MacKenzie Bezos helped Jeff start Amazon – and then stayed home to take care of the family (and become a successful novelist). She is one of the more than one-quarter of American mothers who stay home (only 7% of men do so). That number includes about 10% of all highly educated mothers (those with a master’s degree or higher) who opt out of the workplace to take care of their families. These women opt out to support the careers of their husbands and to engage in the intensive mothering that is expected of them.
While the women may explain they are voluntarily deciding to stay home, that choice gets strong public support: more than half of Americans believe that mothers will do a better job of caring for a new baby than believe that both mothers and fathers would be equally good — and only 1% believe that fathers, not mothers, would provide better care. Thus, “for many heterosexual couples, it’s more of a foregone conclusion.”
When these women get divorced, the law in virtually all states requires that property be distributed equitably, but only a few states require equal distribution.
That’s where this gets complicated. Should the caretaking that stay-at-home moms do be valued as equal to the breadwinning of their husbands? Consider whether that means the stay-at-home mom should be entitled to half of all assets, and whether we do not adequately “ value the often invisible and unpaid labor that so many women do to enable their husbands to build wealth and find professional success.”
This question of how to value caretaking at divorce was at the core of an innovative recent study by two Vanderbilt professors. Law profs Joni Hersch and Jennifer Bennett Shinall recruited more than 3000 subjects to find out their thoughts on the property that a stay-at-home spouse should receive on divorce. All participants read the same basic fact scenario.