Thursday, April 19, 2012

When motherhood is reduced to economics

Jessica Irvine believes she has a solution to the mummy wars - the debate about women staying at home with their children or going out to work.

Writing in the Melbourne Age newspaper, she asserts that it once made sense for men to go to work, whilst women stayed home with the children, since men in the past had higher incomes - it was an economically rational decision.

But women are now getting 64% of degrees and are delaying marriage and motherhood until they are set in their careers. So couples should now make the decision about who looks after the children on purely economic grounds:
Something happens to women and their salaries when they enter their 30s, and that something is children.

Couples today need to make more active decisions about who will take time out of the paid workforce to look after children. Couples must consider which partner has the higher earning capacity and whose career progression and future earnings capacity will be most negatively affected by taking time out.

There's a positive and negative side to this argument so far. The negative side is that Jessica Irvine believes that men and women are so interchangeable, and that motherhood is so disconnected from womanhood, that the decision about who looks after baby can be decided solely on economic rationalist grounds.

I don't deny that there are families in which the wife's income is so much greater that the decision is more likely to be for the husband to stay home.

But we're stripping down human relationships if we think of men and women as Economic Man - as abstracted,  rational economic agents. And if we really think of humans this way, then it's difficult to see how a stable family life will endure anyway. Is it really in my interests as Economic Man to make such sacrifices on behalf of my family? Isn't it more the case that if I identify myself with my masculine being, and the higher expression of this being is to act protectively as a husband and father, that I will then commit myself to the service of my family?

However, at least Jessica Irvine's argument so far seems less hostile to the traditional family. It makes it sound as if she's happy, if the husband earns more, for the woman to stay home.

But unfortunately she is not so neutral. Her expectation is that increasingly fewer women are going to choose to stay home and that the government should set its tax and childcare policies to make sure that this is the case:
Because the market value of women's time has risen so dramatically, it is more likely that couples will decide to deploy the male partner to domestic duties, and keep the woman's salary.

The economics of the family are evolving, and where gender policies and quotas fail to deliver, the profit motive will out.

It will take time. It requires that governments keep working to remove tax traps that keep women at home because they would lose more in welfare benefits and tax than they would earn.

The onward march of progress, she thinks, combined with government tweaking of the tax system, will get feminists there in the end - to a situation in which our sex has been made not to matter, so that parenting decisions are made on "neutral" economic grounds, but in which the government acts to ensure that the economic grounds push toward a certain outcome.

It's possible that society will turn out that way. But there are reasons to think it won't as well. Out in the suburbs, the traditional family is still stubbornly holding sway. And elsewhere it's not so much the modern family taking over, but rather a weakening of family commitments.


  1. Ask the Romans about the onward march of progress. Ask the Persians. Ask the Chinese.

    Also, for Australian politicians to continue to buy votes from unproductive people (especially unmarried women) requires that the economy be doing well enough that there is money to throw around.

    I suspect that the wheels are falling off the Australian economy. I could be wrong, but I guess we will know when the next election in Australia is due, won't we?

  2. requires that the economy be doing well enough that there is money to throw around.

    True. We can see that some of the European econonies have already reached the point where they have to rein in spending because of excessive debt levels.

  3. I was watching Gilmore Girls last night- there is this woman, giving birth and all she could think about is work, selfishly vain enough to try and schedule childbirth.
    This same character, a remarkable ideal for feminists goes on to abandon her baby and husband- citing having put her life on hold too long.

    The same translates in real life, however whilst men can remain fathers and steady figures with their careers, the paradigm often breaks women as mothers in favour of their careers.

    Men and women are not interchangeable, akin to the fact you cannot alter the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to suit yourself.

  4. Well I don't think she's arguing that 'motherhood is... disconnected from womanhood'. In the example she raises, of a man staying at home in some cases to take care of children he would be acting as a father - he would be undertaking 'fatherhood', not 'motherhood'. That's a pedantic point. But it may be of some importance because I'm not overly fond of the model that sees a father almost constantly removed from his children due to increasing work commitments. I prefer to think of fatherhood as just as active and important as motherhood.

    It seems to me this is another classic case of government interference, through taxes, laws, and various support schemes, producing bad results.

    I prefer the idea of a simple tax system, and strong social support for mothers, fathers and kids, with that social support largely coming from non-government community groups. Because when government gets involved, invariably a special interest group - either from the left, or the right - wants to force their own interests on everyone through taxes, subsidies and laws.

  5. @Tim, here here about fatherhood. I want my children to have a father who is actively present, whatever our caring arrangement may be, which often has not happened traditionally.

    I certainly don't have a career that I wouldn't drop in an instant to be a mother, but I have been in a circumstance where the economic situation warranted having me be the breadwinner. I didn't like the idea very much, but I would have done it if i had trusted the potential father enough. I didn't, in that case, but I am confident that it can work for some families. Having the option seems fine, and seems in line with genuinely equal opportunity.

    As for companies providing incentives for their employees to return after childbirth... Is this a problem while the government is not involved?

  6. "The career of motherhood and homemaking is beyond value and needs no justification. Its importance is incalculable."
    ~ Katherine Short

  7. Good post. I particularly liked the phrase "Economic Man". It sums up the situation so well.

  8. Tim, the fatherhood and motherhood roles are distinct.

    The primary role of fatherhood is to create a protected space in which the mother can take care of her child.

    That inevitably means that the father won't be quite as present in the life of young children as the mother - he'll be too busy doing what it takes to create a level of material security.

    But there is still much that the father does within the home.

    It's important that a father maintains close and positive relationships with his children. If he doesn't he won't have the standing in the life of his children to influence them in their formative years.

    The father "stands in" for the larger society and if the relationship falters it will often be expressed in the alienation of his children from the larger society.

    It's important too that he maintains a close relationship with his wife and helps to model a successful marriage.

    The father must also actively socialise his children - in this sense he is a kind of teacher to them. It is not always possible for the mother to complete this role alone - fathers bring a masculine perspective that will take the socialisation process further.

    Fatherhood does not mean men doing the same thing that mothers did.