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W. Bradford Wilcox: Surprisingly, the real 'modern family' tilts neo-traditional

By W. Bradford Wilcox

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.

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