What the rise of the breadwinner mom really means for America's families

A new study from the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project finds that working mothers, considered by many to be a boon for society, have become primary breadwinners in a record 40 percent of American households with children—up from 11 percent in 1960. To call that dramatic would be an understatement.

This trend is, of course, a direct result of women’s higher rates of education and labor force participation. Today, more women than men hold bachelor’s degrees; and women make up nearly half the American workforce. It’s all quite impressive.

But for every gain, there is a loss.

The vast majority of breadwinner moms are single mothers. That’s hardly a step in the right direction.


More On This...

    Despite its widespread social acceptance of single mothers, children who grow up without fathers suffer a host of social, emotional and psychological problems: crime, drugs, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, suicide, and dropouts. That’s not to say single mothers aren’t doing their best; it’s merely to say there’s only so much they can do.

    But single motherhood is only part of the story.

    There’s another group of breadwinner moms on the rise: married ones. “Among all U.S. households with children, the share of married breadwinner moms has jumped from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011,” writes the Associated Press' Hope Yen.

    That mothers, single or otherwise, have become the top earners in 4 in 10 U.S. households is part of the “dramatic transformation we’ve seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so,” said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project. “Women's roles have changed, marriage rates have declined—the family looks a lot different than it used to.”

    Indeed it does. The question is, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

    That is where Americans are divided.

    On one side of the debate, people point to economics as the reason parents can’t be home with their kids. But the issue is bigger than that. Ultimately, it’s about how to reconcile our conflicting views of women’s roles with what we know is best for children and families. We know we can’t return to "Ozzie and Harriet." But we also know something huge has been lost.

    And our ambivalence shows.

    According to Pew, roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to their traditional roles. Yet a mere 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing.

    Indeed, the majority of Americans—45% of women and 57% of men—say children are “better off if their mother is at home.” These findings are commensurate with results at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan polling organization that’s been tracking this issue for years.

    How, then, do we rectify our conflicting beliefs that women who are also mothers shouldn’t return to traditional roles but that children need a mother at home? That is the issue.

    Politicians and women’s groups talk endlessly about family-friendly policies and government-mandated parental leave and child care.

    They talk of “change” all day long.

    But some things in life don’t change, and children’s needs are at the top of the list. Their needs are the same today as they were one hundred years ago.

    And somewhere, deep down, we know this. We know that while we’ve thrown out the old model, we’re going to need a new one. We know we need some version of the old to accommodate the new.

    That more and more dads are staying home is a promising trend, indeed. It means we’re finally getting it. (Either that, or we’ve been forced to “get it” because jobs are scarce and mom makes more money. Either way, the result is good.)

    We also know, though we’re loathe to admit it, that as long as both parents are absent, or simply distracted by their jobs, children will suffer the consequences—regardless of whether the distraction is borne of necessity or choice. All young children know is that their parents aren’t there. Why they’re not there is beside the point.

    To be sure, this is a tough pill to swallow for a new generation. But swallow it we must.