From Heather Boushey, The New Breadwinners, in The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.
From Heather Boushey, The New Breadwinners, in The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.
You knew this would pull me out of my blog hiatus, right? The Washington Post has a front page story today that highlights the new Census findings that "stay-at-home moms" are typically younger and in less affluent families. Thus, the media obsession with highly compensated professional women who drop out of the workforce to be full-time parents is "largely beside the point."
Except that, this isn't such a new point. I pointed it out -- based on Census data -- oh, about four years ago. It wasn't so neatly packaged then, but the underlying data has been available for years and doesn't look like it's changed very much. (I'll be interested in seeing what the figures look like in a couple of years, when they're available for the recession period, but this is 2007 data, pre-recession.
There is some new info in the report from the American Community Survey, mostly about the geographic distribution of families -- previous tables were only based on the Current Population Survey, which doesn't have representative samples of small stats. Check out Figure 8, on page 15. Overall, Northern and Eastern states have a higher percentage of two-income married parent families that average, Western states have a lower percentage. But New York is lower than average. I'd love to see the NY-specific data on income -- New York is a big enough state that it's probably possible to do the run without having huge margins of error.
Jen said she liked my wonkish take on work-family issues, so here's a post for her.
On money.com, I found this survival guide to keeping your job in a recession, which includes the following recommendation:
I agree with the second half of this -- being indispensable is definitely a good way to keep your job -- but not necessarily the first. If you're as productive in 8 hours as your colleagues are in 10 hours of sitting at their desks goofing off, you should be ok. As long as your boss knows that you're productive, that is. And if your boss doesn't know how productive you are, you've got problems, regardless of the economy.
That said, I suspect full-time telecommuters are somewhat more vulnerable to layoff than people who show up to an office, in part because it's a lot harder to tell someone you see every day that you don't need their services.
This blog post from the Sloan Work-Family Network suggests that people are pitching work-life flexibility as a way to reduce costs and boost productivity in a recession. Juliet Bourke worries that this could cut both ways (e.g. employers might cut people's hours involuntarily -- and BLS data supports that there's a lot of involuntary part-time work out there), but concludes that it's probably a positive thing if it gets more employers used to the idea of workplace flexibility.
I also think there's another argument to be made, that if companies can't afford to give workers raises, but want to reward them and keep their loyalty, things like flexible hours or telecommuting can be a cheap way to make workers happy. The downside of that argument is that it reinforces the idea that workplace flexibility is a perk for your best workers, rather than something that should be generally available.
What are you all seeing in real life? I can't seem to find the specific post, but Laura at 11d has said that she sees a lot more wall-street types catching the 5pm train instead of the 7 or 9 pm one, and seeing more of their kids as a result.
What does it say about me (or modern life) that when I read Judith Warner's column last week about the use of brain-enhancing drugs my first reaction was to wonder how one goes about getting some Provigil? (It's an anti-narcolepsy drug, which apparently allows one to maintain brain functionality in spite of sleep deprivation. And for the record, the only drug I'm actually taking is claritin.)
I'm not a scientist, and I don't know what the side effects of these drugs are. But a few months ago, after being up most of the night with one of the boys, I went to work, and was pretty fuzzy around the edges. And then I realized that I had spent a good two years or more in that kind of a fog every single day. And if someone had offered me a drug to make it go away (other than caffeine), I'm pretty sure I'd have jumped for it.
If asprin were invented today, it would probably require a prescription -- between its blood thinning action and the potential for Reye's syndrome, it's easy to make the case that it's too dangerous to be available without control. Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I could argue that it's as much of a mind-altering substance as Provigil or Ritalin. I think the editorial in Nature arguing for legalizing these drugs for people who aren't "ill" is pretty convincing.
*If you're wondering about the title, it's a reference to Nancy Kress' excellent sci-fi novel Beggars in Spain, where she explores what happens if some people are genetically engineered not to need sleep, and thus have an advantage over the rest of us. Pills are certainly more egalitarian than genetic modification.
I spent about half of the weekend working -- on a paper about work-life pressures on American workers.
Here's what I've been working on this week:
This is pretty different from the usual way these numbers are presented, which is based on families rather than workers. (Remember, if half of the families with children have an at-home spouse and the other half is dual income, only 1/3 of the workers will have an at-home spouse.)
For what it's worth, the furthest back I was able to come up with roughly comparable numbers for is 1975, when 41.5 percent of the workforce were parents, and 35 percent of the working parents had an at-home spouse.
I'd love some feedback on these graphs -- what interests you? Surprises you? Is the second one too many slices to be easily interpreted?
Update: I'm responding in the comments. But I also want to register my fury that Microsoft in Excel 2007 has made it impossible to apply patterns to different slices on a pie chart so that you can tell them apart when you print them in black and white.
Update 2: Ok, here's one that shows part-time vs. full-time.
For all that I think Sarah Palin would be a terrible president, I do think her nomination puts another dent in the glass ceiling. Specifically, while there are a few hardliners still arguing that women shouldn't be in positions of authority, there's no doubt that the world has changed when Phyllis Schlafly is going around saying that Palin's experience as a mother will make her a better vice president. I really do think that the next woman who runs will find it a little bit easier as a result.
Martin Manley comments on the historical nature of this election:
"On the other hand, Clinton, together with Obama and McCain, may have just killed the white male ticket. As a country, we are having our 56th presidential election, meaning that about 200 people in American history have had the honor of running for President or Vice President at the head of a major party ticket (some have run more than once, some years there have been more than two major parties). So far as I know, all but one of these candidates has been a white man (the exception is Geraldine Ferraro in 1984). With the nomination of Palin, neither party has fielded a white male ticket. Indeed, thanks to the contestants in this year's election and the odd way the US selects Vice Presidents, a white male ticket may now be politically untenable.
"Damn it, you better not be getting sick."
Tomorrow evening, I'm attending a fundraiser in support of the Ohio Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee full-time workers 7 paid sick days a year (with part-timers eligible on a pro-rata basis). The ability to take a paid sick day is something that professionals take for granted, but only about half of American workers have any paid sick days, and many of those that do, can only use them if they're personally sick, not to care for a sick family member.
Paid sick days are good for workers, good for families, and good for public health. Trust me, you don't want restaurant workers coming to work sick, and you don't want other families sending their kids to school sick because they can't afford to keep them home.
I support federal legislation for paid sick days, but I also think it's great that folks in Ohio are using the ballot initiative process to try to move the idea. For one thing, it might well get passed before anything happens at the federal level. For another, it helps mobilize low-income workers to vote in November.
Last month, I asked for questions to pose to Ariane Hegewisch about her report on cross-national perspectives on workplace flexibility. Here, at last, are some answers. The delay is entirely my fault -- she was extremely prompt in responding when I sent them to her.
bj had wondered, "I thought the low proportions of women in private sector employment in countries like Germany was well documented. Perhaps that's not college educated women? Not in the private sector?"
Germany does not have a huge public sector, and women are not predominantly working in the public sector. Incidentally, this is partly because Germany does not have well developed state services for children and eldercare, and does not have a big state healthcare system. Germany is is probably almost as different from Sweden as it is from the USA. Sweden on the other hand does have a big public sector (which provides many of the services done in the private sector in the US- such as childcare, aftercare and eldercare), and women are much more likely to work in the public sector than in the private sector. Sweden also has high birth rates, whereas Germany has very low ones.
Christine asked about discrimination: "Did they expect discrimination would follow regarding the hiring of women of child-bearing years? What are governments with mandated workplace flexibility doing to combat hiring discrimination? Have there been studies done to compare discrimination against fathers that are mandated to follow family leave policies vs. mothers?"
First, there is a bit of a confusion between 'flexible working rights' and leave / work-family policies more generally. A 3 year job protected parental leave period [as is available in Germany] is different from the right to work that leave on a part-time basis (one is likely to reduce your employability, while the other one is designed to maintain it).
Three years job protected parental leave is a considerable disincentive for employers; Germany continues to have a very conservative climate for motherhood- a lot of pressure coming from mothers and fathers, about what they think a 'good mother' should look like. Germans have reacted to this with having one of the lowest birth rates in the EU- there is a very stark choice between careers and parenthood, and many women opt out altogether. This was not created by the law- but the parental leave rights and social expectations mutually re-enforce each other.
Now- looking at German flexibility rights in this context- they are in fact designed to reduce that long gap, by making it easier for parents to come back to work on a part-time bases earlier, instead of staying out of the labor market altogether for three years, and by making it possible to work in better part-time jobs (Germany has very high proportion of very low quality part-time jobs). And they are deliberately open to all employees and all circumstances (even though parents are the most likely to avail themselves of these rights) to reduce the 'mommy track' association.
Now, on the other hand if you take Denmark: here, working hours have come down for men and women (so that full-time work is more combinable with care responsibilities); parents are able to have a period of part-time work as part of their parental leave, which gets them back to work faster. Part-time work overall has been falling, as people are more likely to treat it as a short transitional period (for care or education). And the pay gap is very low. (Although as always, this is because Denmark overall has low pay differentiation, not just between men and women).
