Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

Do Men Really Marry Their Mothers?

This mother’s day, many working moms worry if they’re doing right by their children. It’s the perpetual tug between making ends meet and quality time with the family. Does a mother’s work decisions while her children are young impact the attitudes of those young adults later in life?

Recently, Christie Boxer and I released preliminary findings of our research of seven decades of changing mate preferences among young adults. Men, it turns out, are increasingly interested in an educated woman who is a good financial prospect and less interested in chastity. Women are increasingly interested in a man who wants a family and less picky about whether he’s always Mr. Nice Guy. To read more about our findings, click here or see our recent press in U.S. News & World Reports, ABCNews.com and The Des Moines Register. Email me at christine-whelan@uiowa.edu for the abstract of our findings.

Along with the 18-characteristic mate preferences instrument, we also asked some demographic questions, including a section on mother’s employment history. “When you were growing up, which of the following best describes how your mother spent her time?” We included various options for part-time and full time work, before school-age and after school age.

We hypothesized that there would be some differences in mate preferences depending on mother’s work history. Parents are primary socializers – role models who we emulate later in life. So do men really “marry their mothers” when they are choosing what they want in a spouse?

Turns out that whether your mother worked for pay outside the home or not has little impact on your mate preferences as a young-adult. The rankings stay pretty much the same. But there are some slight differences:


Guys, If Your Mom Worked, You’re More Likely to Rank Education in the Top 5

• Men whose mothers worked for pay outside the home while they were young ranked education/intelligence at #4, behind mutual attraction/love, dependable character and emotional stability, while men whose mothers as homemakers ranked it #6, with pleasing disposition and desire for home and children outranking smarts.

Good Looks More Important, Shared Faith Less Important?

• Good looks were slightly more important for men whose mothers worked for pay outside the home while they were young, while college-aged men whose mothers worked within the home ranked similar religious background at #13, compared with #16 for men whose mothers worked for pay outside the home.

Ladies, Not Much Change

• Women’s attitudes didn’t change ranking depending on mother’s employment history, but examining the means for each variable, women whose mothers worked within the home ranked chastity as a slightly more important characteristic in a man than women whose mothers worked for pay outside the home.

Take Home Message

We’re still dissecting the research, but it seems to us that we’re looking at the difference between more socially conservative and liberal families – which might explain the increased importance that men in particular place on similar religious background if their mother was a homemaker during their childhood. Children who grew up with a mother as a homemaker and a father as a breadwinner are more likely to espouse similarly traditional views themselves when it comes to a spouse, and seem more likely to prioritize religion.

Bottom line: Whether you work outside the home or within the home, for pay or not, mothers are primary socializers and role models for children. Moms, you’re leading the way – and you should be proud of all your accomplishments this Mother’s Day.


May 4, 2009 - Posted by | Academic Musings, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love

1 Comment »

  1. Hm. You didn’t highlight in red what looks to me like it’s clearly the largest difference on the men’s side: “Desire for home, children” ranks 9th in your survey for men whose moms worked for pay outside the home, and 5th (!) above education and intelligence for men whose mothers didn’t.

    Comment by J. | May 8, 2009 | Reply

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