What a Load

A mommyblogger recently wrote that she'd find my advice to "get to work" a lot easier to take if I were an economist. Where does a mere philosopher get off telling people how to lead their lives, she asked. I thought this was hilarious until I read the "Mother Load" special report that featured nationally noted family researchers, mental health and social work practitioners, and clinicians. Oh, for a little of the dismal science. The report would be funny if it were not so dangerous.

"Mother Load" contains all the explanation you'll ever need for why women are opting out. And they are. (As I've written elsewhere, the opt-out phenomenon is both deeper and broader than previously reported.) The pieces in the "Mother Load" report laud efforts to make the workplace more "family-friendly." But real change will not be effected by fighting for reform at the corporate level. Ellen Bravo tells us "we need to redesign the national household." I wonder, who is this "we"? It's the husbands, stupid.

Kathleen Gerson says that women and men want "many of the same things." But women are opting out because, in Gerson's own words, if the guys "can't have an equal balance between work and parenting, [they] fall back on a neotraditional arrangement that allows them to put their own work prospects first and rely on a partner for most caregiving." No kidding. She goes on, "From young men's perspective, this modified but still gendered household offers women the chance to earn income and establish an identity at the workplace without imposing the costs of equal parenting on men. Granting a mother's 'right' to work supports women's claims for independence, but does not undermine men's claim that their work prospects should come first." It is crucial to remember that, even if by some miracle male employers could be persuaded to enact the reforms discussed, without a real change in women's attitudes about the family most of the effect would be to make it easier for women to continue to bear their excessive share of an unjust household. And allow the women to think they chose it!

So how exactly is it that men and women "want the same things?" Gerson deploys "the 120 in-depth interviews I conducted between 1998 and 2003 with young adults" to assert that "most wish to forge a lifelong partnership that combines committed work with devoted parenting." I have no idea what "committed work" and "devoted parenting" means to them. Nor do I know what the "young adults" were doing when they said whatever they said. But I do know that even if the guys had signed in their own blood to alternate days of taking out the trash, it does not matter. Because Gerson's own evidence shows that men only agree if equality costs men nothing.

She says the young women would rather stay single than have an unjust partnership. I hope she's right, but I fear they will simply get married and hope their husband won't be a jerk. The young, single idealist Courtney E. Martin paints an astonishingly rosy picture of prospective marriage in her recent TAP Online piece. She writes about young men like David Levi and Joshua Krafchin, who vow to be "present partners" and extol the virtues of leaving the corporate rat race to spend more time with their children. I guess Gerson missed David and Joshua when she found all those young guys willing to run from equal fatherhood as soon as it posed a threat to their prospects at work.

Maybe idealistic women like Martin should pay more attention to The New York Times, which last Sunday ran a piece from its apparently bottomless reservoir of stay-at-home-moms on the Upper West Side. Once again, the idealistic author studied art, found the corporate world too common for her pure soul, and wound up being a marital nanny for a rich lawyer decades her senior. Let's recap: He is an attorney. She is doing a job you can buy in most places for a sawbuck an hour. No daddy at the lacrosse games there. This is the fate of dreamy young women who don't prepare for the real demands of the world of work and marriage.

Here's where the dismal science comes in. Equality always costs someone something -- and usually that someone is the one on top. Sugar-coating by discussing how women and men "want many of the same things" simply allows women to delude themselves into thinking the "same things" will just fall into their laps without the nastiness of standing up for them. If everybody wants them, how hard can it be?

The same goes for Scott Coltrane's thesis that "research shows that men are doing significantly more family work." Well, as Henny Youngman responded when someone asked him, "How's your wife?", "Compared to what?" On the ground, Coltrane admits, "experts estimate that men's relative contribution to routine indoor housework is now about half that of women's," and fathers are available to their children "about three-fourths as much as mothers, interacting about two-thirds as often on weekdays." There we go: women are working twice as hard on the household scut work and one-third again as hard on childcare. Forty-four years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, you've come a long way, baby.

Why won't the men sacrifice their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success in the interest of equal treatment for the women they purport to love? Because they understand the value of their work prospects. No opt-out revolution there. But the Council on Contemporary Families seems to think that the men who run the institutions of government and the market economy are going to limit their success and earn less money by increasing the cost of their labor force through paid parental leave, increased training time for shorter term workers, on-site day care, and the rest. These men are not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts when they won't even do it for the women they love.

So here's a novel idea: Instead of passing around last year's Working Mother magazine and looking for help from the boys who tell Gerson they'd love to have a just family if it didn't cost them anything, why don't women use their power at the ballot box? If women used their voting power to legislate the redistributive agenda they need, including, for example, required paternal leave, Goldman Sachs would look like a Swedish cooperative nursery. Martin is correct that the mommy groups must be addressing the men in their strategy. But they should be making concrete demands, not settling for wishful thinking. In the words of the famous feminist economist Larry Summers, no one has ever washed a rented car. Until women refuse to participate in the unjust world the men embrace, there will be no forward progress.

Linda Hirshman retired as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University. She is the author of Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking 2006).

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