The discriminatory effect of a flexible working right will depend on how far it is possible to spread the right in practice beyond women as primary caregivers. This is a key policy design issue (not just law, but also in terms of other supportive measures). Hence it has to be linked to rights for male carers (as is the FMLA, and that 'gender neutral' design is common to almost all laws), but also should be broadened away from flexible working specifically for family care (as is done in the Netherlands, Germany, France etc: where you can apply for change if you want to volunteer in the community on the same basis as if you want to look after your toddler).
Flexible working rights at least in some countries were introduced because it was clear that women were already much more likely to 'work flexibly' but had to accept really bad working conditions for it. So flexible working rights were introduce to lessen the discriminatory effects of the need to work flexibly.
She also notes:
There is discrimination now in the USA : pregnancy discrimination has spiked; women systematically have different working patterns from men; women are twice as likely as men to work part-time; women's lifetime earnings are markedly lower than men's for these reasons. However, this facet of gender discrimination is much less well recognised in the US than elsewhere. As Joan Williams always says: the USA is a great place for women who work like the ideal man (always, all-the-time); but it is a lousy place for women(and men) who for any reason are unable or unwilling to do so. Many women would like to spend some time with their children when they are young; however full-time working requirements are such that this can be very hard. And, if you have more than one child, childcare costs are such, that economic incentives to look after your kids yourself are enornous. So: flexible working is only one spike in the work life wheel, but one that is being neglected in the USA. (It is a fair question whether flexible working rights on their own will be able to achieve anything much without well established part-time equity rights; better childcare; paid leave; and a better enforcement environment generally for labor rights).
My great thanks to Ariane for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.
We were surprised by this table too, so are still somewhat speculating as to the reasons. In the US, as in other countries, highly educated women are more likely to be employed as those with less qualifications. However, because of the lower level of welfare support, poorer women have less options of staying out of the workforce, and single mothers are much more likely to be in work than elsewhere. Hence labor force participation differs less between educational groups in the US thgan in many other countries. (And: it is perhaps less that college ed women are more sensitive to work family policies elsewhere, but that non-college ed women are given fewer options for not working).
Second reason for the international differences is probably that the US has the highest proportion of college ed. women; for example in Portugal- only 9% of women have tertiary qualifications, in the US is it 38%. In that sense, to go for a degree you probably are pretty determined and work educated in the first place, and less likely to drop out later, than in the US where a much broadfer range of women get college degrees. (The US has the highest level, but Sweden and Finland are not far off).
Third: More women in the US are college educated, and overall more women have kids (even though the US shares the general trend that college ed women are less likely to have kids, or have fewer kids, than other women), so (even though we do not have the figures) I would imagine that the proportion of college educated women with more than one kid is higher in the US than elsewhere).
The Metro Orange line has been a mess all week -- several serious delays, and terrible overcrowding even when the trains are running. When I got to the station yesterday morning, the platform was so crowded that they had to stop the escalator to make sure no one was pushed onto the tracks. And the air conditioning in my car seems to be dead, so I'm soaked in sweat by the time I get home. It's only taking a little longer than usual, but it's really taking the stuffing out of me.
The scary thing is that it's only going to get worse if the price of gas makes more people switch to the train. They can buy some more cars to run more 8-car trains, but that only adds a limited amount of capacity. I can work from home sometimes, but usually not more than once a week. Maybe I should talk to my boss about working 7-3.30 or something.
Ariane Hegewisch and Janet Gornick have a new report out on what countries other than the US are doing to mandate workplace flexibility. It's all quite astonishing from the US perspective, but I'm honestly most surprised by the statistic that the US has the lowest labor force participation rate for college-educated prime-age women of any of the countries studied. That's a pretty strong response to the claim that "no one will hire women" in Europe because of the social protections. It also makes it hard to believe that US women's labor force participation has hit its "natural limits" and can't possibly go any higher.
Ariane said that she might be up for being "interviewed" on this blog -- what questions would you like to ask her?
Just wanted to give a heads up that HR 5781, which would provide federal employees with 4 weeks of paid parental leave, is headed to the House floor for a vote next week. (If you read the bill text at that link, it will say it's 8 weeks of paid leave, but it was cut to 4 weeks in committee.) Outside of the DC area, this probably hasn't gotten much attention, so it's worth dropping your Representative a line to encourage support.
I used to be a fed, and lots of people were shocked when I told them that I didn't get any paid maternity leave. The feds generally provide good benefits, so everyone assumes that they provide parental leave. They don't -- and they don't have any sort of short-term disability program, either -- although you can use any annual leave (vacation) or sick leave that you've accrued. The problem is that while long-term federal employees often have months and months of sick leave accrued up, most of the people who have babies aren't long-term employees (since the federal government hires very few 12 year olds). By hoarding my leave days carefully, and working up to the day I went into labor, I was able to take 12 weeks off with pay when I had D. When I had N, less than 3 years later, there was no way I could have saved up enough leave -- and I was better off than most second-time parents, as T was staying home with D, so I didn't have to use up sick days when he was sick.
So, this bill both makes parenting significantly more manageable for federal employees, and also puts the federal government on record that parental leave is important. And it even has a chance of being passed in both Houses.
This week's book is Life Work, by Donald Hall. When I agreed to review The Ten Year Nap, the blog tour organizers sent me links to some resources, including a review that said: "In fact, the novel, like poet Donald Hall's memoir "Life Work," is a passionate paean to the redeeming power of purposeful occupation." This sent me off looking for Hall's book.
Life Work is a short book, really just an extended essay. In unfussy but eloquent prose, Hall writes about his daily routine, and connects it to the lives of his ancestors, in particular his maternal grandfather, in whose house he lives. For him, contentment is "work so engrossing that you do not know you are working," what others might call "flow." He writes about waking up in the morning, wondering if it's close enough to 5 am that he can reasonably get up and start working on his poems. He criticizes the idea that only what is paid should be considered valuable.
Hall writes with love about his ancestors, and their work, especially his grandparents who were farmers in a time and place where farmers could still do a bit of everything -- raise cows for dairy, chickens for pullets and eggs, maple syrup, enough vegetables to eat year round. Except for buying store-bought cloth, their lives were closer to the prototype of the Ingalls family than to modern farmers. And he contrasts them with his father, who spent his life doing the books for his family's dairy business, and hating every minute of it.
I still can't decide whether I believe that Hall's grandparents were as content with their lives of unremitting labor as he makes them out to be. He writes that his grandmother had planned to be a medical missionary until her mother died, and then she set all those plans aside to keep house for her father and later her husband and children, without a word of complaint. I think there's a difference between being not unhappy and being happy, and it's hard to know where they would have fallen. And for all of Hall's romanticization of his grandparents' lives, he doesn't have any interest in taking up farming himself, unlike his friend Wendell Berry.
In any case, it's a lovely little book, filled with Hall's love for his work, his wife, and his family.
I've been at a couple of meetings lately where there's been discussion about flexible work -- both part-time work, and arrangements where people work full-time, but at flexible hours or locations. And there's some interesting conversations about whether this discussion should be framed as about caregiving or not.
The arguments against making this a conversation about caregiving are:
Interestingly, I've heard that in the United Kingdom, where there's a right to request flexible working conditions (although the employer is allowed to say no), employers think that it's awkward that the right is limited to parents of young children -- they'd prefer something broader.
The argument on the other side is that we shouldn't be afraid to say that caregiving is important. In the US, we often treat having children as a sort of expensive hobby -- something that people do for their own pleasure, and that doesn't incur any societal obligations. If it takes up all their time and money, they should have known what they were getting into. So, I have real misgivings about going down a path that says that it doesn't matter whether you want time off to care for a child or a sick parent or to train for a triathlon, write a novel, or sleep off your hangover.
I see virtues to both arguments. What do you think? Both as to whether you think government should be neutral about caregiving, and which approach is more likely to succeed.
In skimming today's Washington Post, I saw a short blurb that says that women's careers are responsible for one-third of corporate relocations, up from 15 percent in 1993. The study that it's based on appears to be only available for a hefty fee, so I don't know how reliable the data are, but if it's real, that's a fascinating trend.
In reading Pamela Stone's book on Opting Out?, I was struck by how often a choice to be the "trailing spouse" in a relocation was the first (unintentional) step down a path that led to women leaving the workforce. They assumed that their skills were strong enough that they'd have no trouble finding another job, and that was generally true, but often it wasn't quite as good a job, or they just didn't have the leverage in the new job to insist on the flexibility they wanted. Or the relocation put stress on their family, and they wanted to take time to help the kids adjust...
The big question I'd want to know is what the breakdown of relocations by gender is among married couples -- my guess is the 32 percent figure includes relocating singles. If there's really a big growth in the number of men willing to be a trailing spouse, that's a bigger indicator of gender equality than the frequently cited stat that 1/3 of wives earn more than their husbands.
The book follows the lives of four stay-at-home mothers who have been friends for years, at a point when they're sort of re-examining their lives and wondering what happens next. The book is mostly set in Manhattan, with a nod to a neighboring suburb, and the characters are all the sort of upper-middle class professionals whose life choices wind up as long articles in the New York Times. But Wolitzer isn't of this milieu herself, and the book isn't full of the brand name references that many such books drop in order to establish their accuracy -- when brands are mentioned, they're generally made-up (I think). She's less interested in capturing the precise details of the lifestyle than in exploring what drives people to make the choices they do.
