April 1st, 2008

_Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power_ by Rhona Mahony

I bought this a few months after buying Julie Shields’ excellent, but appallingly titled _How to Avoid the Mommy Trap_. I am reasonably certain I picked this up because Shields mentioned Mahony’s work.

The primary weakness in _Mommy Trap_ was its tight focus on egalitarian marriages, with little or no useful advice to people who were not splitting child care equally while also both working outside the home at careers, rather than jobs. Mahony does not suffer from this problem. Mahony’s conception of negotiation covers the ground Shields’ did, but is more expansive, in that she is encouraging couples to work towards solutions that are not just something each person can live with, but better for both of them.

Coverage of BATNA is comparable. Mahony wrote her work (and based it on research) earlier than Shields’, which has some impact on relevance. While Shields is a parental leave activist, Mahony has serious reservations about many parental leave schemes. Mahony’s goal is breathtakingly larger in scope than Shields.

What Mahony wants is a world in which men are just as likely to be the primary parent as women, and where childcare throughout the society is evenly distributed among men and women. She believes that would mean some househusbands, some housewives, some fifty-fifty, other variations including hired child care. This is important to increase women’s ability to negotiate with their partner (by improving their BATNA, among other things) and access to All Good Thing in the home and in the world. Mahony recognizes the value that a homemaker can provide and further recognizes that by denying that value, a lot of high-earning women cut themselves off from the possibility of marrying a househusband because they were unable to respect the men who would do that.

Mahony brings in a variety of research from across time and around the world in support of her thesis, addressing such issues as whether men who raise babies and small children are likely to beat them more than women, whether women who are breadwinners would experience less battering (and whether they might batter their husbands). Her primary mechanism for getting to this future world is to encourage girls to train up (taking math and science courses in high school in particular, to leave open engineering and science careers); be career focused (maximize income and commitment to the job); be open to marrying someone who makes the same amount or less than she does; share control of household chores (and accept alternative standards for doing those chores) and give the father of their children lots of solo time with those children.

You can probably guess my primary objection to this eminently laudable and plausible strategy: so, what about breastfeeding? Shields’ response to this question was straightforward and depressing: few women breastfeed for very long, so it shouldn’t be allowed to have a large impact. Mahony is not opposed to breastfeeding per se, but she sees in it a huge risk of the mother’s attachment to the baby galloping ahead of the father’s, tilting their negotiations back to a traditional division of labor. Because really, that’s Mahony’s issue: division of labor by sex. Mahony isn’t prepared to allow anyone to maintain much of a separate enclave, either, on the premise that if there are women out there adhering to the stereotype, it won’t die and all the women trying to buck that stereotype will suffer. So it has got to go.

Mahony’s assessment of every proposed mechanism for improving the lot of families, parents in general, mothers in particular, etc., is: does this apply pressure to end the sexual division of labor? Because women who have difficult to break commitments in the workforce are better able to negotiate more work around the home and with the child from their husbands, Mahony is not happy about maternal or maternity leave unless father’s can take it – and are somehow strongly encouraged to take it – as well. She likes child subsidies, but only to a limited degree. Where they are clearly pro-natalist (kicking in at the 3rd child and after), she figures they’re just helping Keep Women Down and that’s no good.

Mahony does take the time to consider lesbian and homosexual partnerships, at least in passing if not in detail. She also considers the effect of income level/education/class to a degree. She includes a chapter on religion, and how it does not uniformly contribute to sexual division of labor; she advocates using religious references where they would tend to convince. She is also, in general, a strong proponent of using moral language (it’s only fair!) while negotiating.

Mahony also strongly advocates including older children and teenagers in doing work in and around the house, both to reduce the load on the parents, to prepare them for the rest of their lives, and to counter sexual programming about appropriate division of labor. She draws attention to the benefit of nontraditional parenting (fifty-fifty or father as primary parent) in that the children may grow up with a much broader sense of the possibilities.

It’s tough for me to find anything solid to object to about this book (although her breastfeeding cooperative idea has a whole lot more wrong with it than she draws attention to in her analysis), but I’m game. In addition to the pro-formula bias, I’m always disappointed by books which accept as a given the male-breadwinner model for careers. Particularly in a case like this, you would think it would occur to the author to spend at least a few pages railing about how you can’t have a career without a wife to support you and make your life bearable. She does note that part-time law partners are starting to show up (which is pretty amazing, given the 1995 publication of this book), but otherwise does little to object to 50-60 hour work weeks, travel many days of the week, need to be able to work round the clock, etc. She does concede that couples with the capacity to earn a lot, but who are willing to live frugally, make possible supporting a family on one or two part-time jobs. She mentions job-sharing and that often both people in the single slot want full benefits; she doesn’t mention shared benefits (which may or may not have been common then, but is certainly widely supported now).

I’ll probably read The Two-Thirds Solution next.