is still a mess. What is he doing all day that he can’t clean up a little?"

She’s right that the "what is he doing all day" line is pretty disrespectful of at-home parents and the work that’s involved in keeping everyone alive and sane.  At the same time, I commented that housekeeping standards are probably the single biggest subject of controversy on the email list that I’m on for working wives of SAHDs.

There’s a fair amount of resentment about (some) SAHDs who don’t clean and feel like their day is over when the mom comes home, so that she comes home from a day at work and is immediately juggling needy kids and trying to get dinner made, the house cleaned, etc. We realize that they need a break after a day of at-home (or on the run) parenting, but when’s our break?

Via RebelDad, I read these interviews with Full Time Father Mike Paranzino, who’s quoted as saying: "I signed on to do the kids — not to do the house."   Ok, that’s one thing if you’ve got the money to afford a housecleaner (and many upper-income families do hire housecleaners whether or not they have a stay-at-home parent — of either gender).  And I have no problem with lowering your standards as long as the Department of Health doesn’t need to get involved.  But, in most families, someone’s got to do the chores that keep the family running. 

On his blog, Paranzino writes: "Bottom line: our focus should be on our children, not the dust under our beds."  I agree with that totally.  But food to eat, clean dishes to eat it on, and clean clothes don’t come out of thin air.  The difference between being a parent and being a nanny is that you don’t get to say "that’s not in my job description."

I don’t think the reason housework is such a sore topic among reverse traditional families is that all SAHDs are slugs or slobs — that’s far from the truth.  I think it’s a subject of controversy because two basic cultural assumptions — that housework is the responsibility of the SAH parent, and that housework is the women’s responsibility — conflict.  So there’s no default position about who does what, and everything is up for negotiation.

And no, I’m not writing this because I’m trying to get my husband to do more.  Our house is actually cleaner than it’s been for months.  After the maggot incident, I think both of us realized that we needed to make more of an effort than we had been.  And, having put a lot of energy into cleaning, we’re both more motivated to maintain it rather than have that work be wasted.

Oh, and guess what?  D loves to vacuum with the little dustbuster.  I knew there was a reason we had kids.

Conference on 21st century motherhood

Monday, May 2nd, 2005

The owner of the MAWDAH email list (moms at work/dads at home) received an announcement about an academic conference this fall on "21st century motherhood: change."

They’re looking for papers to be presented for panels on:

  • Economics
  • Work/Family Balance
  • Class/Race/Globalization
  • Biology/Fertility Technologies
  • Emergent/Innovative Forms of Motherhood

Abstracts due by May 15.

I’m tempted to try to pull something together on the MAWDAH arrangement, what I call Reverse Traditional Families.

I’m not an academic, so I’m not quite sure what goes into an abstract for a paper you haven’t yet written.  If any readers have advice, I’d appreciate it.  And, perhaps more importantly, am I crazy for thinking that this kind of conference might be fun?  I’d have to pay my own way/use vacation time to attend.

Another perspective on the primary caretaker standard

Thursday, March 10th, 2005

Ampersand at Alas, A Blog, writes approvingly today about a "primary caretaker" standard for child custody, instead of the nebulous "best interests of the child" standard that is currently used.  As he explains: "The idea is that in child custody cases in which one parent clearly was the child’s primary caretaker (measured by such things as who made doctor appointments for the kid, who took the kid clothes-shopping, who drove the kid to soccer practice, etc), that parent should have a presumption of custody."

There are clearly problems with the "best interests" standard, at least as currently implemented.  Ampersand’s post is inspired by an article by Jack Stratton, which is mostly about why abusive fathers should never have custody of their children, even if the abuse was directed at the mom rather than the kids.  Stratton argues that the presumption in the courts this days is so strongly in favor of joint custody and visitation rights that men convicted of assaulting, or even murdering, their wives are generally allowed visits with their children. 

But I also have some concerns about the "primary caretaker" standard.   If there was a well-established standard that the primary caretaker would always get custody, I think it might discourage women from negotiating for a more even share of parenting duties.  I could see mothers feeling that they had to make sure they did at least 60 or 70 percent of the caregiving, just in case.  (I say 60 or 70 percent since it seems that men generally get more credit for the parenting that they do, because society’s expectations are so low.)

A more extreme case is that of reverse traditional families.  I’m on an email list of women who are the wage earners in families where their husbands are the primary caretakers.  The topic of how this arrangement would be viewed by the courts in the case of a custody dispute has come up more than once. 

It’s a matter of great fear for some members that if they were divorced they’d lose custody.  They would have loved to have been able to be the at-home parent, but their husbands didn’t have careers that made that possible.  If the primary caretaker standard was well-established, some of these women might opt to put the kids in daycare, pushing their husbands to get any job, rather than jeopardize future custody.  And this is among the already small population that is currently willing to consider reverse traditional arrangements.

The bottom line is that I don’t think we’re ever going to come up with a nice clean rule that makes sense in all cases.  Families are just too complicated and messy.  There are always going to be exceptions.  While I know judges don’t always make the best decisions, I don’t think we’re really going to improve matters much by trying to replace nebulous standards and human judgement with simple rules.

(For the record, absent a psychotic break or something, I think my husband, who is the primary caregiver, would deserve primary custody if we divorced.  Kain ein horeh.)

80 hour work weeks

Saturday, February 5th, 2005

Fred at Stone Court points out a post by Richard Posner about Larry Summers’ comments about women in the sciences.

The sentence of Posner’s that Fred objects to is "Women who want to have children, as most do, must expect to devote more time to child care that men do."

Fred correctly points out that except for pregnancy itself and breastfeeding, there is nothing a woman can do that a man can’t.  Posner has taken an unwarranted leap from the division of labor in the world as it is to talking about the way things "must" be.

