Editorial Observer:
Changing the Rules for the Team Sport of Bread-Winning

September 23, 2005

There were hints over the years that my friends and I should have noticed. While it was desirable, in an era of equal rights, for men to cook dinner for their girlfriends or wives, taking out the garbage was often called "a man's job," and you, the women in our lives, wouldn't touch the stuff. And when it was time to get out the rat poison or squash the spider, many of you turned to us as the big strong hunters. That was a particular source of confusion because women have been encouraging men of my generation to wax their chests and moisturize, to dress up in designer clothes and carry squishy mats to yoga classes. We are no longer the household spear carriers.

It was puzzling, and felt slightly retrograde, but barely worth fretting over. How many spiders show up in the course of a year, anyway?
Then a friend of mine left the nonprofit sector for a big corporation so his wife could stop working when she had their first baby. My other friends and I presumed that was an exception. Couldn't happen to us. We had been taught in school and at home that marriage would feature the challenge of juggling two careers of equal importance, and that maybe we'd even have to sacrifice our own careers for the greater good of our families. Why should it be otherwise?

Men of my generation were brought up to accept and even embrace equality between the sexes. I was 6 years old when Sandra Day O'Connor joined the Supreme Court, 9 when Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president. We didn't give the concept of working women much thought. But now it sounds as if at least a few women are planning a U-turn. A front-page article in The Times reported that among 138 Yale undergraduate women who responded to an e-mail questionnaire, more than half said they planned to stop working or to work only part time once they had children.

Yikes. Concerned, I did some checking. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says labor-force participation for mothers with children under 18 has been creeping downward since 2000 - just two percentage points, but there's a trend. Well, some of you may want to be Harriets again, but we men may not be prepared to become Ozzies. Returning to the 1950's just doesn't look appealing. For one thing, the way you have us dressing these days, we would get beaten up.

More important, though, we may not be able to afford it. The switch from the single-breadwinner to the dual-income family has less to do with values than with economics.

There have been some structural changes in the economy since "Leave It to Beaver" went off the air. As always, women in lower-income families are going to factories and offices simply because they have to help pay the rent and keep food on the table. And as always, a single woman with children doesn't have the luxury of wondering whether the family can make do on one salary - it already is, and the salary is hers.

These days, Ward Cleaver wouldn't be able to afford a house in the suburbs or Beaver's tuition - unless June went to work, too. No version of the American dream is cheap.

The median income for single-earner families was just under $37,000 in 2003 and, according to the National Association of Realtors, the median single-family home price in July was $217,900. The Agriculture Department estimates the cost of raising a child in a middle-income family at $242,070 - and that does not include college. From health insurance and prenatal care to the mortgage and that big tuition bill, the costs of a family are prohibitive, and often more than one parent can earn.

Expressions like "choosing to have a career" have misled some women. Not working is no longer a choice for many. It's a luxury - or at a minimum, a serious sacrifice.

Maybe the women questioned have reverted to an even older stereotype: going to college to catch husbands. Those Yale boys are earners, aren't they? But as you earn more, the price tag goes up for each child. Tack on braces and fancy strollers, matching family iPods and headrest video monitors so baby geniuses can watch "Madagascar" on their way to violin lessons, and the price soars. The estimated cost per child jumps over $350,000 for upper-income families.

The Yalies planning their escape from the work force before they've even entered it may be in for a big shock. They may not have enough money. Or a lot of men are going to have to find new sources of income, and fast. On behalf of American men, young and open-minded, I beg you to reconsider. I thought we had a deal.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company