Today's book is Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power, by Rhona Mahony. This is an absolutely fascinating book, published in 1995, that I don't know anyone else who has ever heard of. I encountered it through a footnote in another book, perhaps The Second Shift.
Kidding Ourselves is almost two books in one. The first two-thirds is an attempt to answer the question of why so many smart ambitious feminist women in egalitarian marriages have kids and all of a sudden find themselves responsible for more than half of the child care and household work. As Naomi Wolf puts it in Misconceptions:
"Our generation did not think we were marrying breadwinners; we thought we were marrying our best friends. But the husbands were pulling rank in a way that best friends don't do."
Mahony's answer is that it's a matter of power, and negotiating positions. And she goes through an interesting list of negotiating strategies that women can use to try to persuade their husbands to do more: Telling them how unhappy the current situation is making, make moral arguments about equality, offer other things in return that will make them happy, nag, threaten to leave. Some of these are more or less effective. Wolf makes similar points, and grimly concludes that men simply aren't going to make real career sacrifices unless forced to, and women aren't going to be able to force them to do it, because their threat to leave isn't serious.
I found Mahony a more optimistic read, even though she also thinks that -- on average -- women are going to lose these negotiations, necause she believes that there are things that women can do to increase their leverage. The key point, however, is that these are mostly choices made long before the children are born -- what career to enter, what spouse to marry.
Mahony argues that as long as women choose careers that don't maximize their earning potential and that give them flexibility, marry men who have more earning potential and less flexibility, and care more for their children as infants, they will always wind up doing more of the child care and housework.
Is it Ms magazine that used to refer to "click" moments? CLICK.
The earning potential part is generally understood. The marriage point is interesting, because it's not just about money. It's that if you want a husband who is intensely involved in child-rearing, you have to marry someone who values it, even if it has a career cost. And career-oriented ambitious women tend to marry equally career-oriented ambitious men.
The child care is a point that I keep making to everyone I know. Child care is not an inherent skill. You can get some ideas of how to do it by reading books or taking classes or talking to other parents, but mostly you learn how to do it by doing it. And you make some mistakes -- forgetting to bring a change of clothes on an outing, bouncing the child too much after a feeding -- but you learn from them. Most fathers spend ridiculously little time on their own with their infants, which puts them behind. And once one parent is "the expert" and the other "the assistant" it becomes far too easy to maintain that role.
The last third of the book, much to my surprise, is a vision of a world in which breadwinning mothers and caregiving fathers are as common as breadwinning fathers and caregiving mothers. Like me (!) Mahony rejects the goal of having all families divide breadwinning and childrearing equally. She writes:
"Not all fathers can do half the child rearing, or want to, or should. Much more to the point, some fathers can do lots more, and want to, and should. People give the incorrect answer [a 50-50 future[, I think, because they can't boost their imaginations over the hump of the present to imagine a future in which there really exists no sexual division of labor. "