A common notion is that human beings are wired for the male to be the head of household – the provider and the decider – and for the female to be the nurturer who follows and supports. That said, for generations, society has expected that when a couple decides to start a family, it is the woman who steps back from her career to take on the role of homemaker. Today, many families still adhere to this tradition, but not all. Increasingly, it is the man who takes on this role.
Women have long since established how well they can provide, as evidenced by the fact that for years they have outpaced men in receiving college degrees. In 1978, for the first time, more women than men earned associate degrees, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Four years later, more women than men earned bachelor’s degrees. In 1987, they took the lead in master’s degrees, and starting in 2006 they began earning more doctorates. As of 2018, women-owned four of every ten businesses in the United States. The number of women-owned businesses had increased 58 percent over a decade earlier, compared to only a 12 percent increase for businesses overall.1
Clearly, times are changing. The statistics aren’t suggesting that men are getting lazy and letting the women take over the hard work. Men aren’t losing their place; women are gaining theirs. Old attitudes linger, however. Many influential women feel guilty for their devotion to their career, as if that somehow means they are less devoted to their family. They feel at times as if they are a bad mom, or a bad wife, and indeed that is how some people – both men and other women – view them. Trying to live up to some idealized definition of womanhood, they endeavor to do it all. They try to be Superwoman but find that they cannot fly very well in a whirlwind.
Rarely has anyone of either sex achieved high success in the business world while also single-handedly managing all the complex affairs of running a household – raising the kids, preparing meals, housekeeping, paying bills, managing the family social calendar, etc. Breadwinners need support. Today, many women in leadership have been able to pursue their careers because a man has stepped back from his. In this case, however, the man is not so much stepping back as he is stepping up.
Still, a man who takes on a full-time role might feel unmanly. He, too, can feel a sense of guilt. “Why isn’t he supporting his family?” In truth, that is precisely what he is doing. He is supporting his wife so that she can express her talents and reach her fullest potential for the betterment of the family. He is supporting his children by being there for them, rather than hiring nannies, housekeepers, and other outside resources.
Clearly, each partner in a cooperative relationship is heading the household in his or her own way, whether financially or functionally. The traditional roles and rules work well in some families, but everyone should be able to change as circumstances require. The capacity to adapt is a survival skill that drives civilization. We must rise to meet whatever challenges and opportunities present themselves.
As a supportive husband to a successful female executive, I am very familiar with the societal challenges that come with being a stay-at-home father. In my book, Lean On, I explore the stigma of swapping traditional roles, the prevailing societal attitudes of what a “real” family looks like and how you can make it work for your family.