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Marriage and Motherhood: What Gender Equality Really Looks Like

Recent research on Millennials and young adults identified a trend that startled contemporary scholars and journalists. Findings revealed that an increasing percentage of high school seniors and young adults espouse the traditional norm of men being the primary breadwinner and women being the primary caregivers at home, a percentage that has been increasing since the mid-1990s. This rise in “traditionalism” took many by surprise, uprooting the assumption that each new generation would continually move toward a highly prized value of “gender equality,” where men and women divide professional and family work equally. For many journalists, the only explanation for such a finding was that Millennials just don’t seem to care about “gender equality” in marriage. But a more accurate analysis suggests that many Millennials just don’t adhere to the narrow definition of “gender equality” that assumes men and women are only equal if they do the same things, professionally and at home. And it is not just Millennials who appear to desire a more “traditional” approach to family life. Married mothers and fathers in America today (the parents of these Millennials) typically divide caregiving and professional work hours along traditionally gendered lines. And they do so, “because that’s what most of them want to do.”

Decades of data on women’s work situation preferences and decisions provide evidence for this reality. Surveys of mother’s work hour preferences have consistently found that most do not want to work as many hours as fathers do. The Motherhood Study (2005) found that 41% of mothers (with a child under age 18 at home) worked full-time, but only 15% considered that ideal. Most of the mothers considered part-time employment to be ideal. Similarly, Pew Survey results taken over multiple years, most recently 2015, found that only 23% of mothers wanted full-time employment, with most saying they would prefer part-time work (53%). Data collected by Forbes and The Bump (2012) found that 84% of women respondents aspired to stay home to raise children rather than work professionally full-time. As sociologists Bradford Wilcox and Samuel Sturgeon summarize, “since the 1990s, married mothers’ labor force participation has stopped rising, the decline in the share of stay-at-home mothers has come to a halt, and fathers have continued to serve as primary breadwinners in the clear majority of two-parent families.” These trends remain in spite of the fact that women increasingly surpass men in attaining college and graduate degrees. Even with those degrees, women who marry and have children tend to either scale back or opt out of the professional work trajectory pursued by men with similar graduate degrees. During peak career building years, married, highly educated mothers are much more likely to work part-time (2/3), leave employment to start their own businesses, and scale back from professional work in other ways. Why?

When journalist Lisa Belkin explored these trends among Ivy League graduates she concluded, “Women today have the equal right to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries -- to take time from their family in pursuit of success. Instead, women are redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work.” Sociologist Judith Warner further explored this “redefining of success,” and found “The longer they’re home...they have greater appreciation of some of the values of home and connectivity, which were somewhat alien to them in their high-flying professions…Not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job—no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working.” Ashley McGuire aptly describes what mothers with professional degrees might be thinking when they choose not to pursue high-powered career trajectories, “Many married millennial couples with children will readily admit that two full-time working parents is not ideal for a litany of reasons, including marital happiness, individual stress, financial strain, and familial sanity.” Instead of a high-powered career, Judith Warner found Ivy league graduates describing ideal work situations in these terms: “more time with children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work—but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

These findings underscore the fact that many women and men hold to the ideal of equal opportunity for women professionally and publicly. But they also appreciate what traditional feminist approaches to gender equality have not, namely that caring for their children and creating a happy home life matters deeply to them. Tragically, just talking about the desire to bear and care for one’s children can be so “disdained” that women are embarrassed to admit such feelings. But as Daphne Marneffe argues, “this cultural taboo makes it nearly impossible for women to work out a meaningful and satisfactory balance in their lives…If we resist thinking about maternal desire or treat it as a marginal detail, we lose an opportunity to understand ourselves and the broader situation of women.”

Women intuitively seem to know what social science research has confirmed, that they are a very significant (even unparalleled) influence in the lives of their children. For decades maternal sensitivity and influence has been identified as the strongest and most consistent predictor of a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Women like Princeton University dean Anne Marie Slaughter recognized this reality when she left her high level position at the U.S. State Department to respond to the needs of her adolescent son. In her words, there really was no choice. What she described was a “maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.” To describe, appreciate and respond to the fundamental desires of Millennials, young adults, and mothers and fathers today is not a step back from gender equality. Rather it suggests “a step forward for authentic marital equality” because it is, as aptly described by Ashley McGuire, “respectful of what women want most” especially when they have small children. With respect for those desires we can begin to better support genuine equality between men and women in marriage.