More economic opportunity for women gives men more domestic options

The Edmonton Journal is running a series about the changing family and this weekend’s installment is about women working and earning more than their male partners – More moms bring home the bacon – for dad to cook. (In our case, it’s chicken or turkey bacon and, in case you’re wondering, it’s best cooked on cookie sheets in the oven.)

Coincidentally, this weekend we also watched the film Everything’s Fine (see the trailer for Everything’s Fine) – an odd, sad little movie with a great cast, including Robert De Niro. De Niro plays a dad, recently widowed, who is trying to reconnect with his children after years of relationship neglect. Its not neglect that is intentional. This is a story about a  traditional dad who worked his whole life in a wire factory to provide for his family, who he loved deeply. Yet through that very process became distant from them. I found the film very sad – and a reference point for what my life will not become.

These two strands come together and offer a great opportunity to clarify the considerations – economic and emotional – that motivate me and increasing numbers of dads to stay at home. Or, at least, build our lives on the basis of our home life.

A lot of media coverage about dads’ changing role in the home starts from the premise that the recent (and still current, especially in the US) recession has ‘forced’ them into this role. And while there is truth to the assertion of underlying economic rationale, there is the insinuation in much media coverage that men would otherwise not choose to change their domestic roles. In the worst examples of this bias, the devaluation of domestic roles is manifest in jokes and outright scorn directed at men who choose to stay at home. (Watch how the CNN hosts make fun of stay-at-home dads.)

While it’s undeniably true that economics and earning power play a role in determining how domestic arrangements are structured, I can speak for myself (and I suspect many other men) in suggesting that perhaps the opposite is just as true: we’ve wanted to change our domestic roles in relation to our families and the economics have long prevented us. Now that our partners are earning as much or more than us, we can choose to be more involved at home.

This choice is often left out of the media’s reports of the domestic restructuring that is going on in our society. Working parents that care about family life are faced with a dilemma – how to bring in the most income while performing the necessary domestic duties to support the life of their family. I am being purposely vague here because each family has to strike their own balance between stay-at-home spouse and outsourced domestic services (nannies, household chores, etc.). However, my point is plain: I am choosing to stay at home and be the primary parent because a rich domestic family life is important to me and my spouse and because it makes the most rational economic sense.

This week, the Vanier Institute of the Family released Families Count, an encyclopedia of Canadian family trends and statistics that the institute publishes every five years. And this year’s report contains some interesting facts:

  • Less than one-half (46 per cent) of all women aged 15 and over were in the paid labour force in 1976, compared to 63 per cent in 2009.
  • The labour force participation rate among men aged 15 and over has been declining slowly over the last three decades, falling from 78 per cent in 1976 to 72 per cent in 2009.
  • Less than one-half (48.1 per cent) of married women aged 25 to 54 years were in the paid labour force 30 years ago, but more than eight in 10 (81.5 per cent) were working in 2008.
  • Seventy-three per cent of all women with children younger than 16 years old living at home were working full-time or part-time in 2006, up from 39 per cent in 1976.
  • Twelve per cent of women in dual-income couples earned more than their husband or common-law partner in 1976, but this increased to 28 per cent by 2007.
  • High-income households where the female partner is the main earner are twice as likely to purchase domestic services as those in which the male partner is the main breadwinner.
  • Most of the increase in men’s workdays over the last two decades came from an increase in their unpaid work, which rose from 2.1 hours in 1986 to 2.5 hours in 2005.
  • The 0.6 hour increase in women’s workdays over the same period came entirely from paid work.
  • The proportion of men and women aged 25 to 54 doing housework increased from 72 per cent to 79 per cent between 1986 and 2005, driven by the growing number of men doing housework.

There is more going on here than a recession and unemployment. Women are gaining equity in the employment marketplace and the value working parents place in maintaining a healthy family life is not diminishing.

Therefore, somebody needs to step up and fill the gap. Men are that somebody.

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