Reverse-traditional families — those where the wife is the primary bread earner and the husband is the primary caretaker — exemplify Fred’s point.  My husband can change a diaper, read a story, and care for a sick child as well as I can, and there are some things that he can clearly do better than me (making up songs on the fly is one of his special talents).

And yet… 

I spend the vast majority of my non-work hours with my children (squeezing in blogging and domestic chores in the few hours between when they go to bed and when I crash myself).  I work pretty much a standard 9-5:30 schedule, and at this point in my life, am generally not interested in jobs that would require 60 or 80 hour weeks on a regular basis.  And this is true of all but two or three of the other women I know (online and in person) in reverse traditional families.

Joan Williams argued in a Washington Post op-ed a while back that this is part of a general trend.  When mothers stay home, their husbands typically work longer hours and are less involved with childrearing.  (The causality in this statement is unclear — you could argue with equal plausiblity that women with spouses who work crazy hours are more likely to feel that their children need an at-home parent, that sole earners need to work more hours in order to maintain a standard of living, or that traditional families believe that child care is a woman’s responsiblity.)

However, Williams claims that:

"employed mothers typically are less willing to consign all child care to the stay-at-home spouse. So children in families with stay-at-home fathers may well receive more parental attention than children in households with stay-at-home mothers."

So, while it’s certainly true that mothers can delegate enough childrearing responsibilities to spouses, other family members, or paid help in order to free up 80 hours a week for work, it’s also clearly true that there are very few mothers who are willing to do so.  We could debate from here until the next century whether the reasons that women and men make different choices in this regard — on average — is biological or cultural and still not come to a resolution, but I honestly don’t think it matters. 

I do think parents who work these kinds of hours — both men and women — are missing out on something. What they achieve instead may or may not be worth it; I’ll always support the right of both women and men to make that choice for themselves.  (FYI, for a fictional look at this issue, the protagonist of Life, which I discussed here, is a research scientist with a SAHD spouse; she works very long hours, and her family life suffers, but she makes a major discovery.)

An important empirical question for this discussion is whether the choice between professional achievement and having a life is inherent in the nature of some kinds of work, or is primarily a result of the way we as a society have structured these jobs.  There’s been some great discussion of these issues over at GeekyMom and Mother in Chief; I’m not sure I have much to add.  There are almost certainly cases of both — I don’t think you could be White House Chief of Staff and not expect to spend 100 hours a week working, but I don’t see why on a case where there’s already 30 different people working on it, you can’t sometimes have two lawyers working 40 hours each instead of one working 80.

TBR: Books for SAHDs

Tuesday, October 26th, 2004

For today’s book review, I’m looking at two guides for stay-at-home dads. One is The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook, a new book by Peter Baylies, the founder of the At-Home Dad Network; the other is Stay-at-Home Dads: The Essential Guide to Creating a New Family by Libby Gill, which came out a few years ago.

Although the two books cover similar overall territory (making connections with other at-home parents, housekeeping, suriving on one income), there’s an interesting difference between their tones. Gill is somewhat breathless about the trend of at-home fathers, writing things like: "But they’re also pioneers, exploring the frontiers of a family option that’s always been there but is now catching on like wildfire." Her book is aimed at both at-home-dads and their wives, and focuses a lot on the decision to have a father as a full-time parent. Baylies is much more matter of fact about whole thing; he assumes that his readers have already decided to be stay-at-home dads, and simply offers advice to make the journey smoother. Gill argues that most families with an at-home parent make that choice because they think they can do a better job than a paid child care provider; Baylies assumes that they do it because it’s rewarding, even fun.

The most useful part of Gill’s book was the lists of questions for husbands and wives to discuss. In addition to being married to an at-home-dad, she’s a career coach, and it shows. She does a good job of identifying some of the hidden minefields that can show up for what she calls "SAHD/WM" families (the "WM" is for "working mother") and I like to call "reverse traditional" families, especially with regard to money issues, but also about differences in parenting styles.

My favorite part of Baylies’ book is the multitude of real at-home-dads whose story and advice he shares. Whereas Gill’s examples always seem to be made-up composites, Baylies’ book feels like he’s invited you over for lunch with some friends, and everyone’s chatting about their experiences. A good bit of the advice that he offers could just as easily go in a book for stay-at-home mothers — but how many fathers would feel comfortable reading it? My one quibble is that many of his examples seem more suited to parents of older children than those caring for infants and toddlers.

Both books go through a standard calculation arguing how the second income often gets so consumed by taxes, child care, and other related expenses that it hardly increases the resources available to the family. I always find these short-sighted, in that they only look at a point in time, not at the impacts on future earning potential, retirement benefits, etc.

One interesting aspect of the discussion of how to save money in the Baylies book is the inclusion of the money that can be saved by doing major home maintenance, repairs, and improvement yourself. This reminded me of a point that Jennifer made to me after reading The Two-Income Trap. She wrote:

"I was very struck while reading this book about how changes in the economy make a guy’s work around the house more important than ever. When you’re sending half your income to the mortgage, suddenly keeping those gutters cleared and recaulking the tub becomes a big deal. The average American family now keeps two cars instead of one, and we keep them longer than ever before: now the husband who can tinker on the car is a very valuable asset. But when he doesn’t get dinner on the table? No big deal because eating out is almost as cheap as eating at home, and overall a small part of the budget anyway. Can’t mend those torn jeans? Just go get another pair at Old Navy. And when’s the last time anyone’s work clothes got ironed anyway?

Put it all together and the one remaining big cost that is associated with
traditional mom’s work is child care. So I’m thinking my husband — who’s
great with kids, who does his own wiring/plastering/carpentry on our house,
who can fix the family car — is an economic juggernaut!!! "