On the concept of “breadwinning”

Not long after writing about being “freed up” to do more work, I happened hear a podcast from ABC Radio National’s Life Matters programme discussing a study of some men’s decisions not to have children. One of the reasons given by men in the study is a fear that they would not be able be both an adequate “breadwinner” and an adequate father at the same time. I’m sure I’ve heard similar complaints of women being expected to hold down both full-time careers and full-time household duties though I don’t recall exactly where I read or heard these.

Once upon a time this problem was “solved” by expecting men to do the breadwinning while their wives raised the children; in the language of my earlier entry, one might say that wives were “freed up” to perform childcare and household work by virtue of their husbands’ income. As it became the norm for women to work as well, did we forget to leave time aside for the household?

Of course many developed countries and individual organisations have parental leave intended to address this, though they typically provide only for a fixed period of leave immediately following the birth of a child. How one is supposed to care for children older than a year or so, or for that matter perform household chores like cleaning and cooking, is left up the individual after he or she is done with breadwinning. And, by many accounts, women who take time out of work to look after young children lose pay and seniority over the course of their careers through lacking those extra months or years of work experience.

Being a childless man myself, and unmarried to boot, I can hardly comment upon the proper way of raising children or of distributing household chores, and perhaps what I’m doing wouldn’t be considered “breadwinning” either without any dependents to win bread for. The men in the study probably aren’t representative of men in general, either, since they were studied precisely because they had no children. But it takes some explaining as to why someone would want to be a breadwinner for a household in which he or she could not participate.

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