June 21, 2012

Who Rocks the Cradle? Shifting gender roles in the home, workplace

Capt. Staci Reidinger
Station Public Affairs Officer

It’s 2 p.m. on Wednesday and a young father sits tentatively with his six-year-old son awaiting a doctor’s appointment.  Working as a successful business executive, a wife financially supports her stay at home husband and three children.  As a Monday morning norm before work, a mother cooks breakfast for the family while dad helps the kids get ready for school.  What’s going on in society?  Are men losing their masculinity and identity as primary breadwinners?  Are women losing their childrearing skills as their capabilities in the workforce continue to grow?  The answer to all of these questions, in my view, is no.  Quite the contrary is taking place.  Instead, these changes may be strengthening marriages and increasing overall work and family happiness.

With over 70% of today’s U.S. households requiring both parents to work, gender norms have moved away from the traditional roles seen in the 50s and 60s when most women stayed home to care for their children and home while men worked as the family’s sole breadwinner.  As women stepped outside the home, gaining financial and social stature in the late 60s, there was a spike in divorces due to the dynamic changes in women’s positions in the home, in academia and in the workplace.  But, by the late 80s, marriages recovered well showing a decrease in divorces due to dual working families in comparison to single-income households.  The reason for this positive adaptation is due in part to society’s gradual shift in how gender roles are perceived in the home and the workplace.  Stephanie Coontz, a History Professor and author specializing in U.S. and international gender studies, views this transformation as, “good for families, good for children and good for the workforce,” because many families are beginning to shift their responsibilities to balance being parents and full time workers.

Coontz’s findings also show a shift in women’s choices about marriage, having children and balancing work and family obligations.  Although society no longer stigmatizes women for deciding to return to work after having children, many still feel the pressures of successfully being a mother, wife and homemaker.   These pressures are causing some women to delay childbirth in order to pursue higher education and career goals while others are working full time like their spouses but are also seeking more equality in sharing household and childrearing responsibilities. Despite these changes, Coontz still sees traditional gender norms of the 50s impacting today’s mothers because they feel that they must keep their home, children and spouse cared for while also holding down a 40 hour a week job.  Unfortunately, without spousal support in the home, there are growing statistics that show burnout, lowered satisfaction in the workplace and marital struggles.

Luckily, men are seeing the shift and are taking strides to redefine their gender roles as a father and husband.  A growing number of fathers are noticing how traditional gender roles of the past, shaped around women staying home as the primary child caretaker, are no longer acceptable in today’s family setting.    With this said, changing societal perceptions about men’s roles as a father and work professional can sometimes lead to men feeling guilty or embarrassed when performing home or childrearing responsibilities normally reserved for women.  The interesting shift over time reveals that current society is more accepting of women performing roles traditionally held by men than of men performing roles traditionally held by women.

Regardless of society’s current stigma, fathers are redefining gender roles by taking on more parental responsibilities like taking time off of work for their children’s doctor’s appointments, attending parent-teacher conferences, participating in extracurricular events and staying home when their kids are sick.  Coontz points out that as men and women break through gender norms of past generations to expose the benefits of gender role equality as parents, society will continue to adapt its perception and acceptance of how families balance work and family life.

What’s on the horizon for role changes?  My predictions include:  more men trading places with women as primary child caregivers in the home; an increase in elderly parent caretaking that will change the dynamics of the traditional U.S. family; working young women marrying men who are either unemployed or making less than their wife; and working young men and women choosing to have a family without getting married or having a significant other involved in the process.

What’s your opinion of changing gender roles?  Do you agree or disagree with these societal shifts? How does this impact life in the military?  I’d like to hear your responses. Please email or post your response on our MCAS Yuma Facebook page.

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