The great American conundrum of how to manage work and home life became national conversation Wednesday with the news that a record number of women are their family's primary provider.
Among these "Breadwinner Moms," the title of the report by Pew Research Center, 63 percent are single and 37 percent are married; in both cases, the statistics stem from more women in the workplace, Pew states.
Amid such major socio-economic shifts, men and women are re-orienting their roles and, at times, expectations to make their unions work in the new economy. For some couples, it's simply an updated approach to meeting the demands of modern life.
When Lance Somerfeld told his boss that he was leaving P.S. 86, the Bronx public school where he taught sixth grade, to become a stay-at-home dad, the response could hardly have been more jubilant. The principal took to the school intercom, congratulating Somerfeld and announcing: "He's decided to become a modern man!"
More than four years later, that choice continues to be a source of pride for Somerfeld, 39, who founded NYC Dads Group, a fraternity/support group of more than 800 dads with varied parenting arrangements. "I walk around, and I'm very confident in telling people what my role is, who I am, how much I love spending time with my child," he says.
Somerfeld credits his wife, Jessica, for supporting his move – first, from corporate finance to follow his passion for teaching, and then on opting to be the one who stays home with Jake.
"When I need money, I ask my wife," he says. "That's just business as usual ... It's never like, 'What did you spend the last $100 on?'"
For an atypical arrangement, they both face the rather typical pros and cons of their assigned roles. Jessica, an actuary, says she benefits from "a clear mind at the office, knowing that my child is receiving exceptional care from my husband." On the other hand, spending little time with her son during the week, missing out on meshing with the other parents at his school and "my son 'wanting his father' if he gets hurt or upset" are real challenges.
Did she anticipate these issues? No, she says. "But I do feel they are a fair trade-off for the benefits achieved."
"Women are more empowered financially than they've ever been before," says Liza Mundy, author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family." She cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that working wives out-earn their husbands by nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, among the American workforce, women outrank men in college degrees. And, in some American cities, single, childless women under 30 out-earn their male peers according to a 2010 analysis of U.S. census data. As a result, men and women face unprecedented opportunities in their home and work lives, respectively.
But research and experience indicate that nontraditional gender roles can be tough for couples to navigate.
Women may feel shame and guilt about missing time with their children; men may feel emasculated by doing or earning something that lacks social status, says sex and relationship expert Laura Berman, host of the Oprah Winfrey Network's "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman."
"One of the most fundamental needs that men have to be happy in a relationship, or even to be really attracted to a mate, is to feel needed by them and to feel of use," Berman says, advising female breadwinners to be sensitive to his situation and receptive to other kinds of support from him, such as emotional comfort or fixing things around the house.
But often, the dynamic is aggravated by what Berman calls "the alpha woman syndrome," in which the breadwinning wife berates her husband for handling household chores differently than she would. "What are you doing playing outside with the kids when the dishwasher was never loaded and the laundry was never done?" she might say on arriving home. This, in turn, further emasculates a husband and puts him at risk of sexual dysfunction or losing interest in her.