Everyone knows that the 1950s-style “Leave It to Beaver” model of family life is dead and gone. But, if they take their cues from media accounts of contemporary American family life, many Americans may be unaware that the character of modern American family life remains surprisingly traditional — at least for most married couples with children — in ways that come closer to mimicking the division of labor of Claire and Phil Dunphy on “Modern Family” than the egalitarian model often highlighted in the media. For much of the show's run, Claire is a stay-at-home mom, even as Phil maintains a consistent presence in the labor force, and both parents are more involved with their kids than were their parents.
So what do the Dunphys have to do with real modern family life in contemporary America? Even though most families headed by married parents do not have stay-at-home moms like Claire, they do tend to tilt in a neo-traditional direction, with most married dads taking the lead in breadwinning and most married moms taking the lead in child care and housework.
This has often been obscured in contemporary accounts of family life in the media. In an otherwise brilliant account of marriage and family life in America in The Atlantic, Richard Reeves, the policy director for the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, argued that marriage has been refashioned along largely egalitarian lines. Reeves wrote that feminism and economic change have “dealt fatal blows to the traditional model of marriage” where “Husbands bring home the bacon. Wives cook it.”
He went on to describe a new model of marriage, which he calls the high-investment parenting (HIP) marriage model. Here, both wives and husbands tackle family life in an egalitarian spirit, “recasting family responsibilities, with couples sharing the roles of both child-raiser and money-maker” — as the dominant model of married family life for the 21st century.
Although it is true that a large minority of couples are following an egalitarian model, Reeves’ article obscures the extent to which the cast of modern American family life is basically “neotraditional” — at least for married couples with children. For this group, family life is organized along neo-traditional lines and has been since the 1990s, when the gender revolution stalled out in married families. It’s new in the sense that today’s married dads do a lot more child care and housework than dads of the 1950s, and that most married moms are working in the paid labor force. But it’s “traditional” in the sense that most husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, and most wives take the lead when it comes to child rearing.
Research done by Utah State sociologist Jeffrey Dew and me indicates that the ratio of maternal to paternal primary child care among married parents fell from 5.6 in 1975 to 2.2 in 1990s and has since stayed there (see below). This means that about 69 percent of child care among married couples is done by married mothers today, a figure that parallels the most recent estimate of the division of child care offered by the Pew Research Center. Pew estimates that married mothers also do about 68 percent of the housework.
Similar patterns can be found when it comes to the amount of time that married fathers and mothers devote to the paid labor force. Married fathers are responsible for about 65 percent of their households’ hours in the paid labor force (39 hours a week), while wives perform 35 percent (21 hours a week), according to the Pew Research Center (“Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family”).
And not surprisingly, married fathers also take the lead when it comes to breadwinning. Specifically, in 2012, married fathers earned about 69 percent of their families’ income, according to data from the American Community Survey, and this pattern has been fairly constant since the Great Recession.
To what extent are these patterns the result of an outmoded and unfair array of work-family policies, business practices and gender norms that trap contemporary women into more traditional work and family arrangements against their will? Sociologist Pamela Stone, for instance, has argued: “Women are not opting out but are instead being pushed out of the workplace.” This is certainly true for some married mothers.
But in the U.S., most married mothers’ preferences tilt neo-traditional. In fact, more than three-quarters of married mothers do not wish to work full-time: 53 percent prefer part-time work and 23 percent prefer to be stay-at-home mothers. This stands in marked contrast to married fathers: 75 percent of them think working full-time is ideal and 13 percent prefer part-time work, according to Pew data. I suspect that ordinary married mothers’ desire to invest time, affection and supervision in their children’s lives outweighs their desire to lean in at work, at least while their children are young.
These trends underline three social facts that commentators and policymakers need to keep in mind about contemporary family life:
1) Many married mothers and fathers are structuring their modern families around a moderately neo-traditional approach to family life, because that’s the way of life they aspire to.
2) There is more heterogeneity in work-family arrangements and ideals among today’s married families than in the past: Significant minorities of couples organize their lives along traditional lines (he works, she stays at home) or along egalitarian lines (both work full-time and share child care and housework in fairly equal ways).
3) Family-minded women are likely to put a premium on finding men with decent employment prospects. That’s because having a husband with a good job will enable them to realize any aspirations they might have of scaling back, or leaving the labor force for a time, when children come along.
It’s for these reasons that public policies and cultural norms related to work and family should be geared toward maximizing flexibility, rather than locking in approaches geared to serving full-time, dual-income families, and toward renewing the employment opportunities of poor and working-class men who have become less “marriageable” in recent years. Efforts like this will put a wider range of family options — including the “modern family” model that is now popular — within reach of ordinary Americans.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. This is adapted from an article that appeared at www.family-studies.org.