By the numbers
Households with children where women are sole or primary breadwinners, versus 11% in 1960.
Share of women in the American work force.
Working women who are mothers, up from 37 percent in 1968.
Share of married couples in which the wife is more educated than the husband, versus 7 percent in 1960.
Births occurring outside of marriage.
Of households where the mother is the main breadwinner, she is single.
Women who say children are better off if their mother is at home, versus 57% of men.
Share of “breadwinner wives” among recently married couples.
Source: Pew Research Center
For the first half of Kira Perdue’s marriage, she and her husband, Andy Hagedon, made comparable incomes.
At times, he even brought home the bigger paycheck. But in 2002, Hagedon decided to quit his full-time job to spend more time with the couple’s two children.
Since then, he’s also started his own commercial photography business, smArt Image, but Perdue remains the primary breadwinner for her Mount Pleasant family.
And Reid Strauss of Summerville found herself the sole breadwinner for her and her three daughters after the death of her husband.
The idea of women as the family providers is a dramatic role reversal from 50 years ago when few women worked outside the home and very rarely made more money than their husbands.
But now in the 21st century, and since the economic downtown that hit about five years ago, the responsibility for bringing home the bacon sits on the shoulders of a growing number of women.
A recent study from the Pew Research Center found mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children, up from 11 percent in 1960.
There is still a wage disparity between men and women. Women’s earnings were 77 percent of men’s in 2011, compared with 77.4 percent in 2010, according to census statistics released in 2012. Men’s earnings in 2011 were $48,202 and women’s were $37,118.
While single mothers are the heads of the majority of families in which the main breadwinners are women, another sizable percentage is like Perdue: married women who make more money than their husbands.
Perdue says for some men, particularly in the more traditional South, having their wife keep the bank account afloat could be a hard pill to swallow. But in her household, it’s not an issue.
“It hasn’t caused any kind of conflict in our marriage probably because it’s a choice we made,” says Perdue, who is executive vice president at Trevelino/Keller, a public relations and marketing firm based in Atlanta.
Now married 16 years, Perdue says she enjoys the flexibility and balance their situation affords their family, particularly in caring for their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
Hagedon can take the children to doctor appointments and plan dinner, she says.
“We share those responsibilities, but if he’s working 50 or 60 hours a week, that’s really going to affect our lifestyle. If he’s working 30 hours, and I’m working full time but bringing in the bacon, it affords us a balance.”
While Perdue enjoys her job, she says she definitely feels the pressure of doing whatever she needs to do to keep it, knowing her family depends on that income.
Not all women have a choice in the matter.
According the Pew Research Center study, the economy has sent many women back into the workforce.
The jump in working women has been especially prominent among those who are mothers, from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011, reflecting, in part, increases for those who went looking for jobs to lift sagging family income after the recent recession.
Other women find themselves as the sole provider because they’ve chosen to have a child on their own or because of life circumstances, such as divorce or the loss of a spouse.
When Strauss’ husband died a decade ago, she became the financial head of the household. She was working part time when he passed away and planning to return to school to study graphic design.
Being the sole breadwinner is challenging, even more so for single moms who face tough choices and few options.
Strauss recalls a year after her husband died she had an opportunity to take a full-time position.
She ran the numbers of the new salary versus the added cost of child care and lost government assistance by moving to full-time work. The result: a bump in her income of $50 a month.
It was a hard choice, the Summerville mom said, but she didn’t want to stay static.
She took the full-time job and eventually it led to her current position as a full-time, in-house graphic designer for a local health care company.
Her twins are now 13 and her youngest daughter is 11. It takes a great deal of structure and coordination to juggle her household. “It’s a balancing act,” Strauss says.
While roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to the traditional role of stay-at-home mom, only 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society, according to the Pew survey.
Roughly three in four adults said the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children.
Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said that to his surprise public attitudes toward working mothers have changed very little over the years. He predicts the growing numbers will lead to a growing constituency among women in favor of family-friendly work policies such as paid family leave, as well as safety net policies such as food stamps or child-care support for single mothers.
“Many of our workplaces and schools still follow a male-breadwinner model, assuming that the wives are at home to take care of child-care needs,” he says.
“Until we realize that the breadwinner-homemaker marriage will never again be the norm, we won’t provide working parents with the support they need.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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