Working mothers have had it for years: it's called guilt. It comes from an inner knowledge that somehow you are not living up to your proper female role of raising children, taking care of the house and husband, fulfilling an ideal immortalized by Sen. Jeremiah Denton when he said: "A guy likes to come home and get supper and a couple of martinis from a woman that is reasonably well rested."
It now appears that husbands are feeling a certain sense of guilt as well.
Previous research has shown that women who work outside the home enjoy better mental health than women who don't, but that their husbands have poorer mental health than husbands of housewives. The question that remained unanswered was why.
Three researchers at Rutgers University -- Dr. Graham L. Staines, Dr. Kathleen J. Pottick and Deborah Fudge -- undertook a search for the cause of this unfortunate turn of events. Their findings were published in the February issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Previous research had examined the possibility that housework demands were greater on husbands of women who worked and that this might lead to problems, but no evidence turned up to support that, says Pottick.
"In our study, we tried to find evidence of that and we found no evidence that the burdens of housework were greater for husbands of working wives than nonworking wives," she says (diplomatically underscoring a finding many working wives had made empirically). "We would have had to show that husbands of working wives had spent a significant amount more time in housework than husbands of housewives. That didn't show up."
Then, the researchers examined the question of attitudes. They spent a year and a half trying to put questions into a questionnaire for 1,515 American workers that might provide a clue as to what was going on. One possibility explored was that husbands of nonworking wives feel more strongly about women working or not than the husbands of wives who worked. "The husbands of women working showed basically the same positivity toward women working as husbands of housewives," says Pottick. "That couldn't account for it."
Then, she says, they examined the hypothesis that men with working wives might feel that their geographic mobility was constrained and therefore be less satisfied with their lives and jobs. Again, researchers found no difference between the responses of men whose wives worked and those whose wives stayed at home.
"Our final inquiry was whether they felt any different about how they could support their families on their incomes alone -- what we ended up calling breadwinner adequacy. What we found is that men who had working wives tended to say they could not support their families alone and that was associated with lower life and job satisfaction. The men who had housewives tended to say they could support their families on their incomes and had higher satisfaction.
"I think what this means is that husbands want to be good providers for their families and would like to do it by themselves," she says.
"Given that in our current, modern-day life it's very difficult to support a family on one income, men will need to psychologically share the breadwinning role with their wives, just like women will need to share the child-rearing role. It's clear that there's some negative effects," when men feel guilty about their wives working, she said.
An obvious implication of the findings is that women shouldn't work because it is psychologically damaging to their spouses. That, says Pottick, is not economically feasible for many families, "and we know that women's mental health is not as good if they stay home. The alternative is how can we get people to share in the allocation of roles, to psychologically share in them. I think people need to talk about it, about the meaning of money and how they are going to work on sharing the good-provider responsibilities.
"People have roles and their own expectations about how they ought to behave, how best to behave and how they might feel right behaving. There's nothing wrong with those things. It's how people get a sense of themselves and their value and worth. I think that we need to look at how we broaden the conception of the roles for both men and women so they're not locked into one particularly specialized function when we really need people to pick up and share the different functions."
That sounds like pretty good advice. Right now, it would appear, men and women are sharing guilt. about how they ought to behave, how best to behave and how they might feel right behaving. There's nothing wrong with those things. It's how people get a sense of themselves and their value and worth. I think that we need to look at how we broaden the conception of the roles for both men and women so they're not locked into one particularly specialized function when we really need people to pick up and share the different functions."
That sounds like pretty good advice. Right now, it would appear, men and women are sharing guilt.