How to improve men’s health? Cast off role of ‘breadwinner’

Maybe we’ve finally got a way for more men to get on board with the idea of pay equity for women: the health implications for men.

The Atlantic reports today on research from the University of Connecticut which appears to show the deterioration of men’s health by assuming the traditional — outmoded, now — role of breadwinner.

The researchers found that as men’s income increased in comparison with their spouses, their psychological well-being and health declined. The men’s mental and physical health (measured by self-assessment) were at their worst during years when they were their family’s sole breadwinner, according to The Atlantic.

As their wives took on more of the economic burden in the household, men’s health improved, the researchers said.

This would appear to blow holes in the notion that if men aren’t the “breadwinners”, they are emasculated.

“I’m very familiar with the emasculation literature. I was really surprised to find this other relationship,” Christin Munsch, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, said.

The gender expectations are from a different era now, she tells The Atlantic. Men now see “breadwinning” as an obligation; women see it as an opportunity.

“There are women who want to stay home with kids, and there are men who want to be breadwinners,” Munsch said. “But if we can take the gender component out of this—and just ask our partners what everyone wants to bring to the table here versus what we’re expected to bring to the table— I think everyone is going to be better off.”

Guardian columnist Dave Schilling puts it less delicately.

“Guys, if you truly hate working and cannot stand the ascetic drudgery of ambition, then I say this to you: quit. Get out of the way. Let a competent, motivated woman do your job. You’re taking up space and sucking wind that would be better served going to an enthusiastic person, no matter their gender identity,” he writes today.

  • John O.

    Two words: Golden. Handcuffs.

  • Keith P.

    And nowadays to improve our health we should be kalewinners instead.

  • kat

    Take gender and “societal expectations” out of it and all is well- that applies to pretty much everything. Is anyone happier when they do what society thinks they are supposed to do instead of what works for them? As the female and only person employed outside the home in my family, I get tired of these gender role analyses- just do what works people

    • You may be tired of it but the culture doesn’t change without analyzing how we are enslaved by the culture.

      It’s not particularly easy breaking the roles the culture has assigned because of our gender. “Just do it” is a little simplistic because how we feel about “violating” those roles is ingrained in our own analysis of our role.

      • Frankie Heck

        Bucking the system takes a high level of self-actualization and confidence. Some make it there, but enough to solve the problem – maybe with time.

  • Kassie

    So are women who are the primary wage earners (I hate the term “breadwinner”) also experiencing detrimental health effects? Does this really have anything to do with gender? I hypothesize it has to do with the stress of supporting a family and you would see similar health outcomes with single parents and women who are the primary wage earners in their families.

  • PaulJ

    What are the health implications for women? Sounds like throwing the wife under the (commuter) bus.

    • kat

      Agree- the burden of financially providing for a family is real. I suggest shared responsibility and equal partnership along with community support as the main solutions.

    • Not according to the researcher:

      “Whereas men’s psychological well-being and health tend to increase as their wives take on more economic responsibility, women’s psychological well-being also improves as they take on more economic responsibility.”

      • kat

        In the Atlantic article they simply state that women “choose” to work while men felt an obligation to make more money. What about when circumstance creates an obligation for women? I would suspect the obligation vs choice is more of a factor than simple gender roles

  • Al

    “The gender expectations are from a different era now, she tells The Atlantic. Men now see “breadwinning” as an obligation; women see it as an opportunity.”

    Meanwhile, the rest of us see it as “bringing home more money for the household means the entire household has more money.”

    • Wait…there are men…there are women and there are “the rest of us”?


      • Al

        You know how I feel about gender norms. 😀

  • Jeff

    I seem to recall many studies that show that women (even full time working women who earn more than their husbands) end up doing more household chores and child care than their husbands. Maybe we should ask men do a bit more around the house…if men can’t manage to do that then I don’t see too much of a problem with the husband being more of the breadwinner and working more hours to support his family. A family is about give and take, my wife struggles to mow the lawn (hard for her to start the pull mower and pushing it around by holding the bar down hurts her hands) so I do that every week…she doesn’t mind doing the dishes so she does that…I generally do my own laundry and she does as well…it’s not necessarily about gender roles it’s about what you feel comfortable doing.

    • I find those studies to be lacking in their definition of “household chores.”

      I’ve written about it in the past. It still seems relevant.

