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As more women become bigger breadwinners, the news isn’t all good

It's hard, at first glance, not to feel wonderfully liberated by this statistic: According to a new study, 40 per cent of U.S. homes with kids under the age of 18 now have moms bringing home the biggest paycheque. That's a quadrupling since 1960, and not that far away from the 50-per-cent mark. After-work cocktails, all around.

That is, if you're a breadwinning mom who can afford them.

In fact, underneath that big number are two stories about very distinct mothers. In the cocktail-sipping group are the 5.1-million well-educated, married moms out-earning their husbands and doing quite well. In two-parent households with a breadwinning moms, the median household income was actually $2,000 higher (U.S.) than those with a father as the primary earner, and $10,000 higher than couples with both partners earning about the same, according to data from the Pew Research Center. And they are already doing pretty well, relatively speaking: The median total family income for these households was $80,000 in 2011, according to Pew. That's much better than the U.S. median of $51,700 for all families with kids.

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For the other group of women in this story, the household budget is significantly smaller and definitely tighter. Single moms account for 63 per cent of breadwinning mothers. They are younger, less educated and more likely to be black or Hispanic. And their annual median income is much smaller – roughly $23,000.

As the gender gap between men and women narrows, this is the real gap society needs to worry about. Yes, people are still pretty attached to the idea of mom baking apple pie and greeting the kids at the school bus – 51 per cent in the survey said that kids are better off with mom at home. (Dad can keep his briefcase – only 8 per cent feel the same way about him.) But people can wax nostalgic, that mother ship has sailed.

But let's be honest, society is only idealizing the "right" kind of mom. In the study, 64 per cent of Americans said that the growing trend of single mothers was "a big problem." This, the study says, is down from 71 per cent in 2007, and young people are even less likely to say the same.

The study doesn't clarify the nature of the "big problem." But the inference is that they mean on moral grounds or for the sake of the children raised in these households.

And they're right – when studies come back with these kinds of numbers, there is a problem: Too many households with female breadwinners are living in poverty, and these families need social policy, workplaces and an education system that supports them. It's often believed that the success of educated, wealthier women will make things better for all women – improving conditions in the workplace, closing the gender wage gap and so on. But that's never really been true as much as we like to think. This study tells the story of two disparate groups, and they aren't gathering at book clubs together to talk about women's issues.

The fact is, some breadwinning mothers will go home tonight to debate whose turn it is to make dinner.

And many more breadwinning moms may be wondering how they'll pay for it.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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