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The Male Breadwinner’s Dilemma

Inside the minds of primary earning men torn between work and home.

Key points

  • By understanding the struggles of male breadwinners, more men may be inspired to join the home front more fully.
  • Male breadwinners may experience a breakdown of an organized strategy to deal with conflicting pulls between work and home.
  • Primary earning men may not be able to reach a work-life balance until they believe their manhood to be incontestable.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

The road to ‘Real Manhood’ zigzags with thrills and spills. In the realm of paid work, this slippery quest brings out the best and worst in men.

Male breadwinners may feel it’s a call of duty rather than a choice to be their family's financial winner, but to meet this moment of burnout and ‘Great Resignation,’ it will require them to reimagine what it means to be #winning.

There’s a growing call for men to more fully join with women in the unpaid labor at home to activate women’s success in the workplace, set an ambitious precedent for future generations, and normalize flexible work policies for all.

While most parents with young children are in dual-earning relationships, many dads remain the primary financial providers. This demographic is often in a position of power to push their workplaces towards a healthier job-life integration. By understanding the inner struggle of men who carry the most pressure to bring in wages, perhaps we can inspire more men to join the trenches on the home front.

The Conundrum

When it comes to rebalancing the division of housework, closing the gender pay gap, or the necessity of paid family leave, the perception is that men are mum. In a heartfelt essay, Lucas Mann described women as penning “blood-on-the-page testimonials” about postpartum experiences, while fathers remain “silent allies.” The Onion had their take too: “Man Dreams Of More Equal America That Just Sort Of Happens On Its Own.”

According to a report from New America, most men believe unpaid care work is just as important as paid work, including Black fathers, who must deal with the racist “absentee” myth. In actuality, few differences exist between Black and white men in valuing and engaging in parenting and housework.

Men’s silence clashes with the reality that most dads, armed with increasing awareness and resources, are as committed and caring as ever.

Then what accounts for what one report from New America described as a “vast disconnect” between what most men say about care work versus what they do?

I understand male silence, in part, as a deep ambivalence in the face of unspoken fears and a breakdown of organized strategies to deal with conflicting pulls.

The academic chapter titled “The New Dad: The Career-Caregiving Conundrum” documents fathers’ desire for acceptance as “whole persons.” Nearly half of working dads say that they find it challenging to reconcile the callings of work and home.

In psychotherapy, I see men seduced by the idea of providing and protecting their loved ones from financial stress, only to be betrayed when this tried-and-true arrangement doesn't age well or sync with soul-sucking work hours.

Breadwinning men fear “failure” or “softness.” Some are silently terrified of abdicating their responsibility or anticipate shame in being outmanned by coworkers. Understandably so. Taking time off work can result in professional sanctions or “flexibility stigmas” that threaten career opportunities.

The modern company man often craves approval and fears his office overlords who grant his family economic freedom but rip him from his kids’ bedtime routines with urgent evening emails. Demanding careers can reduce dads from whole humans — balanced in work, love, and play — to job titles and their female partners into drained care workers with untapped ambitions.

While women now make up a majority of the paid U.S. workforce, this doesn't spell the “The End of Men,” as one headline forecasted. I see this time as The Bend of Men, a new era of flexibility and soreness where men attempt to synergize work and home and grieve the death of their forefathers’ privilege of being able to separate these two spheres of influence.

If you’ve ever witnessed a man with office-chair atrophied glutes attempting yoga, then you know flexibility doesn’t come easy. When men stretch into domestic affairs, their partners may highlight their wobbliness and restrict further parenting access. This I’ll-just do-the-diapers-myself “maternal gatekeeping” can fuel incompetence and pivot men to their paid work, a place of self-repossession.

It’s also unhelpful that we still hold male-breadwinner norms: Over 70 percent of Americans report that financially supporting a family remains very important for a man to be a good partner; in comparison, just 32 percent say the same for women.

More embedded holdups make change challenging. Findings suggest that, on average, women prefer mates with good earning capacity more than men, which would naturally motivate bachelors to pursue demanding work as a matter of self-preservation.

Making it work

Fathers are more invested in the domestic domain, but their workplaces haven’t kept pace.

It’s important for men — especially office alphas — to speak up about work-life balance in their company break rooms and make paternity leave a norm. Data suggests that men’s workplace flexibility promotes maternal health.

It’s also emotionally refueling for men when their partners highlight the power of their domestic work — and perhaps its sexiness too.

We need to all encourage men to embark on richer quests — to honor their partners’ wholeness by taking a leap of faith into the uncharted, unpaid corners of their households, assuming this doesn't cause financial ruin. This act of courage protects a partner’s career ambitions and their creative and playful identities. Doing so also provides for and preserves one another’s shared dignity and humanity and generates healthier family communication, freer from resentment and contempt.

Until women’s pleas for domestic participation emotionally resonates with men, until men feel something analogous to a partner’s gaping void, re-divvying up who does the dishes isn’t going to be a viable solution. Getting men to locate, metabolize, and express sadness or gratitude in seeing their partner under duress requires self-exploration, psychotherapy, or heart-to-hearts with other guys facing similar conundrums.

Men can’t bridge their empathy gaps or recognize their partner’s wholeness until they see beyond the masculinity contests at work and believe their manhood to be incontestable; until they think themselves to be whole too.


Coltrane, S., Miller, E.C., DeHaan, T. and Stewart, L. (2013), Fathers and the Flexibility Stigma. Journal of Social Issues, 69: 279-302.

Harrington, B. (2022). The New Dad: The Career-Caregiving Conundrum. In: Grau Grau, M., las Heras Maestro, M., Riley Bowles, H. (eds) Engaged Fatherhood for Men, Families and Gender Equality. Contributions to Management Science. Springer, Cham.

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