I disliked the start of the book: "All around the country, the women were waking up. Their alarm clocks bleated one by one, making soothing sounds or grating sounds or the stirrings of a favorite song..." The move from "the women" to a subset of women -- those who don't have to go to work, who aren't already sitting bleary eyed with a nursing infant as the sun rises -- jarred me, and made me ready to dislike the book as a whole.
But I actually mostly enjoyed the book. Once Wolitzer settles down to the individual characters and stops talking in generalities, her writing skills shine through. And unlike Rachel Cusk, she seems to have some affection for her characters. While the plot is fairly thin, and overly driven by random external events, I was perfectly happy to spend a few hours in the company of Amy, Karen and Jill. (And Roberta, but in thinking over the book, I can't remember any of the sections from her perspective...)
I noticed in this interview in the NY Times last week that Wolitzer said "I’m not writing the Big Book o’ Motherhood and Work." I think that's a bit disingenuous, as the book has a series of short vignettes of other people's lives that only fit into the book as quick looks into the role that work plays in people's lives -- Amy's mother discovering feminism and her life's work as a writer, Nadia Comanici thinking that gymnastics isn't work at all, someone's aunt who is an assistant to Margaret Thatcher, feeling like she's part of something important even as she gets verbally abused, a minor character enjoying the camaraderie and energy of working in a dead end casino job.
At some point in the book one of the characters concludes "work doesn't make you interesting; interesting work makes you interesting." One of the strengths of the book is that for all that Wolitzer comes down on the side of work (and I think she does), she also recognizes that most jobs aren't all that exciting and wonderful.
There's an interesting discussion of finding your passion going on in the comments on Ask Moxie's post on this book.
"I wanted to spend more time with my family" is the standard cliche of the day for explaining why you quit a high powered job when the real reason is that you were going to be fired if you didn't get your behind in gear. Occasionally, it's actually true.
Matthew Yglesias doesn't believe that Patti Solis Doyle really quit because of family obligations. I agree that it would be incredibly unprofessional for her to quit at this stage of the race, and the idea that she'd do it because her six year old said he wanted Daddy is pretty ludicrous. (Just in case it is true, here's some unsolicited parenting advice: get over it. Kids are good at yanking chains, and it doesn't mean a thing. T's been the at-home parent since D was 4 months old, and there are times when the boys demand him and there are times when he might as well be chopped liver.)
The comment thread over there raises some interesting questions. Is it anti-feminist for her to use this excuse? Does it make it harder for other woman professionals with small children to be hired into positions of responsibility? Is it an attempt to play for sympathy with working mothers? Why go into this level of detail when no one is going to believe you anyway?
Today's poem on The Writer's Almanac is "Sestina for the Working Mother" by Deborah Garrison.
Sestina for the Working Mother
No time for a sestina for the working mother.
Who has so much to do, from first thing in the morning
When she has to get herself dressed and the children
Too, when they tumble in the pillow pile rather than listening
To her exhortations about brushing teeth, making ready for the day;
They clamor with "up" hugs when she struggles out the door.
Every time, as if shot from a cannon when she shuts the door.
She stomps down the street in her city boots, slipping from mother
Mode into commuter trance, trees swaying at the corner of a new day
Nearly turned, her familiar bus stop cool and welcoming in the morning.
She hears her own heart here, though no one else is listening,
And if the bus is late she hears down the block the voices of her children
Bobbing under their oversized backpacks to greet other children
At their own bus stop. They too have come flying from the door,
Brave for the journey, and everyone is talking and no one is listening
As they head off to school. The noisy children of the working mother,
Waiting with their sitter for the bus, are healthy and happy this morning.
And that's the best way, the mother knows, for a day
To begin. The apprehension of what kind of day
It will be in the world of work, blissful without children,
Trembles in the anxious and pleasurable pulse of the morning;
It has tamped her down tight and lit her out the door
And away from what she might have been as a mother
At home, perhaps drinking coffee and listening
To NPR, what rapt and intelligent listening
She'd do at home. And volunteering, she thinks, for part of the day
At their school-she'd be a playground monitor, a PTA mother!
She'd see them straggle into the sunshine, her children
Bright in the slipstream, and she a gracious shadow at the school door;
She would not be separated from them for long by the morning.
But she has chosen her flight from them, on this and every morning.
She's now so far away she trusts someone else is listening
To their raised voices, applying a Band-Aid, opening the door
For them when the sunshine calls them out into the day.
At certain moments, head bent at her desk, she can see her children,
And feels a quick stab. She hasn't forgotten that she is their mother.
Every weekday morning, every working day,
She listens to her heart and the voices of her children.
Goodbye! they shout, and the door closes behind the working mother.
Since I highlighted Hillary Clinton's proposals on work-family issues last month, I feel like it's only fair to point out that John Edwards has released his set of work-family proposals.
Obama also touched on these issues in his Reclaiming the American Dream speech last week, but hasn't gotten into the details as much (at least as far as I've been able to find).
Clinton and Edward's proposals got a lot in common, and both would be a vast improvement over the current policy. Here's some of the similarities and differences that jump out at me:
Update: here are some good comparisons of the proposals from elsewhere:
As I've said here before, I'm not quite ready to get on the Hillary bandwagon. But I have to give her kudos for the set of work-family proposals that she laid out at her YWCA speech yesterday. No one else in either party is talking about these issues at all, and she's got all the key points there -- child care, paid sick days, expanding the FMLA. She's even included a "right to request" flexible work conditions, modeled on the UK law.
If you had told me in 1992 that one day Hillary Clinton was going to be a candidate for president, this is the kind of thing that I would have expected from her.
Hopefully it will make the other candidates, at least on the Democratic side, feel that they have to address these issues as well. I know that one of Obama's senior aides used to work on these issues, so I'm sure she's got a list of suggestions.
Leslie Bennetts has been very harsh about people who criticize her book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, without having read it. So I'm here to report that I slogged through the whole thing, and now I feel perfectly entitled to criticize it. Here are my major complaints:
1) Bennetts says repeatedly that she's not making a moral judgment about the value of stay-at-home parenting, only pointing out the economic risks of dependency. But I just don't believe her. She refers to stay at home parents as "parasites," to singularly focused lives as "sterile and stultifying," and suggests that the children of such parents will be overly dependent. As far as I can tell, she believes that devoting your full energies to parenting is waste of brains as much as Linda Hirshman does, but doesn't have the courage to stand up and say so.
2) Bennetts is unbearably condescending towards Gen X (and Gen Y) women. She's fallen hook line and sinker for the story that Gen X women are looking at Boomer Women and rejecting their attempts to "have it all." So she thinks that Gen Xers are lazy/wimps/expect to have perfection handed to them. But there's no evidence that's true -- mothers' labor force participation has declined slightly from its peak, but is still higher than it was in the 1980s or earlier.
3) She doesn't take the issues of lower-paid mothers seriously. In the section on child care, she blithely writes that "the horror stories about negligent or malignant baby-sitters do not reflect the reality of quality child care as those with reasonable means typically experience it." That's probably true, if you define reasonable means as earning $60,000 or more a year. But that's not most families. And she rhapsodizes on about the importance of having meaningful intellectually stimulating work, with hardly a nod to the possibility that not everyone has that kind of work.
4) The issue of economic vulnerability is a real one. While I've said here before that I think Bennetts overstates the risk of divorce, she's totally dead on about the long-term financial consequences of breaks in labor force participation. But where Ann Crittenden talks about these same issues and asks why should a 5 year interruption in work reduce your earnings for the next 40 years, Bennetts just scolds women for making bad choices, even as she quotes people like Pamela Stone as saying that these were constrained choices.
Towards the end of the book, Bennetts quotes a working mother who reports on what her pediatrician said: "I have taken care of thousands of children from all kinds of backgrounds, and the one consistent thing in raising well-adjusted children was parents who were happy with their choices." Pity that Bennetts didn't seem to hear what she was saying.
This week's book is Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, by Pamela Stone. Stone is a sociologist, and the book reports on her study of the experiences of 54 white, highly educated professional married mothers who left their well-paid careers to stay home. The book is framed as a response to Lisa Belkin's famous Opt-Out Revolution article, although I think Stone had actually started her research before it was published.
Overall, Stone's thesis is that these women did not stop working because of a call to full-time motherhood, but because of the lack of flexibility in their high-powered jobs that made it impossible to both work at the level that they were accustomed to and have any semblance of family lives, especially given the expectations for intensive parenting in upper and middle class families. Most of their husbands worked even more crazy hours, and something had to give. Many of the women had requested part-time or flexible work situations -- and in several cases, had taken advantage of such situations for a while, but were denied to permission to continue them. Stone concludes that for these women, it was easier to incorporate professional skills into at-home parenting (often through high level volunteering) than to be a parent while working in their intensive jobs.
While Stone's findings generally seemed plausible to me, I found it frustrating that she only talked to the women who had "opted-out." I wanted to know what was different about those who had faced similar pressures and continued to work -- did they have husbands who were more involved in family life? more supportive bosses? a greater willingness to outsource family duties? healthier kids?
Since I've read and thought a lot about this issue, I felt like a lot of the book was old news to me. The only real new ideas were in some of the details, like the suggestion that corporate mergers and downsizing often led to less flexible work arrangements, because people suddenly found themselves working for new bosses who didn't have a history with them. I also was struck by the ways that, once there was a parent at home, families' lives rearranged in ways that made it harder for the mothers to return to work -- fathers worked longer hours, the children started participating in extra-curricular activities that required them to be ferried all over town.