      • Al

        The crummy studies would have poor definitions, but there are a number of studies that have clearly defined parameters.

        No offense, but it’s often the journalists that get in the way of accurate interpretation of the data in their articles. 🙂

      • Jeff

        I find that many people only think of the things they do around the house and leave out large things their spouse does or they don’t really understand the time involved. For example mowing of the lawn once a week takes about an hour (if you don’t have to go get gasoline and oil)…that’s equivalent to a week’s worth of dishes and doing a couple loads of laundry (active laundry time folding/loading, not just the time you wait between loads).

        • Rob

          Pshaw. It’s not the time spent on a single chore that’s relevant, it’s the number of times per week certain kinds of essential chores have to be done. If you don’t mow the lawn every seven days, it’s no biggie. But I’d like to see how comfortable you’d be with a pile of dishes that keeps growing in the sink and on the counter, as your wife declares that she’s done the dishes once already this week — or says “you’ll have to wear your dirty skivvies again today, dear, as I’ve already done laundry once this week.”

    • Al

      Yeah, the Second Shift is still a thing–though increased gender equality in maintaining the household has its perks, so they say:

    • Kassie

      When we moved in together, I did a larger split of the household chores, but as my work responsibilities have increased, as has my level of stress and the hours I spend at work, I find myself doing less and less and my partner doing more and more. I feel really bad about it, but his job has a lot less stress and mental strength needed, even though it is very physically demanding. I think I’m also more generally stressed at my job since I know I need to continue to perform well to get promotions and now, that I got a promotion, become permanent in my position. It has taken a toll on my mental health which leads me to only be able to manage a small portion of the household tasks. I see how men who are also the “breadwinners,” even if their spouses work outside the home, can also fall into this leaving the woman to pick up more household tasks. Or, I’m lazy.

    • Rob

      No study was needed to know that women as a rule do more to maintain the household day-to-day than men do. BTW, when you can tell me you’re the one that scrubs the toilet, polices the rest of the bathroom, does the vacuuming and the dusting, makes at least half of the meals and does at least half of the grocery shopping, get back to me.

      • Jeff

        I’m the breadwinner and my wife doesn’t work…I’m okay with that…but yes, I just don’t seem to care to clean the house constantly I’m okay with it being a little dirty but I’m also the one who walks the dog 2-4 miles daily and I’m also the one who mows the lawn or runs the snowblower when it’s below zero. It’s all about give and take managing a household.

        • Rob

          Your “wife doesn’t work?” WTF?? What the hell do you call all the stuff she does on a daily basis to keep your household running? Last I heard, that’s work.

  • Anna

    I really don’t think there are many one-income households left unless one of the significant others were born into wealth or has a six to seven figure income.

    It takes two incomes to provide shelter, food and healthcare for a family of four and that does not include any discretionary spending. We know that from the many reports that the middle class is shrinking fast and may totally disappear over the next two decades if something isn’t done to correct income inequality.

    It all depends on where your priorities lie. If you’re content with not having a vacation every year and eating out at restaurants every week then you can probably survive on one middle income salary and it doesn’t matter whether that is a man or a woman as the primary earner.

    However… see what kind of reaction you get as a man if you say you’re a “stay at home” dad. Men who choose to do this are labeled as lazy with no ambition. It is not “traditional” according to antiquated, societal norms.

    The “Leave It To Beaver” nuclear family needs to be relegated to the history books. It is not workable in the 21st century for anyone.

    • Al

      Though we’re a self-selected sample, the parenting group I help admin online has an increasing number of stay-at-home moms (there are about 1000 of us in the group; mostly moms, but a fair number of dads).

      A lot the decision for mom to stay home seems to be due to a lack of flexibility in their jobs after having children (for child pickup/dropoff, pumping and breastfeeding, unexpected doctor’s appointments, etc.). A lot of it also seems to be motivated by the feeling that the kids are young once, so they’ll stay at home until they hit school and then re-enter the job market. And a LOT of it is motivated by Minnesota’s incredibly high childcare costs.

      So it’s not as uncommon as you might think. (Though, again, this is anecdotal.)

      • Anna

        My agreement with my ex husband was I would stay at home with our son until he reached school age (5) and that is exactly what I did. I didn’t work a full-time job but I did work until we divorced when our son was 17.

