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Thursday
Jul122012

Free-Range Parents and Gender Equality at Work

Two recent essays in The Atlantic discussing feminism and work-life balance caught my attention recently.  The first, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, has the striking title 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.  Here’s a snippet that captures the gist of it:

I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed.

And one from the second, much longer essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

[…] I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

The essays made a splash in the feminist blogosphere.  One thread of the reaction I followed from here:

But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. […] That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. […] Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. […] If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.

To here:

There’s much missing in the framing of these debates—from the expectation of power and privilege to a limited idea of what success is. What’s irked me is the continued assumption that this is a women’s issue. The problem isn’t that women are trying to do too much, it’s that men aren’t doing nearly enough.

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women—even those with full-time jobs—still do the bulk of housework and childcare. On an average day, 48 percent of women and 19 percent of men did housework. Married women with children who work full time spend 51 minutes a day on housework while married men with children spend just 14 minutes a day.

The breakdown of childcare responsibilities was not much different—55 percent of working men said they cared for their kids on an average day, whereas 72 percent of working women did. Women also reported spending more time during the day caring for their children than men. [links theirs]

Back to here:

As an aside, I have a secret fantasy of gathering a team of men to go to every male-dominated discussion (on specific issues in the law or a certain genre of film or investigative journalism or whatever) and when it’s Q&A time, earnestly ask the male panelists how they balance work and family.

That one has a list of suggestions for addressing the issue, beginning and ending, notably, with:

First, don’t marry or move in or reproduce with men unless they pull their own weight. Seriously. That might mean you end up alone. That might be a better option.

[…]

Eighth, I don’t really know what else, except all of these discussions are part of the reason why I am extremely hesitant to reproduce. [Emphasis mine.]

(Note that I’m doing some really rough excerpting here, and none of these should be taken as substitutes for the original sources.  All worth your while, especially the original essays.)

That line of discussion reminded me of a book I read recently.  Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids looks at twin and adoption studies and argues that there’s not much middle-class parents can do to effectively benefit their kids beyond giving them good genes and a reasonable middle-class upbringing.  More labor-intensive methods of parenting yield little result (either due to the extra work having minor effects or mixed effects).  Given that good parenting requires less effort than expected, the book argues that middle-class people should simply consider having more children.

Here’s a relevant passage on the rise of childcare hours among American parents:

[…] As expected, dads do a lot more [childcare] than they used to.  Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts.  Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard.  What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload:  Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home-mom.

Back in 1965, when the typical mom was a housewife, she spent ten hours a week specifically focusing on her children’s needs.  By 2000, this number had risen to thirteen hours a week.  This happened despite the fact that today’s moms are much more likely to work outside the home, despite the fact that moms have fewer kids, and despite the fact that dads are a lot more helpful. […]

One pattern hasn’t changed: Stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids than working moms.  However, both kinds of moms went from about eleven hours per week in 1975 to seventeen hours per week in 2000.  Working moms went from six hours per week in 1975 to eleven hours per week in 2000.  Modern working moms spend as much time caring for their kids as stay-at-home moms did thirty years ago.

These weekly totals sound low because they define “child care” narrowly.  Reading a book on the couch while my sons fight Playmobil wars wouldn’t count—even if I occasionally urged them to play nice.  When parents get full credit for multitasking, measured child care shoots up about 50 percent. [ed: I think that may be an under-estimate, compare this to this, for example (noting that the bins are different)] But however you measure, the main patterns remain.  The average dad has roughly doubled his effort.  The average mom spends more time taking care of her kids than she did when the average mom was a housewife.

[…] If the statistics are right, it’s clear why raising kids feels like a chore.  By the standards of the Sixties, modern dads do enough child care to pass for moms—and modern moms do enough child care to compete for Mother of the Year. […]

(This article indicates these numbers have continued to rise, especially among the college educated.  Though there may be over-reporting there; the article indicates the surveys do make a similar distinction between primary and secondary child care, but the survey methods may differ.)

It’s not that child-raising has become harder.  America has become wildly safer for children, both in terms of factors that parents have little control over (disease, war) and things that parents might hope to protect their children from some of the time (violence, accidents).  And that reduction in risk isn’t from the increase in childcare hours itself, crime rates have gone down across the board and accidents have become less dangerous mainly due to medical technology.