Ultimately, I'm not sure that Stone's understanding is as different from Belkin's as she thinks it is. Belkin too had argued that her subjects were pushed from the work side as much as pulled from the family side. Belkin focuses more on on- and off-ramps, while Stone is more interested in part-time and flexible arrangements. My guess is that's more a difference between parents of younger versus older children than anything else.
Here's something that I pulled together at work, and then wound up cutting from the document I did it for. So I thought I'd share it here.
This chart (from the new Indicators of Welfare Dependence report, issued by my old friends at HHS) shows the trends in labor force participation of married vs. divorced/separated/widowed vs. never-married mothers over the past 30 years.
I think it's pretty remarkable how sharply the line for the never married mothers goes up in the 1990s. So, what's going on here?
Before turning to the question of why never married mothers labor force participation (LFP) rose so much during the 1990s, it’s first necessary to consider why it didn’t rise before the 1990s. Another way to think of this question is to ask why did the labor force participation of married mothers rise during this period, and why didn’t the same factors increase the labor force participation rates of never married mothers (at least until the 1990s).
What about divorced mothers?
So why didn’t the LFP for never married mothers rise in the 1980s?
What happened in the 1990s?
And in the 2000s?
Here's the latest cartoon for my office's caption contest:
Vote here for your favorite caption.
One of my friends said that she thought the cartoon was anti-working parent. I can see where she's coming from -- the idea that the baby is being neglected because the parents are so busy. But that certainly wasn't our intent. We thought of it more as a comment on non-family friendly work environments, and how frazzled parents are as a result. (Heck, even with T. home full-time, I still often feel like we're running a relay, passing the parenting baton as we race past each other.)
These cartoons are an attempt to be lighthearted about serious subjects, to start conversations outside our usual wonkish circles. But they're inherently a bit ambiguous, with potential for varying interpretations -- someone told me she thought one of the captions in our first contest was anti-immigrant.
Of the 5 letters:
So it's not like we're out on the radical fringe here. But while the Times will publish these letters, none of this ever seems to make it into the articles themselves.
On a related note, the New America Foundation is busily arguing for removing responsibility for health insurance and retirement from employers, and creating what they call a "citizen-based social contract." One of their arguments is that if everyone has access to these benefits independent of their jobs, more people will be able to work part-time and spend more time with their families, develop small businesses on the side, etc. I do think it would help, but not as much as they suggest. As Jennifer has pointed out here before, Australia does have national health insurance, and they have many of the same issues over part-time jobs that we do here in the US.
When I wrote about the Motherhood Manifesto movie last fall, I mentioned that my colleagues had a good discussion about whether it was a mistake to limit the call to action to mothers. So I wanted to mention that Moms Rising now has a "Families Rising" section which includes a bunch of thoughtful dad-bloggers.
If you are in the DC area, and haven't seen the movie yet, there will be a screening of it this weekend:
Saturday, July 21, 2007, 10 am - 12 pm
The True Reformer Building
1200 U Street NW,
Child care and snacks will be
Please RSVP to Liz at
Sponsored by Councilmember Mendelson with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, DC ACORN, the DC Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice, Empower DC, Jubilee Jobs, Inc., the National Association of Mothers' Centers, MothersOughtToHaveEqualRights, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the National Women's Law Center.
I've got family visiting over the weekend, so won't be able to make it, but it should be a good event. The discussion afterwards will focus on the DC paid sick and safe days act.
The "Liz" to whom RSVPs are addressed is not me, and I'm not one of the organizers, but I do claim a smidgeon of credit for pushing the folks putting the event together to figure out a way to provide child care. They said "kids welcome" from the beginning, but I knew my kids wouldn't have the patience to sit through the movie, and I suspect most others wouldn't either. Which means that at least some of the moms would probably have wound up either leaving early or taking their kids out into the hallway and missing half the movie. Far better to line up some people who have agreed in advance to do the child care, whether as paid or volunteers.
[David at Scrivenings had a couple of really good posts earlier about a discussion on Twisty's blog about kids in public spaces, where some commenters started with the statement that when kids are around, there is often an assumption that all women will take responsibility for watching them, and then wandered off into nasty statements about how awful kids are. In brief, my take on the back and forth:
The Washington Post today had a front-page story on a recent poll that found that 60 percent of working mothers said that part-time work would be the ideal situation for them. This is an increase of 12 percent since 1997.
It's hard to know what to make of this finding since, as the newspaper article points out, only about 1/4 of working mothers work part-time, and that hasn't increased in the past decade. The question asked was "considering everything, what would be the ideal situation for you, working full-time, working-part time, or not working at all outside the home?" It's hard to know how people interpreted that -- if people thought about a hypothetical part-time job that paid as much (per hour) as a full-time job, with benefits and interesting work, or if they thought the part-time jobs that are actually out there. Who wouldn't want the "have your cake and eat it too" version of part-time work?*
I know I've said that at some point I'd like to cut back to part-time (probably 3/5 or 4/5 time) work. I'd like to spend more time with the boys, and I'd like to have more time to do all the other things (reading, blogging, cooking, hanging out on the lake) that I never have enough time to do. And I could even do it at my job without it being a major career-limiting move -- Rachel Schumacher, who is quoted in the article about her part-time job, works for my organization.
So why don't I? Money is the most obvious reason. I took a paycut when I took this job, and while we're doing ok, it would be hard to cut our budget by another 20 percent. T could presumably get a job that would fill the gap, but it would be tricky to align our hours. This will likely be more manageable when the boys are both in school, and I suspect that we're headed in that direction (although it will in part depend on how much the market value of T's professional skills have degraded with his time out of the workforce).
But I also suspect that I'm driven enough that I'd have trouble cutting back on my work commitments. Take next week for an example. T has someplace else he needs to be for 2 days-- we've known about this for months, and I've planned to take them off from work to hang out with the boys. But Monday I learned about a meeting on an issue area that I've been trying to get into for the past year. And of course it's scheduled for one of the days that I'm supposed to be off. My boss literally didn't say a word, but I knew I should be there. So I scrambled, and have lined up some childcare for that morning. I have a feeling that I'd wind up working at least some of the time as often as not on my days off.
* Well, fathers apparently. Only 12 percent of fathers said that part-time work would be the ideal situation for them. But, interestingly, 16 percent said that not working outside the home at all would be the ideal situation for them. That's lower than the figure for mothers (29 percent), but I think it's fascinating that fathers were more likely to chose "not working" than "part-time work" and mothers were more likely to choose "part-time work" than "not working." Does that mean that there's more interest among men in "reverse traditional families" than in "equally shared parenting"? Or that more dads still think that staying home is a permanent vacation?
I'm giving a talk tomorrow night at a networking event about women and the nonprofit sector, particularly some studies that have found that a) women are the majority of workers in nonprofits but b) women still earn less than men. Most of the attendees are likely to be in their early to mid 20s, without kids.
I'll talk about how women are less likely to negotiate, more likely to expect (wrongly) that hard work will be noticed and rewarded even if they don't. But I also want to talk about the work-family stuff that I cover here. I'm going to say that I think women are more likely to choose jobs based on satisfaction, less on an expectation that they'll be supporting a family. And that by accepting less money, they're also reducing their bargaining power in relationships down the road. And I also want to mention the roles of unpaid internships and student loans in affecting the options that are open to you.
Any suggestions? Good stories that I can use? Advice that you wish someone had told you?
Not in the print edition, but online, the Prospect has added a response by Linda Hirshman. While she is, as usual, gratuitously obnoxious toward anyone she disagrees with, she does make a point that I think is on target:
"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!"
In their discussion of a recent conference on Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism, Laura at 11d and Harry at Crooked Timber responded to a similar point made at the conference -- that things like paid parental leave are an obstacle to gender egalitarianism, because they are disproportionately taken by mothers rather than fathers. Laura and Harry argue that parenting is not a "shit job" (as Hirshman clearly believes), but rather a source of great fulfillment for many people and that if barriers are removed, men will voluntarily take on more domestic responsibilities and joys.
I don't think parenting is a shit job, or one that makes your brain rot. But I also think that it's almost certainly true that absent a massive societal shift or highly prescriptive government policy, family friendly policies probably would increase the gender gap. Because, as Rhona Mahoney explains, every choice you make changes the hand that you have when you make the next set of decisions. And unless we get to the point that working fewer hours or taking time off from work has zero career cost (which seems unlikely anytime soon), it's always going to make sense for the person who has already stepped off the fast track to be the one to accommodate the other's career. And because of both biology (pregnancy and breastfeeding) and gender ideology, the one taking that first step off is far more likely to be a woman.
Mahoney also makes the interesting suggestion that this is a tipping point phenomenon; e.g that if SAHDs were more common, more men would make that choice. And on that note, I have to point out the Colbert report piece on SAHDs. (And a look behind the scenes.)
Here are some links that readers have recently sent me:
And don't forget to send your comments on the FMLA.
I burned my thumb cooking tonight, so can't type very much. Instead, here are links to two surveys that I've taken recently.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote here about rumors that the Department of Labor was going to try to roll back the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) There was some good discussion about the importance of FMLA, but DOL didn't do anything. It looked like the we might have nipped the attempt in the bud.
