What is a “traditional nuclear family?” If you’re from the West, the Simpsons are likely the epitome of this idea. A mother who stays home to take care of the kids and a father who goes to work and supports the family = domestic bliss. Or not.
Sitcoms like The Simpsons aside, the archetype of the nuclear family is a historically inaccurate picture of how families actually function. Historically, a father as sole breadwinner was only ever possible for some middle and upper-class families. But pop culture and high society conspire to set trends, and in this case, send an especially powerful, if inaccurate, message about how a family should be — and how men in the family should act.
Time to blow it up.
Dan Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) who studies masculinity, tells Inverse that the stereotypical conception of masculinity has four pillars:
- A high-paying job
That last one, he says, “is the linchpin that holds the rest together; the others feel unattainable without that breadwinner status.”
How to figure out what works best for you and your family
Seth Norrholm is a translational neuroscientist and expert in stress and trauma disorders. He says that rather than judge yourself and your success based on your work, ask yourself the following questions:
What have you done and how do you feel about yourself as a:
Second, ask yourself: Who is the evaluator?
Who is evaluating how well you’re doing? Is it your spouse or partner? Your children? Your supervisor? Or, Norrholm says, is it “Or is it a mental amalgam of all of these that would fall under a Freudian term like Superego?”
The Superego, Norrholm explains, is “often conceptualized as your ‘conscience’ or that voice in your head that provides commentary on your thoughts, feelings, and actions. For those who adhere to outdated stereotypes, this is the voice asking, ‘What kind of a man are you?’”
Once you figure out how you feel about these things — and why — you can sit down with your partner and discuss flexible roles that work for both of you. This may not be an easy conversation, but Norrholm has some tips.
“This can be as simple as having a discussion between partners about the existing roles and how each would like to change or enhance them,” Norrholm says. “Or it can be more formal therapy to address underlying issues within each individual that have been impeding progress or success in the relationship.”
Why it matters —Trying to adhere to a role that is increasingly out of reach, experts say, can actually kill you.
“When you look at the data on this, you see these men are more likely to have heart attacks. They’re even more likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction,” Cassino says.
Many individuals and families experienced financial shakeups during the pandemic, Norrholm says, and now is as good a time as any to reevaluate your own goals and what works for you and your family.
What heterosexual couples can learn from homosexual couples
Cassino says heterosexual couples can also learn from couples of the same gender.
“Homosexual couples don't have gender roles” in the same way as straight couples, he says. “There’s no ‘the husband is supposed to do this because they’re both the husband.”
Homosexual couples may be less prone to defaulting to certain roles, he says, and divide responsibilities in a way that works for both parties.
“If you actually just talk about it, then things get more equal,” Cassino says. “Inequality comes when people just go back to whatever they think the expected norm is without actually ever talking about with their spouse.”
Does my spouse care if I’m not the breadwinner?
It’s important to figure out what matters to you and your loved ones because there’s a good chance that your partner doesn’t care about breadwinner status as much as you might think.
“We have good research that says men overestimate how much everyone else cares about this,” Cassino says. “They think, ‘What happens if I am not the chief breadwinner? People are going to look down on me, they’ll think I’m less of a man, they’ll look at me like my dick is gonna fall off.’”
But that’s simply not what the data show. “It’s not real,” Casino says, “When we actually ask women, they don't really give a shit, nobody cares.”
While it can be disorientating to realize that something you thought mattered to everyone around you doesn’t, it can also be incredibly freeing.
The freedom of not being the breadwinner
If your sole concern isn’t making enough money to be the only source of financial support for your family, your options expand. Maybe you don’t spend every weekend at the office trying to make partner or working overtime for that promotion. Instead, you could have more time for yourself, your family, and to pursue what you’re passionate about. And isn’t that better than worrying about becoming something that’s unlikely to make you or your partner happy?
Detox is an Inverse series that answers the biggest questions about men's mental health.
If you have suggestions for a future Detox column, email katie.macbride [at] inverse [dot] com with “Detox” in the subject line.