Slicing ‘Breadwinner Moms’ Headlines

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Slicing ‘Breadwinner Moms’ Headlines

Aug 1, 2013 2 min read

Former Senior Visiting Fellow

Jennifer A. Marshall was a senior visiting fellow for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

“Breadwinner Moms” was a brilliant stroke of pop-culture framing for the recent Pew Research Center study that depicted Mom as main provider in 40 percent of American households with children.

The research group’s headline device capitalized on the “You go, girl!” sentiment that is so prevalent in popular culture, and it made news in a way that the major findings of the report would not have.

Just think what a non-news item it would have been if the press release had said “Mom out-earns Dad in 15 percent of households with children under age 18.”

Or, how different the reaction if the pitch had been that 25 percent of households with children under 18 are supported by a single mother.

That might have gotten attention, but not such cheers. Especially considering that in these single-mother homes, the median income is $23,000 and that 44 percent are never-married moms.

What’s more, a third of these single mothers aren’t working at all – meaning they are much more likely to depend on government welfare. Life on the dole, not bringing home the bacon, is a neglected subplot of the “breadwinner” narrative.

We live in an era in which traditional life scripts have broken down, especially when it comes to sex, marriage and childbearing. Feminists portray that as liberating, but for many, the outcomes are anything but liberating.

In the wake of the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, the path to marriage and married family life is much more challenging – though the majority of women continue to say that marriage and motherhood are a big part of their dreams.

We’re told that the breakdown in traditional life scripts should free us to tell our own story … to choose our own adventure. But in reality we’re not liberated when it comes to the stories that are told about our lives.

Why? Because other dominant scripts get superimposed. In the 1990s, TV character Murphy Brown became the face of the single mother, when the reality is that the unwed mother is more likely to be less educated and face many more economic challenges.

Now the mainstream media turns a report on female breadwinners into a story about well-educated, married women out-earning their husbands though those women make up a minority of the population in question.

This phenomenon of a superimposed script became apparent in interviews with women on singleness lasting longer than in decades past. These women had never been married, and they were definitely interested in marriage and motherhood. But they expressed concern that the professional success they had earned in the meantime was interpreted through the lens of a feminist script to which they didn’t subscribe.

“Mistaken for a career woman” was how many of them felt. And, as a result, they were concerned that men perceived them to be uninterested in marriage and motherhood.

A half-century ago, Betty Friedan complained about the one-size-fits-all cultural conception of women in her book “The Feminine Mystique.” Now another concept tends to dominate – the “You go, girl” one that neglects much of our individuality as well as the qualities that continue to make women unique.

It would be a great advance if women’s increased leadership and empowerment led to a re-evaluation of success and the good life in our day. Why must the conversation about women’s success (or men’s, for that matter) center on a career?

What if the conversation were more sensitive to the individual, to her talents, dreams and opportunities, to her relationships and responsibilities? What if conversations about “breadwinners” focused more on some of the challenging realities: of single motherhood, of never-married mothers with little education trying to raise a family?

What if we taught women at a young age how to take inventory of their individual talents and opportunities, how to make choices that will help them achieve their relational dreams as well as their vocational aspirations?

These are ways to encourage the progress, achievement and flourishing of actual women, not champion empty slogans that too often treat females as a monolithic mass and have little to do with their real lives.

- Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Charlotte Observer