Millennial men want their wives to be both Ward and June Cleaver

On Mother's Day, the New York Post ran an article bearing the title, "Millennial men want 1950s housewives after they have kids."  The article's text was more nuanced and more predictable: it reviewed a book revealing that Millennial men pay lip service to their wives' careers — and like the money their wives bring home — but also want to have their wives function as full-time mothers and homemakers.

In 1988, Arlie Hochschild published a groundbreaking book, The Second Shift, about her investigation into dual-career households.  She interviewed a range of couples, some who held traditional beliefs about male and female roles within a marriage and some who saw both partners espousing the modern view that said husband and wife both work and share household responsibilities.

Hochschild's research revealed that the most progressive husbands, the ones claiming complete equality in the marriage, were creating an elaborate fiction.  They often described themselves as responsible for "outside" work, implying that it was the same as "inside" work.  Their "equal" role in the house amounted to mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage once a week or picking up milk on the way home from work.  Meanwhile, their wives, who also held paying jobs, were handling shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and everything else.  Ultimately, the wives put in the equivalent of an extra month of work per year.

Ironically, the husbands who were most helpful around the house were the old-fashioned men who felt they'd failed when their wives had to work outside the home.  Because they placed the most value on the mother/homemaker role, they recognized their wives' sacrifice in leaving the home for the workplace.  The more "modern men," with their views of equality, saw traditional women's work as valueless and were unwilling to sully their hands with it or to appreciate the wives for handling those tasks.

In sum, the modern husbands Hochschild described wanted their wives to be both Ward Cleaver (earning money) and June Cleaver (providing full-time housekeeping and parenting work).  For women, this could be an impossible standard, so the marriage, the job, the household, or the parenting suffered — and sometimes everything suffered simultaneously.


Image: Working mother.

It turns out nothing has changed.  The Post article title implies that Millennial men want to go back to a time when they are Ward and their wives are June — that is, a clear biological gender division of labor that sees the man heading out into the world to bring home the bacon, while his wife raises his children, cleans his house, and welcomes him home with a well cooked dinner.

In fact, the article says something quite different: it turns out that today's young men, exactly like the young progressive men Hochschild described 34 years ago, want their wives to be both Ward and June:

Lara Bazelon's new book "Ambitious Like a Mother," explores how working mothers get tasked with a "second shift" — i.e., all the domestic and family work that occurs after paid work ends for the day.

Even among households where partners initially split chores equally, childcare ends up falling to mothers. Seventy-five percent of moms are the ones who assume responsibility for appointments like children's check-ups. They're also four times more likely than their partners to miss work to take care of sick children — a statistic that became all too clear during the COVID pandemic. Even in normal times, women spend approximately two hours more per day tending to domestic work than their partners. A 2013 research paper by economics professors Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn claimed that "modern men do not adjust the amount of time they dedicate to housework based on their wives' employment status."

The Post article details how young women today are likely to dump their demanding husbands, preferring the demands of the workplace.  "[A]ccording to a 2015 study by the American Sociological Association, women initiate 69% of divorces, and among college-educated women, it's 90%."  Presumably, they figure they'll be as busy as they were with a husband, but without the feeling that he's another child for whom they're responsible.

Bazelon contends that kids do fine in a single mother household.  The Post notes that "[s]tudies show that children of working mothers are just as well adjusted and have no more behavioral problems than their peers."  However, other studies show that children raised by single mothers are more likely to be poor.  Bazelon, a lawyer, seems to be looking at a narrow economic stratum.  That's why I question the subtitle of Bazelon's book: "Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids."

I suspect that the reason those women who prioritize their career get an "A" from Bazelon is summed up when the article states that "working mothers who get divorced report that they are happier."  Well, yes, if the marriage was bad enough to lead to a divorce, the woman is surely happier without her husband.  And because women set the emotional tone for a household, a happy mother may well be a better one, even if she has less time for the kids than before.

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