Research out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at how gender roles and earning affected parents' mental health. 

By Maressa Brown
August 14, 2017
mom and dad with child
Credit: michaeljung/shutterstock

These days, plenty of moms -- and dads -- choose to be stay-at-home parents and either partner could be the primary breadwinner. But just 30, 40, 50 years ago, traditional gender roles -- a dad who worked outside of the home and a mom who raised the kids -- were the order of the day. New research out of the University of Illinois has taken a look at how the cultural shift has influenced mothers' and father's psychological well-being.

Researchers Karen Kramer and Sunjin Pak looked at data from 1,463 men and 1,769 women who participated in the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. It bears noting that the majority of the individuals in the study were all born between 1957 and 1965, meaning they're baby boomers. And participants' psychological well-being was measured in 1991 and 1994 using a seven-item scale that assessed their levels of depressive symptoms.

They concluded that when women made most of their families' income, they reported more symptoms of depression. On the other hand, fathers' mental health improved when they became the breadwinners. That seems to go hand-in-hand with their finding that apparently, women didn't suffer psychologically upon becoming stay-at-home parents, but dads did.

The study also looked at parents who held more egalitarian ideas about family life. Women who believed they were equally responsible for supporting their families financially got a mental health boost when they earned more -- unsurprisingly! But men in this category were still more likely to be depressed when their contribution to the family's bottomline shrank. "Work identity and (the) traditional role of primary earner are still critical for men, even when they have more egalitarian gender ideology," the researchers explained.

Of course, one major variable in all of this research has to do with how these men and women were raised to believe a household should function and how they felt they were perceived by society.

Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a family therapist in Los Angeles, California says she has patients who struggle with this issue. She believes a couple's initial expectations going into their marriage play a huge part, as well.

"A lot depends on the initial if tacit agreement the couple had at the outset," says Raymond. "If, at that time, traditional gender roles were implicit in how the marriage was to proceed, then it would make sense that if the woman then became the breadwinner she would end up conflicted -- leading to depression. But if the couple began married life with the woman being the breadwinner, I think it may work differently."

Other factors, like how each partner was raised and their life experiences, of course matter, too. "Gender roles are definitely at play, but issues of childhood experiences, dependency, and control are superimposed on these norms, and when they are not reconciled, it leads to depression and other mental health issues," Raymond explains. Not to mention that baby boomers likely had different childhood experiences than, say, gen-X'ers and millennials.

That said, it seems like it would be tough to make sweeping statements about how traditional gender roles affect moms and dads. This study is definitely an eyebrow-raiser, but perhaps it's best to consider it a snapshot of a certain generation and time in our social history vs. a definitive conclusion on all men and women's happiness at home.