Well, on Friday DOL published a "request for comments" on FMLA. DOL "invites interested parties having knowledge of, or experience with, the FMLA to submit comments and welcomes any pertinent information that will provide a basis for ascertaining the effectiveness of the current implementing regulations and the Department's administration of the Act."
"Interested parties having knowledge of, or experience with, the FMLA...." That means me. And probably you. So let's do it. Comments are due by February 2, 2007. Email them to: [email protected] (the notice also lists a US mail address, as well as a fax number.)
DOL lists a range of topics on which they are particularly soliciting feedback, including the definitions of an eligible employee, a "serious health condition" and a "day," the interaction between paid leave and unpaid FMLA leave, the medical certification procedures, and the impact of FMLA on productivity, morale, and retention.
Based on my reading of the notice, I think they're trying to make a case against allowing workers to use "intermittent, unscheduled" FMLA. It's clear that employers have complained about it, arguing that workers who are late or just don't want to come in are claiming that it's due to depression or other hard-to-disprove ailments and covered under FMLA. I hear that, and I'm sure there are cases of employees who abuse the law. But there's plenty of legitimate reasons why one might need to take intermittent, unscheduled leave to deal with personal or family illness. I would guess that there are far more people with medical conditions where the need for care is unpredictable -- like asthma or lupus -- than those where people have regularly scheduled appointments, like chemotherapy or dialysis.
The Federal Register notice is fairly dense and technical, but don't get intimidated by it. What they're asking for is personal experience -- your stories. Tell them about how you needed leave when your or your child, spouse or parent was sick. Tell them about your coworkers who took leave, and how you managed to cover for them. If you're an employer, tell them how the FMLA has affected you.
Also let them know when FMLA hasn't worked for you. Tell them if you had to go back to work 6 weeks after you had your baby instead of 12 because you couldn't afford to do without your salary any more. Tell them about the problems you had because your kids passed the same damn cold back and forth all month, but the FMLA regulations say that "a cold or flu" doesn't count as a serious illness. Tell them if you're a doctor and find the documentation requirements a burden.
Let's spread the word. MomsRising already picked the story up, but I haven't seen much else about it.
Additional resource: National Partnership for Women and Families
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to view the Motherhood Manifesto documentary. (I work for one of the Moms Rising aligned organizations, so we set it up in the conference room during lunch and brought popcorn.)
It's very well done. For each of the letters in the MOTHER agenda, they have a funny pseudo-fifties animated clip, a feature about someone affected by the issue, and brief interviews with experts who are working on the issue with aligned organizations. It's a nice mixture of wrenching personal stories with just a touch of policy wonkery and, unlike many discussions of work-family issues, they leave viewers with hope that progress is being made rather than with handwringing over the current state of the world.
When the movie was done, we sat around and discussed it. Some in my organization (which focuses on low-income individuals and families) were concerned that there weren't more low-income mothers featured in it, but I'm pretty sure that was a deliberate choice. I think it's almost certainly true that the way to get more affordable child care, health care, etc. for poor families is to get middle- and upper-income families to fight for changes in the system, out of self-interest as well as altruism. But I think it's also important to make sure that the solutions then work for everyone. (Recently, there was a discussion on one of my parenting email lists about the high cost of child care in the DC area, and the solution that someone suggested was to increase the amount that could be put aside tax free for child care in Flexible Spending Accounts. I tried to be polite in pointing out that FSAs don't help people who don't make enough to owe federal income taxes.)
The more interesting question that was raised was whether it's limiting to frame this as a mothers' organization rather than as a caregivers organization, since many of the proposals are needed by people caring for the elderly or sick as well as by parents. And someone -- not me -- did ask my favorite question of Where Are The Dads? I'm really ambivalent about this one. On the one hand, I do think that always talking of these issues as mothers' issues lets fathers and others off the hook. But I do think that being a mother is a very salient part of lots of mothers' identities, and so it's a good way to mobilize them. In particular, there are a lot of people who don't think of themselves as activists, but if you convince them that being politically engaged is an important part of being a mother, they might do it. And I'm not sure that a broad "caregivers movement" would engage people in the same way. What do you think?
In any case, the documentary is worth watching. If you're in the DC area, and want to see the movie, the Women's Information Network is having a screening and discussion tonight at AFSCME. (Sorry, I won't be there -- I'll be at D's soccer team dinner.) If that doesn't work for you, let me know if you'd like me to arrange a kid-friendly viewing at my house some time. (Probably not until January.)
A couple of people have pointed out to me Abigail Trafford's column from this week's Washington Post health section, where she proposes reshuffling the typical worklife so that people could receive government benefits and focus on childrearing (with some education and part-time work) while they were in their 20s and 30s, focus on work from 40 to 75, and then turn to community service at the end of their life. It's part of her regular focus on what she calls "my time," the time after midlife (what used to be called old age).
Trafford's analysis of the problem is on target:
"Our current system is irrational. We concentrate on work at a time in our lives when we are having children and our children need us the most. We tend to leave or be eased out of the workplace when we have completed the child-rearing tasks -- about age 50 -- and now have time and energy to devote to work. And in our later decades, we are stereotyped as useless."
I've often said that it's nuts that, in a world where many of us are going to live to be 80 or more, taking a few years out of the workforce in order to focus on childrearing can cripple your earning potential for decades to come.
I don't think Trifford's actual proposal is serious, although her underlying point is. It's certainly not feasible on a literal level. She says that "Researchers have found that among healthy people with a college education, there is no change in health status between 55 and 75." But the less educated -- which largely means the poor -- are far less likely to be in good health at an advanced age. And they're also far more likely to have physically demanding jobs. Professionals who sit behind a computer all day may well be just as productive at 70 as at 40, but the same is far less likely to be true for people who have to stand on their feet, bending and lifting all day.
But the general point -- that a system that expects continous work for 30 to 40 years and then continuous leisure for a period that may be almost as long doesn't make sense -- is dead on. It makes far more sense to let people distribute their free time more evenly throughout their lifetimes, whether that means working part-time for long stretches or moving in and out of the labor force. Parents asking for that kind of flexibility have made only modest progress, but the oncoming wave of baby boomers may reshape the landscape of work far more dramatically.
So I finally got around to reading Caitlin Flanagan's To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. I sort of felt that it was my obligation, given the topics I cover on this blog. I shouldn't have bothered. I'd read most of the essays that were adapted into the book, so there wasn't much new here. Moreover, Flanagan seems to have thought better of some of the most over-the-top lines in the essays; while I agree with the substance of the move, it takes away most of the elan in her writing. And elan and a willingness to make breathtaking leaps are pretty much all that Flanagan ever has going for her.
Most notably, Flanagan now describes her Atlantic essay, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," as "a convoluted and slightly insane cover story on the topic [social security benefits for nannies] for a national magazine." The most infamous line from that piece -- "when a mother works, something is lost" -- has migrated into the preface, where Flanagan transforms it into a platitude:
"What few will admit -- because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities -- is that whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value."
I also don't remember reading in the original article Flanagan's description of summoning her nanny when her son was throwing up. Flanagan writes that Paloma would
"literally run to his room, clean the sheets, change his pajamas, spread a clean towel on his pillow, feed him ice chips, sing to him. I [Flanagan] would stand in the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up -- the way my father did when I was sick and my mother was taking care of me."
If it had been there, I can't believe that any of us would have taken Flanagan's attempt to claim the moral high ground as worthy of anything but snickering. (I'd love to hear her try to explain why hiring someone to pick nits out of your kid's hair is "perilously close to having someone... come in and service my husband on nights when I'd rather put on my flannel nightie and watch Dateline NBC" but calling someone to change him out of his pukey PJs is not.)
Overall, the main thing that jumped out at me reading the collection is how much better a writer the late Marjorie Williams was than Flanagan. Compare these lines:
"The slip of paper [her 11th grade report card] was not a testament of past academic glory, only of a hard new fact: there was no longer anyone in the world who loved me enough to save my report cards and school pictures and Christmas poems. I wasn't anyone's daughter anymore." [Flanagan]
"Yet still there are moments when it stops me in my tracks to realize that I will never peel an orange the way my mother once did for me. And sometimes those moments are too much to bear." [Williams]
Or compare the "few will admit" passage above to Williams' tart: "On a personal level, and as a matter of social policy, we often seem to be waiting for the No-Fault Fairy to come and explain at last how our deepest conflict can be managed away."
In her comment on my post about my tri, Trishka wondered: "I don't know how you manage to do all that you do -- work full time, have two small children, volunteer, and to train for a triathlon on top of it."
The short answer is that I do it by not trying to be perfect at any one of the things I do, let alone all of them, and with a lot of help from my husband*. This doesn't strike me as that radical a concept, but it occurred to me that maybe it is. In her comment on Landismom's open letter to moms who have left the paid workforce, Mary Tsao wrote: "I couldn’t do the crazy busy lifestyle anymore. I didn’t feel I was doing any of my jobs (mom, wife, worker) to the best of my ability."
I'm willing to admit that I'd probably be better at my job if I didn't have as much else going on in my life. I'd do more reading in the evenings and more travelling. And I wouldn't have afternoons where I just found out that the principal of my kid's school resigned and spend half my time emailing around to try to learn more. I don't think I could love my kids more than I do, but I could be less frazzled, have more time to spend in their classrooms or just hanging out, bake cookies more often.
