Excerpt: Bringing Home the Bacon

ByABC News via logo

May 26, 2005 — -- "Bringing Home the Bacon" looks at why some men can deal with taking a back seat to their wives who earn more money, while others simply cannot relinquish the role as the primary breadwinner.

Here's an excerpt:

Paul was the kind of man Tom Wolfe would call a "master of the universe." He had a high-powered job in finance and worked long hours, sometimes seven days a week. He identified strongly with his role as provider, so although his wife, Ellen, had a low-paying job, he took care of most of their bills. While he made lots of money by most people's standards, he spent it lavishly, and he had dreams of living in real luxury, with a sprawling estate, lots of household help, and plenty of leisure time to enjoy it all. Then he lost his job.

That was two years ago, and Paul and Ellen have used up what little savings they had. Now they're trying to survive on Ellen's meager income. Paul's early attempts to find another job failed, and he has slipped into a depressive funk. He sleeps most of the day, and when he's not sleeping, he's often in a rage, his explosive anger the only thing that makes him feel powerful in what he sees as a hopeless, emasculating situation.

Then there's Steve. After scaling the corporate mountain for a number of years, he, too, had a high-powered finance job in his native Australia. Shortly after he married Kimberly, an American who also had a well-established career, they moved to the United States, and Steve left his hard-earned professional status behind. He started over in the States, though, and had begun building a thriving business in banking when Kimberly became pregnant. "We knew we didn't want our kids raised by nannies," Steve says now, several years later. They looked impartially at both their careers and agreed that hers probably had more upside potential. "Okay, I'll stay home," he said. "Kimberly didn't really want to give up her career," he recalls, "because it was really taking off, and I was willing to do it. I really love children, and although I felt a little anxious about leaving my job, this just seemed to make the most sense."

Why is one man incapacitated by the loss of a job and another, equally successful, man able to give it up willingly? Where does this male provider mentality come from, anyway? And how can 21st-century men who buy into the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" image ever reconcile themselves to playing a secondary role in the family financial hierarchy?

The Evolution of Men

Despite the fact that much of recorded history is an archive of men's thoughts and deeds (and far more of the latter), until recently not much attention was paid to masculinity itself, to how men define themselves as male or to what differentiates men from women. There are the shallow stereotypes -- men are macho and aggressive, they don't like to ask for directions -- but beyond the baritone voice, burly biceps, and five o'clock shadow, we know very little about who they are as a gender.

That seems to be changing. Thanks in part to the women's movement, which prompted deep and widespread analyses of the female condition, more experts of every stripe, from anthropologists to sociologists, are starting to look at the experience of being male, from prehistoric times to the present. With books as diverse as David Buss's "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating," Michael Kimmel's "Manhood in America: A Cultural History," and Susan Faludi's "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," a portrait of men has begun to emerge that's far more complex and challenging than the stereotypes suggest.

During this tricky transition in modern marriages, when men are increasingly being unseated from their financial thrones, it's essential for women to try to understand who men are as human beings and why they react to things the way they do. Only with this understanding will it be possible for contemporary women to sustain a relationship with their male partners. With that in mind, we've taken a survey of the available literature to provide some partial glimpses into the male psyche -- glimpses that can offer helpful insights to couples who are floundering in the swiftly moving cultural current of a gender-role shift.

Evolutionary psychologists, who study the prehistoric underpinnings of human behavior and emotions, believe that the most basic clues about what it means to be male lie in our evolutionary history. Men took on the role of provider for survival reasons. Those who were good hunters -- who were muscular, strong, quick, and aggressive, who were good shots with a spear, and/or who had personal power within their social group and therefore were able to command a greater share of the communal food -- were more likely to find mates. As a result, they also were more likely to pass along their genes than their less-powerful, less-dominant brethren, thereby begetting a whole new generation of virile offspring.

Generation after generation of natural selection eventually bred men who were not only physically larger and stronger than women but who were also eager to go on risky hunting expeditions, slay buffalo, and even compete against other men for limited resources (including women). Although humans are infinitely adaptable and able to change their lifestyle to adjust to their environment -- scientists say we have our uniquely malleable and creative brains to thank for that -- it seems to researchers more and more likely that the desire to support and protect a family is encoded in men's DNA. In the most primal sense, men may be programmed for hunting, or the modern version: providing financially.

