This post reviews part two of Neil Gilbert, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
In the book’s first section Gilbert described the long-term trend among American women toward having fewer children and investing more of their time in paid labor. In the second section he explains how capitalism, feminism, and government policy influence the choices women make about whether or not to have children and how to raise them.
First for capitalism. Historically, capitalism and strong families have gone together:
Family bonds reinforced a future-oriented perspective, which encouraged the kind of planning and discipline that kindled entrepreneurial behavior…. Children, in particular, inspire parents to sacrifice material pleasures of the moment in order to save and invest in the future.
And yet capitalism has proved, ironically, to be the undoing of the family values that fostered capitalism in the first place. Today’s “affluent capitalist societies require a flexible labor force and extravagant consumption of the ever-expanding supply of modern luxuries.” It turns out that postmodern contrasexuals (see my previous post) make better consumers than traditional mothers, so that’s what American business tries to cultivate. DINKs (“double income no kids”) are a prized market because they spend so lavishly on leisure goods. Divorce is good for business if you’re a therapist, family lawyer, real estate agent, or child-care provider. Working mothers are able to use their extra income on a wide range of goods and services (e.g. eating out more because there’s no time to cook). Historic maternal labors are increasingly “outsourced,” which is good for the economy but bad for family bonds (and for children’s waist-lines).
Gilbert surveys many studies on how men and women spend their time and concludes again that capitalism has not been kind to family values. There has been a 20% decline in housework between 1965 and 1999, a 12% increase in percent of food budget spent at restaurants from 1987 to 2000, and the cost of raising children has soared. Capitalism’s tendency to teach us all to think of our life choices in terms of dollars and cents makes childbearing and rearing seem a poor life decision.
Next comes Feminism. Gilbert begins by recounting some of the gains women have made since 1960 (when, for example, women accounted for 37% of college enrollments, compared with 57% in 2002). Such gains, however, have only helped along capitalism’s tendency to promote “preferences for the immediate and tangible gratifications of material consumption over the distant and transcendental satisfactions of creating and nurturing a young life.”
The irony is that the second income feminism has celebrated for so long is in fact of only marginal financial benefit to the family when you factor in all the costs working mothers have to pay for good childcare, food preparation, housecleaning, transportation, taxes, and so forth. Working motherhood only makes financial sense for those in higher income brackets, and it is those sorts of women of course who tend to write books about feminism and work. The winners in the feminist revolution were the “intellectual elite of well-paid professional women.” The losers were everyone else. But this successful minority has so effectively sold the country on the virtues of female employment that it is now the standard view. If men work continuously from their twenties to retirement, then so should women.
What the feminist celebration of work missed, however, was that for the vast majority of workers, working is not fulfilling, challenging, and fun. For most it’s drudgery. Feminists may complain about the tedium of domestic chores, but it is far more interesting to make a grocery list and purchase the items than it is to restock grocery store shelves every day. The “privileged few with high-status, stimulating, and well-rewarded jobs” tend mistakenly to extend their own satisfaction to all work. Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” really does have a name. It’s called burnout, and it happens more at work than among mothers at home. Most men don’t relish work–they relish retirement.
Finally, we consider Public Policy. Gilbert describes how many “family-friendly” government policies in fact undermine motherhood. Welfare reform in the 1990s, for example, shifted away from payments to “unmarried women to stay home and care for their children” and began to insist that such women get out and find a job. Conservatives and feminists both applauded.
Gilbert spends a good bit of time on day care programs. He surveys the research on whether paid childcare helps or hinders children, concluding that the quantitative studies are inconclusive but qualitatives studies reveal a bland routine. One study he cites describes a child’s daily activities, “he roamed independently…. He got no individual attention, because he didn’t demand any. he got no special instruction, because none was offered. No one talked to him or hugged him, because there weren’t enough adults to go around.” Though he treads carefully here, Gilbert concludes that day care tends to weaken emotional bonds between mother and child, increase behavioral problems, and have little long-term academic benefit except among the most disadvantaged children.
Finally, Gilbert presents evidence from the U.S. and Europe that suggests that the more government spends on families, the lower the fertility rate falls. Why? Though it is a complex issue, Gilbert thinks that social policies are less family friendly than “market friendly” in that they reward working mothers. Parental-leave benefits and government sponsored child care will likely not affect the choices of traditional or postmodern women, but for neo-traditional or modern women (again, see my previous post for this terminology), they might tilt the scales away from having a second or third child.
If capitalism, feminism, and social policies designed to keep women working even as they have children have all conspired to steer increasing numbers of women away from full-time motherhood and large families, and if we wish to reverse these trends, is there any other policy direction we might take? In my next post I will describe Gilbert’s proposal for crafting a public policy that affirms motherhood as a social good.