        My husband was a university employee and there was an excellent child care program at his employment that didn’t cost anything for full-time employees.

        My son’s elementary school also had an excellent after school program for those days when I wasn’t at home when he came home from school.

        There are still companies out there that discriminate against women who are married or who become pregnant but I think the Millennial generation is gradually changing that as they move into positions of authority (CEO, CFO, and middle management).

        Many of them, like my son, have grown up in households that are not traditional in the sense that there is only one primary earner.

        • Al

          I think “traditional” for a lot of millennials (myself included) means both parents work outside the home. Not all, but a lot.

          It meant outsourcing a lot of the housework–cleaning, mostly–to someone they’d hire. Time spent cleaning, to my parents, was time away from kids.

          Also means I’m total garbage when it comes to cleaning a bathroom, because I never learned from my parents, but I’m working on it. 🙂

    • Al

      Though you’re still pretty spot on with the response to stay-at-home dads. One of the dads in our group relayed a story about how he was having a nice conversation with the woman in line behind him at the grocery store, until she found out he was a stay-at-home dad, and then she called him a f*ggot and shut the conversation down.

      Stay-at-home parents can have a rough time of it, for different reasons depending on whether you’re a dad or a mom.

      • >> she called him a f*ggot and shut the conversation down.<<


    • Meghan

      Once a family has more than one kid, until one hits elementary age the cost of daycare makes it economically unfeasible for both parents to work for many families in the US. Paying $200+ per child per week outpaces many paychecks.

      • Jeff

        I have quite a few friends that are making that choice…unless both people are making well over $50k/year it’s not worth the hassle and effort of dealing with daycare for 2+ kids and trying to maintain a house. Daycare is at least as expensive as sending kids to college, when you put it in that light people start to realize that the best option is to just stay home…daycare for 2 kids is around $20k/year…if a person is making $30k/year or even up to $40k/year and government is going to take 7% in FICA, plus another 15% in state/federal taxes you begin to realize the best option is to have one spouse stay home and take care of the kids, do laundry, clean and make meals. Just do the math, 25% in taxes from $40k is $10k…then your kids day care costs $25k/year (for 2.5 kids, which seems to be the average)…$40k – $35k/year = $5k/year net income…is that worth the hassle of not having your kids taken care of and missing out on their lives and dealing with the effort of making meals etc. If one spouse has a higher income ($60k+/year) then it’s logical sense to have the other lower income person just stay home with the kids.

        • Al

          But what this doesn’t take into account is when you love your job so much that you’re willing to net $5K/year. It’s a hard choice for those folks in particular to leave the workforce to stay home.

          • Jeff

            I don’t know many people who love their jobs that much…almost every person I know who quit their jobs were extremely glad to do so.

          • Al

            A number of the parents in our group enjoy our jobs that much, myself included. It’s bittersweet sometimes, but comforting to know I’m not alone.

            I’m guessing it’s part of the reason for the massive increase in bulk freezer meals on Pinterest and Facebook garage sale groups–whether we’re working outside the home and spending all of our money on day care, or staying at home on a single income, my generation is stretching cash like it’s going out of style.

          • Jeff

            If you factor in gasoline and wear & tear on your car to get to work and back, the clothing you have to buy for your job and the stress and strain on your health (and your kids’ health) you start to realize the net effect of a job for someone with a much lower income is more likely negative or at least much, much smaller than $5k/year that “appears” to exist in income.

          • Al

            Lucky for me, I carry the benefits package–so still worth it, even though husband and I make roughly the same.

            For many other parents–you’re exactly right.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Some people stay in the workforce thinking that they will fall behind in their career too. I am not saying this in your case. It is great the that you love your job and want to stay with it.

          • Al

            A few, but most of my parents seem to be pretty optimistic about being able to catch back up when they re-enter the job market. Again, anecdotal.

      • Al

        And $200 only really applies if your kids attend an in-home day care center. And a less expensive one at that.

        Most day care centers in the Twin Cities (not run out of a home) cost $300-$400 for infants per week (that is NOT an exaggeration, folks; it’s the norm).

  • kat

    Also don’t bother to read the guardian article- although I think it is meant to be funny, it relies on the premise that men who are not primary breadwinners are lazy.

  • Dan

    I might wait for further research before quitting your jobs, fellas.