Posted by: emjb | March 16, 2007

The birds and the bees and the 401k

There’s a great article up at the Columbia Journalism Review right now. The author, bothered as I have often been by the strange persistence of high-profile articles about successful women who “opt out” of the workforce to become mothers (and love it!), decided to study these articles and where they come from.

The results were interesting. Basically? They’re a snow job. The number of women in the workforce keeps rising, driven by simple economics (everything has gotten more expensive) and the fact that more of them have higher education, and higher ambitions. But these articles ignore all that, treating women who work as some kind of hobbyists who are just doing it on a whim, and when the baby arrives, lose interest and happily stay home knitting booties.

The statistics show: there is no opt-out revolution. But there may very well be a more troubling reality that the happy cheery “opt-out” talk is meant to disguise; the fact that women (and though it’s not mentioned much, men) find it increasingly hard to have a life and a job at the same time.

I could quote the whole article, but this bit is especially good:

More than a third of the articles in Williams’s report cite “workplace inflexibility” as a reason mothers leave their jobs. Nearly half mention how lonely and depressed those women get when they’ve been downgraded to full-time nannies. Never do such articles cite decades of social science research showing that women are happier when occupying several roles; that homemakers’ well-being suffers compared to that of working women; or that young adults who grew up in dual-earner families would choose the same family model for their own kids. Rarely do such articles ask how husband and wife negotiated which one of them would sacrifice a career. Only by ignoring both the women’s own stories and the larger context can the moms-go-home articles keep chirping on about choice and about how such women now have “the best job in the world.”

Underlying all this is a genuinely new trend that the moms-go-home stories never mention: the all-or-nothing workplace. At every income level, Americans work longer hours today than fifty years ago. Mandatory overtime for blue- and pink-collar workers, and eighty-hour expectations for full-time professional workers, deprive everyone of a reasonable family life. Blue-collar and low-wage families increasingly work “tag-team” schedules so that someone’s always home with the kids. In surveys done by the Boston College Sloan Work and Families Research Network and by the New York-based Families and Work Institute, among others, women and men increasingly say that they’d like to have more time with their families, and would give up money and advancement to do it—if doing so didn’t mean sacrificing their careers entirely. Men, however, must face fierce cultural headwinds to choose such a path, while women are pushed in that direction at every turn.

And at the end of the article, the author asks the key questions: WHY is it like this?

By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

Well, I have my theories. Let’s start with the birds and the bees.

You see, eventually all the people currently on the planet will die; within 100 years plus a few, if no more children were born, humanity would be gone.

Therefore, bearing and raising children is, as much or more than any other activity, absolutely vital to the functioning of human society. Society needs a constant supply of new people.

Now of course we can argue as to how many new people we should have, and who should have them, but those are extremely hairy discussions I won’t get into right now. Let’s just start from the premise that some women, somewhere, have to have children to keep humanity going.

In a logical system, we would recognize the parents who perform this function as people doing a vital service, like joining the National Guard. We would understand that the demands of creating and raising new people to be productive members of society is something that requires support and care of the parents and the children; healthcare, education, and time to do the crucial tasks of child raising, most of those demands coming at the beginning of the process. We would recognize that not all people would want to become parents, and maybe even encourage people not to rush into it, since overpopulation could become a problem. Just as not everyone should join the National Guard, or be made to feel guilty if they don’t want to.

But we don’t exist in a logical system, but a patriarchal one, so that until very recently, the vital task of creating and raising new people was forced onto women, who were deprived of the ability to refuse or control child bearing or to support themselves. As unpaid slaves, they performed a task that, although vital to the survival of humanity, was often considered to be the lowest form of work, and they were either given no support or grudging support or forced to barter their bodies and their reproductive capabilities for a man’s protection as his wife, or mistress, or prostitute. Not that under such a system there was much difference between the three.

But then things began to get better for women in the West; they demanded, and received, rights and a certain amount of autonomy and the ability to support themselves, even if it’s still only 80% of a man’s ability to do so. The workplace grudgingly opened to them, and they proved themselves capable of succeeding there.

But the workplace and much of the society itself had been built around the assumption that women, as slaves, would raise the children, for no wages and without any support except for what they could beg from men or family. Now the women were no longer slaves, but the children still needed to be raised. Stranger still, men started to mention that they would like to be part of this task, which they began to realize was a vital and rewarding one.

The society, which had been built upon the enslavement of women so far back in time that almost no one noticed it anymore, reacted schizophrenically.

Why should companies have to adjust to their workers and possibly endanger their profits?

Why should the government give this lowly slave-work any valuable tax dollars–people shouldn’t have children if they couldn’t afford them!

Only the rich, the white, should have children; those rich white women should quit their selfish jobs and start having babies to keep up with all the poor brown women!

At the bottom of all this was one long, savage, howl of outrage, directed at women and the men who were their allies: “How DARE you stop being our slave!” The eternal howl of the powerful and privileged when the less powerful start demanding equality for themselves. It’s at the root of all the furor over contraception, over women in the workplace, over daycare, over education, over unions. It’s the fear of an elite that can’t imagine how it will function without being able to coerce the less powerful into working for little or nothing, whether that work is picking vegetables or raising new members of society.

And maybe they’re right to be afraid. I don’t doubt that actually freeing women and men from the false choice between work and life has the potential to shake things up. But since I’m convinced our current model doesn’t work for most citizens, it doesn’t bother me to think about changing it. I think it’s quite likely that productivity, innovation, and societal stability would soar in a society that treats raising the next generation as a worthwhile endeavor. Not a cult, as with the Full Quiver types, and not a luxury reserved for the rich and worthy, but an investment in the future, in a healthy, educated, productive, stable citizenry.

I don’t really see a single radical thing in any of this; the idea that it’s ok to deny women opportunity because they bear the burden of procreation, and to punish all citizens who want to both work and take care of their loved ones, is quite simply, evil and short-sighted. It’s time for it to go. Time for us all to step off the plantation and see what kind of better society we can create.



  1. Thank you.

  2. Ha, DM, you’re welcome. One thing I often rail about but didn’t include is the way that doctors and nurses are just expected to work insane numbers of hours especially during their internships (am I correct?) and thus not only don’t have a life, but are so stressed that they’re much more likely to make bad decisions–as any human would be under such conditions. Yet some sort of macho ethos seems to hold back reform–and of course, it would cut into profits.

    My nurse MIL works 12 hour shifts, and tells me it’s the norm. So, we don’t think office jockeys should work those kinds of hours. but it’s ok for people making life and death decisions? But maybe you have an insight on that.

  3. Excellent post. Came here via the carnival. Its also sad that this work-life imbalance, maybe which was something more American, is also now entering societies like mine (Indian) where previously jobs were treated as that – jobs, not some sort of all-consuming thing. And ofcourse, women bear the worst of it, though men too face insane hours without being able to do much about it, cos, ofcourse, its not macho to want to spend time with your family/hobbies etc.

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