Another book, Free Range Kids (the author also writes a fantastic blog), argues that a culture of fear perpetuated by the extremes of the fear-and-blame-focused 24-hour news cycle and anxiety-driven status competition among parents has lead to an extreme system of parenting that’s bad for the well-being of parents and children alike.  We worry about and obesity, and then don’t allow kids to go outside.  An all-but-entirely-illusory fear of abduction leads to “don’t talk to strangers” hyperbole that leaves kids deprived of their best and easiest way to get help when they’re separated from parents and in trouble.  And much of that addition childcare work ends up being spent on car trips (a far, far greater source of avoidable danger to children than stranger abduction, but for some reason one which doesn’t get much attention in the corporate news media).

It’s also worth noting that for some of the things where nurture really does have a significant effect (e.g. people having positive memories of their childhood), more laid-back parenting could also be productive.  As the article above relates:

“Parents are feeling like they don’t have enough time with their children,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which conducts research on the work force. “It’s a function of people working so hard, and they are worried they’re shortchanging their children. I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

[…]

Dr. Galinsky notes that although working parents typically feel guilty for not spending more time at home, children often have a different reaction. In a landmark study published as “Ask the Children” (Harper, 2000), she asked more than 1,000 children about their “one wish” for their parents. Although parents expected their children would wish for more family time, the children wanted something different.

“Kids were more likely to wish that their parents were less tired and less stressed,” Dr. Galinsky said.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that some of the rise in childcare time is simply time freed-up by the use of labor saving technology in other sorts of household chores.  But technology should also be labor-saving in other sorts of childcare, especially the indirect kind.)

Given that context, there are a few important things to note:

1. It’s important for men to do more housework and childcare work, but specifically in a context that allows women to do less housework and childcare work (and specifically less of the sort that’s tedious and labor-intensive).  Just having everyone do 12 hours of direct childcare a week (in two-parent families), plus some multiple of that in for-the-whole-household chores and keeping-an-eye-on stuff, wouldn’t be better for women, men, or children.

2. The culture of unnecessarily labor-intensive parenting makes this whole gender-equality in work-life-balance problem look harder than it is.

3. The need to get companies to stop relying on the “housewife model” is still absolutely crucial.  For one thing, very young kids are still going to need loads of supervision (though modern American parenting still manages to be way more labor-intensive than necessary even in that case).  But the social model of helicopter-parent, always-supervised child is just as much of a problem, and just as much of a gendered issue.

4. The extent that “parenting correctly” has become some sort of class-anxiety-ridden status battle is bad.  Having that be another thing men expect their wives to take on for them is even worse.

Which brings me back to that first essay.  Wurtzel writes:

Seriously: Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his? So condescending. If he thought that, he’d be doing it. […]

Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren’t all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn’t really work. Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let’s face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life. [emphasis mine, links theirs]

So here’s another angle on that:  As feminists have pushed for women’s equality in the workplace, America has been making (middle-class) parenting more like a job, more like a career.  Status conscious, labor-intensive, very concerned with doing things “the right way”, who to blame when things go wrong, who’s qualified.  Wurtzel is dead right to note the emptiness of that “most important job in the world” rhetoric, but it’s also worth noting how that rhetoric has become embedded in the structure of modern American parenting.

Reader Comments (2)

This is interesting.

I think I'll throw in that parenting is extremely important, and so is how you do it, and it's hard because I doubt many parents are trained parenting experts and can do a really good job of parenting and know they're doing a good job.  Not that being really good at it doesn't include being less stressed and spending fewer hours on parenting.  See?  It's fragile that way.

August 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSolomon Garner

Yeah, it's hard to distinguish between "nurture can't have a significant effect on a particular issue" and "nurture can have a significant effect on this issue, but for the vast majority of adoptive parents, it doesn't have any significant effect one way or another". Still, not sure worrying about how to develop statistically-improbable levels of parenting skill is likely to be productive, even if something turns out to fall into the "technically possible but good luck" camp.

It's worth noting that "Selfish Reasons" isn't anti-parenting, but it does suggest that parents focus their exceptional efforts on things where nurture easily makes a big difference. Most notably, relationship and communication skills: Nurture has a big effect on whether children have a positive relationship with their parents and how much they enjoy their childhood. Nurture also has a small (but significant) effect in helping children avoid getting in big trouble as children (even if that effect doesn't stay significant into adulthood, significant-enough trouble can have effects that last into adulthood). So good discipline is worthwhile (though the biggest effect of that is to make life more pleasant for the parents).

August 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterSam

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