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Married women, meanwhile, go to great lengths to praise their stay-at-home husbands for what they do, to suggest that identity can attach to sources other than salary. Activities that might have been considered hobbies will achieve a higher status. A wife talks about her husband's blog as if it were a book project. Heavy meals and showy cooking are gratefully received and complimented, even as many women secretly long for a simple meal of steamed vegetables. Time with kids, the coaching, the homework help is exalted. The message: The ability to generate income is not the only measure of value.
But these women may be trying harder than they need to. There is strong evidence that earnings make a woman more, not less, desirable as a partner. A study published in 2001 by University of Texas at Austin psychologist David Buss and three colleagues found that in just over five decades, there was a huge jump in the weight men gave to women's earnings when ranking traits important in a mate and a sharp drop in the value they placed on domestic skills. In February 2012, an analysis by the Hamilton Project--a Brookings Institution initiative tracking trends in earnings and life prospects--found that marriage rates have risen over the past four decades for the highest-earning women. Far from being unwilling to commit, demographer Christine Schwartz has noted, "men are increasingly looking for partners who will pull their own weight economically in marriage" and are willing to compete for them.
They would be foolish not to. Research by the Families & Work Institute shows that fathers today spend much more time with their children than fathers once did and that fathers in dual-earner couples feel greater work-family conflict than mothers. Men may come to understand that life as a co-earner or secondary earner will give them more time for hobbies, leisure and children or for work they find fulfilling rather than lucrative. "When culture runs up against economic trends, usually economic trends win out," says economist Gary Becker, meaning that even if men had been brought up to feel they should be breadwinners, pragmatism will prevail if their wife turns out to have the better job prospects.
As for women, with success and independence come uncomfortable discoveries that may test some cherished feminist principles. Up to now, feminists have argued that breadwinning--for men--should carry no special privilege, that male earners were wrong to think their paycheck bought them out of sorting socks. Now women are having to ask what privileges, if any, their own breadwinning buys. One woman, whom I'll call Rose, struggled with the balance of economic power after her husband, whom I'll call Michael, lost his job. Michael was doing as much housework as possible--cooking, cleaning, shopping, litter-box emptying--and Rose was working harder than ever. Was she entitled to sign up for travel whenever she needed to? When Michael did get a new job, Rose still earned twice as much as he did. Should she continue to let him do the bulk of the housework? Or was she obliged to make sure it was 50-50? Even though he was a better cook and cleaner?