But I don't think I'm short-changing either my boss or my kids. At both work and home, I feel like I've got a good grip on what's necessary, what's nice, and what's icing on the cake. (For example, in this household, reading a story at bedtime is necessary; a bath every night is icing on the cake.) And I've got enough flexibility at both ends, that I've never felt like I've had to sacrifice something that's necessary, and often -- although not always -- get to do the nice things too.
Running provides a good analogy. I know that I'm a far better runner when I run 20 miles a week than when I run 5 or 10. And I'm a better runner when I run 40 than when I run 20, but the improvements are more subtle, and only really matter if I'm trying to set a personal record or to qualify for Boston. And above about 50 miles a week, additional training becomes counterproductive -- my body starts to protest, and there's a real risk that I'm going to injure myself.
There are people who are happy focusing all their energy in one part of their life; I'm just not one of them. Barbara Sher calls people like me "scanners" and has a new book out called "Refuse to Choose! A revolutionary program for doing everything that you love." For years, I've been carrying around two quotes from Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson:
"Composing a life is a little like making a Middle Eastern pastry, in which the butter must be layered in by repeated folding, or like making a samurai sword, whose layers of differently tempered metal are folded over and over."
. . . and this:
"It would be easier to live with a greater clarity of ambition, to follow
goals that beckon toward a single upward progression. But perhaps
what women have to offer in the world today . . lies in the very rejection of forced choices: work or home, strength or vulnerability, caring or competition, trust or questioning. "
"We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting
of a massive tree trunk . . . rather than something crafted from odds
and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different
nights and bodies."
*Amended to acknowledge, as Laura pointed out, that I also get an enormous amount of support from T, who is at home with the kids. I was not meaning to downplay his role in keeping this family going, or to suggest to anyone who feels that she's in over her head that the problem is her perfectionism. I recognize that with special needs kids, inflexible jobs, or lack of family support, something may well have to give. I wrote this post because I'm fascinated by how hard it is to admit that doing lots of things means that I'm often not doing the best at any of them. And in particular by how hard it is to let go of the idea of being the "perfect mother" -- even when there's another parent at home. This may deserve a post of its own.
I went out with some of my colleagues for drinks after work this evening. We had a good time, drinking and schmoozing, and also had a very illuminating conversation about the culture of the office. It started out as a discussion of the annual holiday party, and how it's been somewhat of a focus for culture clash issues in the past, and eventually it turned into a discussion of socializing and work.
What I learned is that the two senior people in the organization are both strong introverts, and tend to think that everyone should be sitting in their office working and not "wasting time" standing around in the halls and talking. At the same time, they've spent a lot of time over the last year trying to figure out formal ways to break down some of the organizational silos. It hasn't occurred to them that ordering in Chinese and letting people have informal conversations about what they're working on might work better than more meetings.
What's really strange about this is that this is not an organization with a high emphasis on clock-watching. People work from home or flex their schedules all their time, and with very little supervision. There's very much an expectation that we're all professionals and will get the job done. If anything, people tend to work more hours than they're paid for, since they care about the mission. So it seems very odd to me that they're worried about staff "wasting time" through socializing.
Of course, this conversation was precisely an example of the kinds of things that you learn through informal conversation that make you better at your job. And while I don't object to having a Berry Lemontini every so often, I shouldn't have to stay late to learn these things. Landismom wrote the other day about wishing that there were other working moms in her office. There are actually lots of moms with young children in my office -- as noted above, the powers that be are very open to flexible schedules -- but of the other two in my particular division, one telecommutes from another state and the other is out on maternity leave. So there's no one else to say "hey, I really need to get home for dinner, let's do something that isn't drinks after work."
As it happens, T and the boys were elsewhere tonight, so I wasn't missing out on family time, but in general, I'd rather have these conversations at lunch. I think I'll try posting a menu for takeout and seeing if I can convince others to order with me some day.
Welcome to the "I read it, so you don't have to" edition of the Tuesday Book Review. Yup, I'm discussing Linda Hirshman's Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, which is her somewhat expanded version of the American Prospect article that caused all the fuss last winter.
The tone of the book irritated me immensely. Hirshman is so in love with her self-image as the lone prophet in the wilderness that she attacks her possible allies . For example, she writes scornfully about "stay-at-home dads who contend that their decisions mean there is no such thing as a gender ideology about who should care for home and familiy." Err, actually, SAHDs encounter gender ideology up close and personal every day. And she quotes long passages from bloggers and others without attribution, which strikes me as intellectually dishonest. (Bitch, PhD is one of the few bloggers who she cites by name. Phantom Scribbler is also mentioned in the endnotes.) Finally, she plays sleazy rhetorical tricks, such as painting all of her critics with the brush of a few of them (e.g. anti-feminist conservative wingnuts hated her article, so if you disagre with her, you must be an anti-feminist wingnut.)
I'm going to try not to repeat what I previously wrote in response to the original article, but most of my complaints at the time still hold. In particular, Hirshman still doesn't get that the problem isn't just that gender ideology affects which of the available choices people pick, but also that the choices are far too limited. So, what's new in the book?
First, Hirshman expands somewhat on her advice to young women who want to have equal power in their relationships -- get a practical degree, take work seriously, lower your standards for household cleanliness, have only one kid. The only part of this that I thought was particularly interesting was her acknowledgment that having a job that you're passionate about can increase your bargaining position as well as making a lot of money, as long as it doesn't pay so little that you'd starve on your own. But if you're interested in understanding marital bargaining, reading Kidding Ourselves, not Get to Work. (Hirshman does credit Mahony for much of this section.) Ironically, this section reminded me a lot of Sylvia Hewlett's writing -- both of them are determined to save young women from the mistakes they don't know they're making.
Second, Hirshman does acknowledge that feminism would be smaller under her definition, but she argues that a smaller, more focused movement would be more effective. In particular, she argues for a policy goal of removing the tax penalty on second earners. (Interestingly, this is also the "marriage penalty" that the religious conservatives whom Hirshman reviles also oppose.)
As previously noted, men's labor force participation has been declining since 1949. The NYTimes had a nice article this week about the growing population of prime working age men who are out of the labor force.
Some countries -- the United Kingdom and New Zealand are the ones I know about -- have explicit goals of increasing labor force participation. The US has such a goal for single mothers -- welfare recipients -- but isn't willing to talk about it for a broader population.
The argument in favor of promoting increased labor force participation as a public policy goal are:
The first two of these are pretty self-evident. The third is basically a version of what Bill Clinton argued during welfare reform, that work gives "meaning to your life and shape to your days." One of the authors of the Times article is Louis Uchitelle, who wrote The Disposable American. He makes a convincing case that, even when laid-off workers are doing ok financially, there's a huge emotional toll to being told that society doesn't value your skills, that you have nothing to contribute. There's also an argument to be made that expanding work makes it more politically feasible to provide income support when earnings aren't enough.
But, as I wrote in response to Hirshman last fall, I strongly believe that there are ways to contribute to society that don't involve getting a pay check. So, while labor force participation may be a easily measured metric, it's important to remember that it's not the real goal.
The Washington Post had a nice article on labor force participation in the business section last Friday. While the headline focused in on women -- "Whither the Women?" -- the article actually adds some useful perspective to the whole "opt-out" discussion.
Some of the reasons that men are working less also apply to women -- in particular, women are staying in school longer than men. The generation of women which has been most work-oriented is just starting to hit retirement age, so that's likely to reduce labor force participation (if they can afford to retire). And women tend to live longer, and so are likely to spend more years out of the workforce in retirement.
By the way, the "recent analysis" by demographer Cheryl Russell appears to be a post in her blog. Not that you could tell by reading the article.
"If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn't believe that a woman's place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn't ethical at this point in time."
Fair enough. Our choices have implications for the environment, for the economy, for society as a whole, and yes, they have implications for other women.
But Hirshman simultaneously asks too much of women (insisting that they should stay in jobs even if they're unhappy and unfulfilled) and too little (because just showing up in an office every day isn't going to change the structure of society).
I've been thinking of some ways that we can further the "common good," regardless of whether we work for pay. Here are my initial thoughts -- I'd love to hear others' suggestions. I'm deliberately not including voting or other political activism in this list, although I do think it's critical.
If you are a stay at home parent:
If you work for pay:
So, Linda Hirshman has a book out, and the Washington Post gave her op-ed space over the weekend. I'll take a look at the book if either of my local libraries gets a copy, but so far, I haven't heard her saying anything that wasn't covered in her original American Prospect essay or responding to any of the substantive criticisms that I and others made at the time. (I do feel compelled to point out that Julia's post in which she says that she's not a capital F Feminist is a precise illustration of the point that I made about the dangers of litmus test feminism.)
I'm somewhat amused by Hirshman's defensive reaction to the criticism the article got in the blogosphere -- and her implicit assumption that "mommybloggers" are all stay-at-home moms. And I really don't understand why she's so hung up on Miriam Peskowitz's roof. (And yes, it's a sign that I spend way too much time on blogs that I knew exactly who Hirshman was referring to, even though she didn't mention her by name.)
