Much was made in the media recently of the Census Bureau report that the number of married mothers who are the family’s sole breadwinner rose for the third straight year, with headlines like Moms as sole breadwinners reach record high and More Working Moms are Sole Breadwinners. To hear the media tell it, you’d think that all of a sudden a majority of mothers were the only ones bringing home the bacon. Meanwhile the headline the Census Bureau chose for its release was instead, Census Bureau Reports Families With Children Increasingly Face Unemployment.
Once again a family issue – in this case about unemployment and finances – was spun into an issue focused on mothers and their employment status. The Census Bureau’s release starts with data on unemployed mothers and fathers and doesn’t mention the sole breadwinner data until paragraph six. Perhaps because the increase in married mothers as sole breadwinners was just 2%, from 5% in 2007 to 7% in 2009. Significant, but hardly headline news, especially when it’s still the case that close to two-thirds of married families with children have both parents employed, and close to a third have the husband as the sole breadwinner.
Now, there’s no doubt that family roles are shifting, but that was happening before the recession and will continue after we’re out of it. The real takeaways from the data are two related points summed up by Pamela J. Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, “The economic crisis is heavily affecting families, and what the latest data show is that gender roles are flexible and are going in the direction of egalitarian roles.”
The real news that needs attention is that 21st century families have been facing unprecedented financial pressures that have only been exacerbated by the recession AND those same families are struggling with how to move toward the egalitarian partnerships they want in a society that still operates around a 1950’s family model.