As modern technology allows scientists to peer into humans' brains with greater accuracy, the results confirm what women (especially those women who have raised little boys and little girls) have suspected for a long time: that men and women are indeed wired differently. Like it or not, it's essential that women understand these differences and accept them. Many experts still tiptoe around the issue, however, because "different" has, in the past, been misconstrued to mean "superior" or "inferior." As Lisa Belkin writes in a 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story, "So much of recent history (the civil rights movement, the women's movement) is an attempt to prove that biology is not destiny. To suggest otherwise is to resurrect an argument that can be -- and has been -- dangerously misused." But men and women are different, and understanding and accepting our differences -- as well as where each other's strengths and weaknesses lie -- can help bridge the cultural and emotional chasm that separates the two genders.

Studies show that early in fetal development, the male Y chromosome triggers a cascade of changes that begins with the formation of testes, central headquarters for the production of testosterone, the hormone that sexualizes the male brain as well as the body. Under the influence of testosterone, babies' brains change in peculiarly "male" ways, affecting everything from the size of specific structures to the wiring of neurons, designed to enhance the flow of information. Studies show that the higher the level of prenatal testosterone, the smaller a toddler's vocabulary, a finding that could go a long way toward explaining women's greater verbal ability as well as the male reticence to "talk things out." There's also an evolutionary reason for women's enhanced verbal ability: Women didn't hunt, but they needed to communicate with other women in their family and/or social group. Women helped one another and one another's children to survive.

Another notable difference is that boys' brains develop more "white matter" (as opposed to gray matter), a substance that scientists believe may give men an advantage when it comes to certain spatial skills, like reading maps and navigating mazes. White matter may also make them more single-minded when it comes to solving problems. (We'll explain the advantages of female brains in chapter 2.) Numerous studies seem to corroborate this theory. By age 10, more boys than girls can rotate three-dimensional objects in their mind's eye, and at puberty, many boys begin to score better than girls on tests of algebra, geometry, and other subjects involving visual, spatial, and quantitative skills.

Although some experts argue that the testing discrepancies have more to do with the way boys and girls are socialized than with any true innate difference in ability, this is overly simplistic. Of course socialization has a huge effect on development, but we can never ignore biology. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that the capacity to think three-dimensionally may have come in handy during extended hunting expeditions, when the ability to scout and track animals as well as to find the way home after far-flung jaunts could have meant the difference between life and death.

Is it any wonder that men don't like to ask for directions? Why they think they can get someplace without a map? The fact that they seem to be spatially focused, thinking in larger frames of organization, may be one reason why men are not interested in "details" -- a quality that can drive some women up the wall when, for example, they ask their husbands to make appointments for their children.

Why do men love using a metal stick to whack a little ball around a golf course? Are they using their spatial brainpower to chase modern-day prey? Why do they love hunting and fishing? Since experts believe that men went out in groups to capture and kill a mastodon or buffalo, why should we be surprised that men are enthralled and obsessed with team sports?

These biological clues to the origins of men's provider mentality are undoubtedly intriguing, but do they mean that men are hardwired for work or more suited to today's workplace than women? Hardly, says Matt Ridley, an evolutionary psychologist. In his book "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature," he points out that while our natural history may have primed men for hunting, neither gender is predisposed to be better at most of today's market work -- holding meetings in a boardroom, putting together deals on a cell phone, examining patients in a medical office, or polishing widgets on an assembly line. Says Ridley, "The fact that 'work' became a male thing and 'home' became a female one is an accident of history."

The split between male functions and female functions on the homestead has been reinforced through the years, thanks to a number of economic and cultural realities. As Ridley observes, the domestication of cattle and the invention of the plow made gathering vegetables and grain -- once the domain of women -- a task that benefited from men's greater muscle power. And the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century accentuated the split even more, because for the first time "work" moved far away from the home. During this period there was a mass exodus of fathers from family farms, as men went to seek their fortunes in distant factories, while women stayed on the farm to nurse babies, care for young children, and tend the house.

Around this same time, attitudes toward "men's work" and "women's work" underwent a transformation as well. Some men began citing everything from religious doctrine to scientific and medical evidence that "proved" that women weren't tough enough, smart enough, or moral enough to enter the realm of paid work. According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America," this was an attempt for men, unaccustomed to punching a time clock and reporting to a hierarchy of bosses, to reestablish a sense of control, autonomy, and manliness.

Cultural ideas about fathering shifted around this time as well. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the father was widely viewed as the moral overseer of the family and children. Fathers were responsible for children's religious training, for raising children to be moral adults. With industrialization and the relocation of paid work away from the home, this paternal role diminished. The father's contribution to the family came to be seen as primarily economic; the father once again became the hunter and provider.

The foregoing is excerpted from "Bringing Home the Bacon" by Harriet Pappenheim and Ginny Graves. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from William Morrow, May 2005.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events