Here’s some great news. The vast majority of young people — about 80% of women and 70% of men across all races, classes, and family backgrounds — desire an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share bread-winning, housekeeping, and child-rearing. (This data comes from Kathleen Gerson‘s fabulous 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution.)
In practice, however, egalitarian relationships are difficult to establish. Both work and family are “greedy institutions,” ones that take up lots of time and energy. Many couples find that, once children arrive, it’s impossible for both to do both with equal gusto.
With this in mind, Gerson asked her respondents what type of family they would like if, for whatever reason, they couldn’t sustain an equal partnership. She discovered that, while men’s and women’s ideals are very similar, their fallback positions deviate dramatically.
Men’s most common fallback position is to establish a neotraditional division of labor: 70% hope to convince their wives to de-prioritize their careers and focus on homemaking and raising children.
Women? Faced with a husband who wants them to be a housewife or work part-time, almost three-quarters of women say they would choose divorce and raise their kids alone. In fact, despite men’s insistence on being breadwinners, women are more likely than men to say they value success in a high-paying career.
Look at this absolutely stunning data (matching ideals on the left; clashing fallback positions on the right):
One of Gerson’s interviewees, Matthew, exemplifies the egalitarian willing to fallback on a neotraditional family form:
If I could have the ideal world, I’d like to have a partner who’s making as much as I am — someone who’s ambitious and likes to achieve. [But] if it can’t be equal, I would be the breadwinner and be there for helping with homework at night.
And this is what women think of that:
My mother’s such a leftover from the fifties and did everything for my father. I’m not planning to fall into that trap. I’m really not willing to take that from any guy at all.
Alas, what appears to be a happy convergence between men’s and women’s ideals — both are egalitarians — can turn into an intractable situation: a man who won’t give up his role as the breadwinner and a woman who would rather do anything than be a housewife.