"To my way of thinking, the Washington Post's Leslie Morgan Steiner represents everything that's wrong with the way the mainstream corporate media cover children and parenting: she's shallow, blind to anything that falls outside her cultural and economic comfort zone..."
As I mentioned yesterday, I got a chance to have dinner two weeks ago with Steiner, Devra Renner and a group of working moms as part of a Women's Information Network event. While I share many of Jeremy's frustrations with Steiner's blog, and the "mom v. mom" framing of her book, she charmed me. She was gracious, listened as well as talked, and was quite funny about the way her personal life gets dissected by the posters on her blog on a regular basis. Moreover, she seemed to get the fact that professional-class parents enjoy a huge amount more flexibility and freedom than lower-income families, and argued that those of us with time and influence should be working to benefit all families, not just our own.
So why doesn't she push this harder in her writing? Steiner claimed that the "Mommy Wars" framing was pushed on her by the publisher. And she also pointed out that that day's post, in which she talked about the huge settlement that Verizon had made in its class-action pregnancy bias lawsuit, got fewer comments than almost any post she's made.
The work-family discussion tends to be very focused on middle-class professionals and on the US. Here's some links to new resources that broaden that perspective:
Judith Warner's back blogging in the New York Times, and this week she takes on Caitlin Flanagan:
"The Caitlin Flanagan interview turned into a knock-down-drag-out fight. I had entirely misunderstood her book, which is, in large part, a paean to traditional wife- and motherhood, and which I had read as an extended metaphor, given that — as Flanagan makes exceedingly clear — she is a modern working mother who does no housework whatsoever."
"I’d taken her book — which begins and ends with chapters about Flanagan’s mother’s death and the author’s own bout with breast cancer — to be about love and yearning and identity and desire and memory, when, in fact, it is about cooking and cleaning and sex and child-rearing (sometimes a pressure cooker is just a pressure cooker)."
And she concludes:
"I will start by saying: I disagree with Caitlin Flanagan. I believe that the enormous investment we bring to things like “home” and “motherhood” — as to things like birthday parties and profiteroles — is metaphorical. It’s about ideas, not reality, and those ideas can’t be taken at face value. Our lives are material. We have to mine that material for the deeper truths it can reveal about ourselves and the world around us. And we have to have a sense of humor about it. For the other way, madness lies."
I didn't think I'd ever find myself agreeing 100% with anything Warner wrote, but this comes pretty close.
I really appreciated the thoughtful comments that people left on the post about the MotherTalk event. I don't think Flannagan makes a serious argument that any of us should feel compelled to respond to. (And if you're really looking for a book about the satisfactions of ironed sheets and vacuumed floors, I recommend Cheryl Mendolson's Home Comforts. ) Hirshman at least makes a case, although I think she's fundamentally wrong in her claim that women who succeed by following traditionally male career paths are necessarily going to be better for women's rights than their male counterparts.
I've written so much about Leslie Morgan Steiner's Mommy Wars book and the press it's gotten that it almost seemed beside the point to read the book. But when I picked up the book in a store and realized how many of the authors I've written about here -- Lonnae O'Neil Parker, Jane Juska, Anna Fels -- I decided to give it a second chance, in spite of the dreadful title and the worse subtitle (Stay-At-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families).
The good news is that the book is far better than media coverage or Steiner's blog would suggest. Many of the essays are thoughtful, some are funny, others tender. Almost all of them come to some soothing conclusion about how we're all doing our best:
Only a few of the essays conclude with what I would call true "mommy wars" moments. Interestingly, both authors attribute the stinger lines to their 10 year olds -- Catherine Clifford's son's asking "Yeah, you love him so much, how come you leave him with some nanny person all the time?" Sara Nelson's son saying "There once was a time when women didn't work, wasn't there? Is that what they call the Dark Ages?"
The downside of the book is that, as Sandra Tsing Loh nastily points out in the Atlantic, the writers lack a certain diversity. (Thanks Sandy.) It's not just that they're almost all white and affluent. It's that they almost all seem to work (or used to) as writers, editors, or television producers and use brand names to prove their credentials. That said, I think Loh takes her criticism to an extreme (and is somewhat hypocritical, as she's the one who turned a book review last year into a tale of her own troubles getting her kid into preschool). And, as we discussed last week, I think the work-family issues of the affluent are worth discussing. The problem is what Steiner writes in her introduction:
"Most of the debate in the United States about the benefits of working versus stay-at-home motherhood has been taken over by experts: researchers, academics, politicians, journalists. Many of them aren't women. Some aren't even parents. The most authoritative (and fascinating) answers come from moms themselves."
I just don't think that's true, especially when the only moms you're talking to are the ones like you. I enjoyed many of these essays, but I learned a lot more from reading journalists like Jason DeParle and academics like Annette Lareau and Kathryn Edin.
A more fundamental problem is that -- as usual for these work-family discussions -- fathers and husbands are all but invisible (with Sarnoff's "I Do Know How She Does It," where she explicitly says that she couldn't have succeeded in her high pressure career without her husband's sharing of parenting duties, as a notable exception). One passage in particular stood out for me, from Beth Brophy's "Good Enough":
"It's been eight years since I quit my job. I've never looked back. My husband has glanced back, usually with a calculator in one hand and a stack of mortgage and orthodontia bills in the other. He misses my paycheck and I do too. When I had a steady one and I wanted something, I usually bought it. Now I can't. Or if I do buy it, I feel guilty.... While I'm feeling a lot more relaxed with the new world order, my husband is developing an ulcer. As I've made abundantly clear to him and anyone else who asks, I hope never again to work full-time in an office."
I wonder what he thinks about this.
Over at 11d, Laura wrote an interesting post about "What Do Men Want?", specifically about whether men overall prefer stay-at-home wives, as Jane Galt suggested. Laura thinks that most men underestimate the ways in which stay-at-home wives contribute to the family's well-being, and so would prefer that their wives work.
My guess, with absolutely no data to back it up, is that most men would prefer that their wives worked part-time -- enough to bring in some money to allow for extras (nicer cars, better vacations) -- but not so much as to result in an expectation that they'll be responsible for making serious addditional contributions to the domestic front. This isn't because they're evil. I know I sound like a broken record, but Rhona Mahony's point is that once you've stepped off the career track, it's hard to get back on at a level that (economically) justifies your spouse making significant sacrifices (covering an equal share of sick days, relocating) to further your career.
Certainly, all else equal, when the boys are both in school, I'd like it if T figured out a way to bring in more money. It would give me the freedom to consider lower-paying but more interesting and/or meaningful jobs without feeling like I was sacrificing my family, and it would give us more options generally (see yesterday's post about schools for an example). And I'd like to be more involved in the boys' schools, which is hard to justify while I'm working full-time and T's staying home. But it's probably not worth making him miserable doing database work (even if he could still get hired to do so, which is unclear). So we shall see.
The discussion on Laura's post got a little sidetracked into a back and forth on whether it's upper-class indulgence to discuss any of this. I liked Tim Burke's answer:
"We live our lives, not someone else's lives; in each of our lives, there are issues, problems, dissatisfactions. Effacing your own life, your own issues, your own reactions, ignoring the ethnographic texture of your immediate social worlds, in favor of endless pious genuflection at the holy shrine of some constituency of "deserving poor" is an upper-middle-class indulgence in its own right, and usually phonier by far than talking about how to do right by your children or your spouse."
"When I’m taking care of Liko, I don’t feel like I’m “fathering” him. In my mind – and this is just the thought I was raised with, not the one I want to have – a father goes to work and comes home in the evening. "Fathering" is playing ball, patting on the back, putting food on the table. An honorable role."
"A mother, meanwhile, is home changing diapers and cleaning baby food off the floor and kissing skinned knees. That's also honorable and often honored. That’s what I do. So I feel like by staying home with him, I’m “mothering” Liko. I’m a mom, or at least, that’s my role. In many respects, a man out in the middle of the afternoon with his toddler, who is known to neighbors and neighborhood shop clerks and waitresses as a “Mr. Mom,” is a man in drag, and queer in the most political sense of the term. Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a Mr. Mom?"
I commented that I worry that this definition implies that working mothers aren't real mothers, and there's been some interesting back and forth on Jeremy's blog.
But maybe Jeremy's right in some ways. I write here a fair amount about what I call "reverse traditional families" -- families with working mothers and at-home fathers. One of the strains on women in these families is that we rarely give ourselves mothering credit for being breadwinners. We often beat ourselves up for the things that we don't do, without giving ourselves corresponding brownie points for the things we do. Maybe we should stop worrying about whether we're good enough mothers, and decide that we're damned good fathers.
I can't remember if I posted here about the "daddies and donuts" event at D's preschool last month. This was a chance to have a snack and do a craft with the kids, at the relatively working-parent friendly hour of 9 am (vs. the 11 am time for "family snack" and most other events to which parents are invited). When I got the flyer, I asked T if he thought in this context, "daddy" meant "male parent" (e.g. him) or "the parent who never gets to do things at preschool" (e.g. me). [The flyer did say that if a father couldn't come, a mother or "other Very Important Person" could attend.] Ultimately, since I was taking off a day the week before to go on a field trip with the class (to the Planetarium), I decided not to fight T for the chance to go. As it turns out, the "craft" was that the kids decorated paper ties.
