The fine art of expectation

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Henry Farrell posts an interesting exercise:

Putting aside the methodological worries about Weitzman's study, I was rather unnerved to figure out on the spot that the women she studied were in the generation of my students' grandparents. I wouldn't want to draw conclusions about my own life course from studies of my grandparent's generation either, especially if I had had it drummed into me both by parents and teachers that my own circumstances were entirely different from those of my grandparents, and even more if I were aware (as some of the girls are) that so soon after admitting girls as equal participants universities now have to practice affirmative action for boys in admissions to get close to equal sex-ratios. I pointed this out, and then, again on the spot, tried to figure out a way of showing that the issues, if not the figures, probably are relevant to my students nevertheless. I was pretty happy that in 5 minutes I had them convinced that at least it might be relevant. Here is a slightly refined version of the exercise.

1. Are you male, or female. (If you're not sure, just pick one, if you reject the question, sit out the exercise).
2. During your teen years did you get paid to do babysitting more than 10 times?
3. Do you anticipate having children? If not, sit this out.

Here are three kinds of parenting arrangement.
A)Father led parenting: the father spends substantially more time than the mother looking after the children and thinking about their wellbeing over the course of their childhoods
B)Mother led parenting: the mother spends substantially more time than the father looking after the children and thinking about their wellbeing over the course of their childhoods
C)Egalitarian parenting: the mother and father spend roughly the same amount of time looking after the children and thinking about their wellbeing.

4. Think just about yourself for the moment. Which of A, B, and C best characterizes your expectations for your prospective family life.
5. Now think about your FIVE best friends. Which of A, B, and C best characterizes your expectations for most of their family lives? (eg, you expect 3 or more of them to be Father-led, answer A).

I get my TA to collate the answers, and then read back the answers to the students.

I only recently added question 2), so I have less confidence about the answers to that one than the others. The one time I've done that in a large class, about 5% of the boys answered "yes", whereas about 65% of the girls did. (The point of that question is abut socialisation, which has a key role in Okin's argument).

But for 4 and 5 I get almost exactly the same numbers almost every time. Here they are.

4. Boys: A 0%; B 85%; C 15% Girls A 10%; B 25%; C 65%
5. Boys: A 0%; B 85%; C 15% Girls A 0%; B 75%; C 25%

When I present the answers to question 4 I point out that if they want to marry each other they might think about discussing these issues beforehand. When I present the answers to 5 most of the girls seem convinced that the gendered division of labour might possibly be an issue for their generation and, possibly, for them.

Even the men I know who say they might like to stay home with the kids seem to be saying it because they have absolutely no idea what's involved.  Many journalists, for example, say they'd like to stay home with the baby and have their wife support them so that they can really get some writing done.  I don't know of any female journalist who is under the impression that caring for an infant affords extensive leisure time in which to produce that novel you've been dreaming about for ten years.

Here's a question that bothers me, though:  most women I know actively participate in sacrificing their careers to care for the children.  They do this, for example, by setting standards higher than the men would, which makes them de facto the supervisor of family life.  They also sometimes do it because for most upper middle class women (not journalists, usually), mommying is a career option.  With the exception of a few parents of special needs kids, most of my school friends who are home caring for children share two characteristics:  their husbands make a good living, and they hated their jobs before they quit.  In my anecdotal sample, law firm associates are especially prone to leaving the workforce.  Caring for children can be a way of not either slogging away at an unrewarding job, or grappling with the epic failure of your original life plan.  I'm not saying that this is why all, or most, mothers stay home with their kids.  But it's definitely one reason that some do.

I take the boring libertarian stance that this is a perfectly fine thing to do, or not, as long as your husband is also on board with whatever you decide.  But I also recognize that this represents a massive sacrifice of future earning power, and often of power in the relationship.  After two kids, they will always be ten years behind men their own age, and in certain high-paying industries that depend on a labor force that works all hours in the early years--consulting, law, banking--they have no shot at all.  Staying home with children sends a very strong signal:  "I care more about my children than my career".  Companies offering rewarding, relatively remunerative work are rarely willing to also play second fiddle to an eight-year-old.

Women who decide to be full-time Moms because they don't want to be a law associate any more, rather than from any personal or cultural avocation to homemaking, might well be better off if society cut off this option.  (Yes, yes, men might be better off if this were an option for them . . . except that it is an option, and they're not taking it).  This is approximately Linda Hirshman's argument.   I ultimately find this unconvincing, because I don't think that you promote liberty by destroying the village in order to save it.  But she's certainly right that women who start out expecting that they'll share childcare duties participate in their own conversion to traditional roles.

So what is she supposed to say to a boy in that 85%?  "Save me from myself?"

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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