Why Does Breaking Gender Norms Make Us Unhappy?

Men who stay at home and women who go to work are at higher risk of depression, study suggests.

Stay-at-home dads are more likely than other men to suffer symptoms of depression while women who enter the workforce and become top earners are similarly unhappy. These findings, which are bound to bother quite a lot of people, suggest that men and women who violate traditional gender norms are less happy for it. The data also serves as a reminder that culture changes slowly and that adults who think they are past this sort of Pleasantville thinking really aren’t.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Stay-At-Home Parenting

“Well-being was lower for mothers and fathers who violated gendered expectations about the division of paid labor, and higher for parents who conformed to these expectations,” said coauthor on the study Karen Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a press statement. “We observed a statistically significant and substantial difference in depressive symptoms between men and women in our study.”

Even as educational and career opportunities for women have increased, our society has been slow to catch up. Women still face wage discrimination and the threat of sexual and physical assault in the workplace. Coworkers have less respect for women who work rather than take maternity leave—and for women who take maternity leave rather than work. Kramer and colleagues wondered what happens to men and women when they break traditional gender norms within a society that is still uncomfortable with high-earning women and stay-at-home men. Their hypothesis? That progressive men and women suffer psychologically from the fact that their communities do not respect their decisions.

gender roles

The researchers were not disappointed—well, they were somewhat disappointed. But their hypothesis was spot-on. Kramer and her team surveyed 1,463 men and 1,769 women born between 1957 and 1965, who had submitted to psychological evaluations in 1991 and 1994. They found that exiting the workforce to stay home with the kids did no harm to women’s psychological wellbeing, but that doing so caused depressive symptoms in men. Further, they found that women who were the primary breadwinners in their families reported more symptoms of depression. As men made more money, their depressive symptoms evaporated. When women did the same, they spiraled into depression.

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The findings do not mean that women are naturally better suited for housework, or that men are naturally happier in the workplace. This was not a study of nature, but a study of nurture—the extent to which societal biases can alter our psyches. The results illustrate that a society that tells men they can only be fulfilled through work, and tells women that they can only be fulfilled through childrearing, impacts even men and women who believe they’ve evolved beyond that.

For stay-at-home dads, the study’s conclusion is sobering. Is there any hope of a father finding happiness in a world that isn’t ready to accept men who spurn stock and bonds for baby wipes and bath toys? Barack Levin, stay-at-home dad and author of The Diaper Chronicles has some sage advice. “There are people out there that when they see a man staying home with his kids, they automatically think, ‘he’s an unemployed loser,’ ” he told Parents.

“You have to be comfortable with your decision and not let it get to you.”