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The quiet struggle of male breadwinners

(Washington Post illustration; iStockphoto)

Since they surged into the U.S. labor force, quadrupling in number since 1970, female breadwinners have lived under a cultural microscope. Can they have it all — the spouse, the baby, the corner office?

Christin Munsch, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, said this puzzle is outdated and, frankly, exclusive. She wanted to understand what life is like for heterosexual men who juggle work and family.

So, she looked at 14 years of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which seeks to gauge the well-being of young adults nationwide. About 3,100 respondents, ages 18 to 32, took the survey on the last day of 1996 and answered the same questions every year until 2011.

Munsch noticed a startling gender divide: Men who took on larger shares of household income had lower physical and mental health scores. Both men and women, it turned out, were happier when women made most of the money.

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The findings defy conventional wisdom. Married men traditionally assumed the role of breadwinner, right?

“Gendered expectations often pull people into making different career decisions,” said Munsch, who studies the psychology of masculinity. “Men are more likely to blindly take on responsibilities with work because they’re associated with more income. Women are more likely to ask: Do I like this? Do I want to do this?”

Of course, this research largely applies to couples with the luxury of choice. Though cultural norms of the '60s, for example, depicted men as the financial head of the household, poorer families relied on two incomes to survive long before Sheryl Sandberg started advising women to "lean in".

The national survey asked participants how frequently during the past month they felt nervous, calm and peaceful, downhearted and blue, happy and “so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer you up.” They rated those feelings on a scale of 1 (“all the time”) to 4 ("none of the time"). Respondents also revealed how they felt about their overall physical health, with 1 meaning “excellent” and 5 meaning “poor.”

Armed with this information, Munsch and her team calculated the survey takers’ and their spouses’ total earnings from the previous year and then broke down who in a couple made more and by how much. They controlled for age, education, absolute income, number of hours worked and presence of children.

Men whose spouses contributed equally had an average aggregate psychological well-being score of 3.33, the researchers found. (Men who contributed less than a quarter of household income had a well-being score of 3.33, as well, but showed slightly higher levels of anxiety.) Those who contributed twice as much as their partners dropped to 3.27. Men who identified as “complete breadwinners” had a score of 3.17.

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The pattern persisted among physical health measures: Economically dependent men scored 3.99, those whose partners made just as much money scored 3.93 and complete breadwinners scored 3.81.

Women reported opposite feelings. The more money they made relative to their partners, the better off they seemed to be. Those who totally relied on a partner scored an average of 3.08 in psychological well-being, and those who supported the whole household scored 3.17. (Their health scores relative to household income were statistically insignificant.)

Munsch said these findings aren’t necessarily surprising. The people surveyed are either all millennials or on the edge of qualifying as millennials. Both women and men of the generation say they’d prefer an egalitarian marriage — an arrangement not as popular among their parents.

On top of that, breadwinning in general is stressful. A household relies on that income, and top earners frequently make sacrifices to maintain their income level. They may also fear losing it. The difference between men and women in the role, according to Munsch: Women could be more inclined to take high-pressure jobs they enjoy and relish stepping into a social role that was once taboo.

Men, on the other hand, might accept a high salary — and the stack of responsibilities that come with it — because they feel obligated to shoulder the household burden alone. Feeling forced into a lifestyle could drag down anyone’s sense of inner peace.

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