Modern-day breadwinners left to ask: 'Who's the Boss?'

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | 1:51 p.m. CST; updated 6:45 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Annelle Whitt and her sons Jimmy Whitt, left, and Marcus Whitt see how many basketballs can fit into dad James Whitt's arms at the Midwest Sports Academy.

The man is the head of the household. It’s a stereotype that ruled many American families for decades. Fathers have been seen as the head disciplinarians, the ones with the final say.

Tune in to syndicated sitcoms any night of the week, though, and you’ll see couples bucking the Lucy and Ricky, “man of the house” image. Reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” depict a bumbling Ray Barone apologizing to his wife for telling her a lie or disobeying her rules. Similar events occur on reruns of “King of Queens,” where a less-than-friendly matriarch isn’t afraid to whip her husband into shape. According to evening television, the woman often rules the roost.


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According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center on Sept. 25, when it comes to domestic decisions, women really do appear to rule the house. Men and women were surveyed about four parts of domestic life: who decides what the couple does on weekends; who controls the remote control; who makes the big purchases; and who handles family finances.

Responses about these four areas were analyzed together, according to the survey, and “advantage was determined by subtracting the total number of areas in which the woman is the lead decision-maker from the number of areas in which the man makes most of the decisions.” Researchers found that 43 percent of the time, women were the ones making the decisions. Couples surveyed split control 31 percent of the time. The man was identified as the primary decision-maker 26 percent of the time.

So why, in the 21st century, do couples often consider women to be the ones in charge? Several Columbia couples and MU professors weighed in.

‘Mr. Mom’ in the 21st century

In the 1983 film “Mr. Mom,” Michael Keaton plays a stay-at-home dad who fumbles to handle the household while his wife brings home the bacon. While Keaton’s character struggles to maintain control of the children and his household, his wife struggles to adjust to demanding bosses and sexism in the workplace.

In true Hollywood style, the couple work through their problems and end up happy together. There’s a clear divide in the movie between who runs the house — Dad — and who governs the finances — Mom. What isn’t clear is whether the divide in duties means a discrepancy in power.

The Pew Research study found regardless of income level, women tended to be the primary power-holders, whether they made more money than their husbands or not. The study found “by a ratio of better than two-to-one, women make most of the household decisions (46% vs. 19%) in couples in which the woman earns more than the man.” The same was true when the man earned more than his wife, though by a smaller margin (42 percent versus 30 percent).

Annelle Whitt, 51, and her husband, Jim Whitt, 61, divvy up decision making in their household and view their roles in the family as equal. Annelle works outside the house, and Jim stays at home, taking care of their two sons.

“We play to each others’ strengths,” Annelle Whitt said. “I’m the planner. Therefore, I’m the one who probably makes plans about investments. He’s the primary caregiver for the kids.”

Jim retired three years ago after working beside Annelle for 11 years in St. Louis running their own business, JW Nugent, a wireless communications company. As their wireless foray drew to a close, the pair decided to follow whichever partner got a job first.

The couple moved to Columbia when Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Co. hired Annelle. Jim agreed to stay at home and take care of their two sons, now 11 and 15, while Annelle worked.

The couple cites the fact that Jim has experience raising children from a past marriage as the reason that he tends to make decisions at home. Annelle lends her work experience and practicality to the family’s financial calls.

“I tend to be more black and white with things; he tends to live in the gray,” Annelle said. “This is his second family, and he’s had more experience that way.”

Although he is retired, Jim is still active in the community, running cPhase Sports Association, a nonprofit youth sports association.

“When it comes to weekends, I do 90 percent of that,” Jim said. “We’re gone all the time with nonprofit activities.”

The Pew Research study found that when it comes to making the weekend decisions, “neither partner has the final word on shared weekend plans.” Almost half of those surveyed — 46 percent — said they make weekend plans together. However, when a couple said one person made the call, it was usually the woman who did so — 28 percent versus 16 percent.

The Huxtables in modern Missouri

On the popular late ‘80s, early ‘90s sitcom “The Cosby Show,” Cliff and Clair Huxtable together ran one of TV’s most famous families. The two characters were noteworthy for both having successful careers and maintaining time to care for their family. Not only were the Huxtables a power couple whose family matters translated into a ratings gold mine, they also set an example for other dual-income households.