On another note, RebelDad is having an online chat with Leslie Morgan Steiner at WashingtonPost.com tomorrow (Thursday) at 1 pm. If you can't be online at the time, you can submit questions in advance and read the transcript later. I got Steiner's book out of the library -- look for a review in the next week or two.
"But I would like to point out that if you think you've found the One Right Way to raise YOUR child, then it does indeed make sense to fight hard to persuade as many other women as possible to make the same choice. If you are at home, working mothers are your enemy, at least until they chuck the rat race, and vice versa.
"Why do I say this? Simple: having the majority of people live the way you do has significant positive externalities.
I think she's at least partially right about the externalities, wrong that they're the explanation behind the "mommy wars."
If you're a working parent in a neighborhood full of at-home parents, all of the social and school-related events are likely to happen while you're at work. The afterschool program at the school is likely to be not very good, because few parents are fighting for it. And if your coworkers who are parents all have partners at home, they're probably not going to be as sympathetic of your need to take off for a sick kid as someone else in your situation would be.
If you're an at-home parent in a neighborhood full of two-income families, you're likely to be socially isolated during the day. Your kids probably won't have as fancy birthday parties or go on as many trips as their peers. The PTA will be more likely to meet at night, when you'd rather spend time with your spouse, less likely to meet during the day.
(I think Galt is seriously overstating the case when she suggests that there's a real shortage of at-home parents for socializing with:
"Let me point out that staying at home with children is not nearly as rewarding as it was in the 1960's. All right, there are more daytime television options than there used to be, and gyms now have day-care centres. But there is something huge missing, and that is all the other women in your neighbourhood. The ones that your mother had coffee with, asked to watch the children for an hour, played afternoon bridge with, formed the pillar of the PTA with, and so on . . . they're all off trading bonds or editing books or waiting tables..."
Although there are fewer at-home parents, there's still an awful lot. I think the increase in social isolation has more to do with a) suburban sprawl -- a lot of the suburbs of the 50s and 60s look pretty urban by modern standards; and b) expectations of intensive parenting -- it's no longer socially acceptable to send your children out to amuse themselves in the street or to watch TV for hours while you drink coffee with the neighbors.)
But, I don't think any of that is why the mommy wars exist. I just don't believe that thousands of people are thinking -- gee, my life would be easier if my neighbor also stayed home, so I'll make cutting remarks every time I see her in office clothes so she'll decide to quit her job. Or -- it's not fair that I need to compete at work with Roger, whose wife stays home, so I'll try to convince her that she's wasting her brain and would really be happier if she worked.
I think two types of parents make mommy wars type comments. One is those who are so happy with their choices that they truly can't imagine that everyone else wouldn't also be happier if they made the same choices. And the other is those who are deeply insecure about their choice, and so need to constantly try to prove that it's objectively better.
In keeping with the housework theme for the week, today's book is A Housekeeper Is Cheaper Than a Divorce: Why You Can Afford to Hire Help and How to Get It, by Kathy Fitzgerald Sherman. It's a quick read, in an easy conversational style, and I'm quite sure it's the only book ever written to receive blurbs from both John Gray and Rhona Mahony.
In spite of the provocative title, Sherman really doesn't have much to say about the division of household labor. Her basic argument is that time spent doing housework is almost always time that could be spent on higher priority activities, whether working for pay, caring for children, volunteering, or just enjoying yourself. For most middle-class and above families, time is more valuable than money, so why not spend some money to buy yourself more time?
Lots of families do buy themselves time by hiring housecleaning services, eating out or getting takeout. Sherman suggests that you can get more help for the same amount of money by hiring less specialized workers -- housekeepers -- and providing them with extremely detailed instructions about what to do. She provides step-by-step guidance on how to figure out those instructions, as well as advice on recruiting, complying with tax requirements, etc.
I thought the book was interesting, but it didn't make me want to rush out and hire a housekeeper. Maybe if the boys were older. But at this stage, a huge part of the work is just staying on top of the clutter, and I can't imagine a housekeeper being able to make the judgements needed to know what to do with everything. And I'm not willing to limit ourselves to a weekly rotation of meals.
The latest from the housework tracking experiment: Monday, T spent 1.25 hours shopping (I think that includes driving to Costco and back), 3 hours cooking (he made a triple batch of curried chicken buns to freeze), and 2.25 hours cleaning. I spent about 20 minutes cleaning. Today T spent 15 minutes cooking, and an hour and 45 minutes cleaning. I spent 30 minutes cooking, and about 20 minutes cleaning.
For me, the most surprising part of this experiment is how much cleaner the house is getting. The act of writing down how much he's doing has clearly motivated T to clean more. And he insists that it's not because he wants to look good for all of you. In fact, he's planning to keep tracking it for himself, but not tell me each day. He suggested that when he doesn't track how much time he spends doing things, it can feel like he's spending all the time cleaning, since it's interspersed with hanging out with the boys. Writing it down also clearly helps him remember that once he's put a load in the washer, it really need to move along to the dryer and eventually to get folded.
First the update, then a few responses to the comments on why I think this matters.
Friday, T reported spending 2.5 hours on housework -- 45 minutes cleaning the kitchen, 45 minutes on laundry, 30 minutes mopping the kitchen and bathroom (unfortunately we have light colored tile floors that look dirty 10 minutes after you finish cleaning them), and 30 minutes sorting the papers on his "launch pad" shelf. He also spent 45 minutes cooking. I spent 30 minutes cooking (I started the chili cooking in the crockpot in the morning) and about 15 minutes doing laundry and miscellaneous picking up (taking out the recycling, cleaning up after the cat, bringing in dishes from around the house). I also spent 30 minutes cleaning up my desk and the area around it. (Is that housework? I don't really think so, but it's certainly comparable to T's cleaning his launch pad.)
Saturday, T spent 1.25 hours cleaning -- half an hour in the kitchen, 45 minutes in the bedroom and family room, and about 15 minutes cooking. I also spent about 15 minutes cooking (we had pancakes for breakfast, but went out for dinner), and about 15 minutes picking up and doing laundry.
Today, T spent 45 minutes cleaning -- 15 minutes in the kitchen, 30 minutes doing the bathroom, and about 15 cooking. I spent about 15 minutes cleaning and doing laundry. We spent about 20 minutes together shopping, and about half an hour moving furniture around in the boys' room.
So why do I think it's worth paying attention to this? Certainly I wouldn't want to do it all the time, any more than I track every cent I spend all the time. But I think both are worth doing for short periods of time.
First, it does draw attention to the division of labor. I'll admit that I'm feeling self-conscious to see that T is doing more household work than me, even on the weekend. In my defense, I'll say that I was taking care of the boys when T was cleaning. I also think I may do more of the 30 seconds here and there type stuff, picking up socks and dirty dishes when I see them. (But I'm also realizing that I may be giving myself too much credit for doing that.)
Second, I think that most people don't have a particularly realistic sense of the "cost" of a certain level of cleanliness. If you don't realize that having a house that is "guest-clean" at all times requires 2 hours a day of cleaning, it's easy to beat yourself up for not achieving that standard, to think that you're lazy or inefficient. Part of effective time management is knowing how long a task actually takes.
Third, in response to Jennifer's comment, I do think it's possible to make changes when you realize how long things really take. You might institute a family rule that everyone only gets clean towels once a week, and people who leave their wet towels on the floor have to deal with the consequences. You might decide that it's really important to you to mop the kitchen every other day, but that you're willing to only vacuum once a week (or vice versa). Or you might decide that you're willing to hire a housecleaner.
If anyone else decides to track this for a while, please let me know. I'd love to see what this looks like in other households.
Last week's NYTimes article on mothers' labor force participation (which I also wrote about last Friday) suggests that the decline in housework that has occurred over the past 40 years may have reached a limit -- that we can't reasonably go much lower. I'm not sure if I think that's true.
I have no idea how messy the average house is, to be honest, or how we compare. We do a pretty good job of staying on top of the dirty dishes and the laundry (since we don't have a basement, there's no real room to let the laundry pile up), but the clutter (books, papers, toys) builds up as fast as we can put it away. And by the time we've cleared away the clutter, we often run out of steam before we get to the sweeping/vacuuming/mopping stage.
So I asked my husband if he'd be willing to track all the housework we did for a week, and he said sure. He even suggested we post photos. (We've been snapping them, but I don't have the energy to transfer them tonight.)
So, today is day 1. T reports that he spent 1 hour grocery shopping today, 1 hour cooking (we had chicken paprikash), and 2.75 hours doing housework (.5 hours cleaning the kitchen, .25 hours cleaning up after each of lunch and dinner, .25 hours running laundry, .75 hours sorting and putting it away, .5 hours picking up the dining room, and .25 hours picking up the library/family room). He says that's about average -- I think it's probably a bit more than usual. But that might be a sign of the invisibility of housework -- you only notice it when it's not done.
I spent about 20 minutes cooking (mostly making challah for tomorrow, but also putting my breakfast and lunch together) and about 40 minutes cleaning -- 10 minutes cleaning the kitchen (scrubbing the stovetop and the microwave, which didn't rise to the top of T's list), 15 minutes putting away laundry, and 15 minutes picking up in the library. I also spent about 30 minutes trying to get caught up recording our finances, which got a bit scrambled by not having access to my computer files for two weeks. And now I've spent about 30 minutes blogging and checking my messages, and I think I'm going to bed.