Much like the Huxtables, dual-income couple Angel and Jody Davis say they work together on everything.

“Angel and I are pretty relaxed when it comes to making decisions,” said Jody, 34. “We usually toss around a few ideas and then decide on the best plan of action for our family.”

For the past three years, Angel has worked for the Columbia School District, for the past year as a media center instructional aid. Before joining the district, Angel took care of the children at home. Both Angel and her husband say, though, that this had no effect on the division of power in their household.

“Angel and I respect each other and always look to each other for support,” Jody said in an e-mail interview. “Sure, there are small everyday decisions that we make for ourselves, but the big decisions we work on together.”

In dual-income households, Pew Research found women see themselves with more power over the purse when it comes to handling the family finances. Men reported that they controlled the purse strings 37 percent of the time, with 30 percent reporting women held the power. Women surveyed saw themselves in charge by a larger margin, with 45 percent reporting they managed the money versus 23 percent saying the opposite.

Jody, however, said that he and his wife make financial choices together.

“Our bills are paid with both our paychecks,” Jody said. “We have always worked together to get things done.”

Contrary to the Pew Research findings, Jody said he wasn’t sure that women hold the power, explaining that he “would like to think that each parent has a role in the decision-making process.” Angel had a different explanation.

“I would think in family situations, women are perceived as decision-makers because they’re traditionally perceived as in control of the house,” Angel said. “Husbands are seen financially as the decision-makers, traditionally.”

Everybody Loves Raymond

TV’s Ray and Debra Barone live what many might consider a typical, if cartoonish, life. Debra is depicted as a stressed-out housewife, constantly battling with her mother-in-law. Although she loves her family, her husband’s goofy mistakes and rambunctious children cause her much trouble. It’s easy to argue that she is the ruler of the household, and Ray obeys her rules.

Ashley Burnam loves her job. As a stay-at-home mother of two with another baby on the way, Ashley said that the family decision making is equal, though there are some family duties that she and her husband, Weyen Burnam, emphasize differently.

“It’s pretty equal as far as finances go,” Ashley said. She added, though, that she is “not financially minded,” so her husband takes care of the bills and balances the checkbook. She knows where their money goes and has the ability to see their account but trusts her husband to take care of it.

As far as television goes, Ashley said they “don’t watch that much TV together,” but if they are together, she typically controls the remote control. Echoing the Pew Research findings, Ashley hinted that there is no consistent pattern as far as their television watching goes. Her husband will often opt for something such as sports while she is out of the room, she said, and when she joins him, she’ll watch whatever is already on.

The study found that most surveyed said they weren’t in charge when it came to TV, regardless of gender. “Perhaps there’s relative peace in front of the TV because husbands and wives are simply watching different televisions or watching their favorite shows alone at different times,” the report suggested.

Ashley said she employs a more natural approach in child-raising in her household through home births, extended breast feeding and cloth diapers. Although Weyen doesn’t wash the cloth diapers, Ashley joked, he is fully supportive of her decision to raise her children this way.

“He is happy working,” Ashley said. “It’s something he’s happy doing.”

“I don’t want to go back to work full-time if I don’t have to,” Ashley added with a chuckle.

The experts weigh in

Although many families, such as the Burnam and Davis families, try to share decisions equally, Glenn Good, a professor in the counseling psychology department, said gender roles in the household have been steadily changing. Good said couples are beginning to divide labor depending on their areas of expertise, much like Annelle and James Whitt.

Good used the current economic situation as an example of how couples may partition power, suggesting the one who is better at making financial decisions would be best for taking charge of family finance.

The man has usually been seen as the household disciplinarian, Good said, but he added that a “majority of families have moved away from that and realize the family is better if both parents are involved.”

Women may be amassing more power, but, MU sociology professor Joan Hermsen suggested, this might not be a sign of a step toward equality. Hermsen, who specializes in gender and work with an emphasis on work-related inequalities, said that though women may be perceived to hold more power in American households, they’re just doing even more work than they used to.

This power “doesn’t seem liberating in the sense of traditional views of power,” Hermsen said. “I would argue that this power is an addition of labor.”

Good touched on this subject as well, noting there has been a “call to get Dad to help out in the second shift at home.”

Annelle Whitt said the bottom line transcends gender. It’s about practicality, she said.

“It has nothing to do with being male or female.”

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