Who Gets To Be Happy?

Today, Emily Oster at Slate explains why women shouldn’t spend more time at home than at work. In doing so, you could say she is echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial view that women should not “lean back” at work when they have children.

Her reasoning has less to do with career success and more to do with personal happiness:

Each hour of your day—sleeping, eating, working, showering, playing with those dinosaur stickers—delivers some amount of happiness. And usually the second hour of the same activity makes you less happy than the first one. The first hour of dinosaur stickers, amazing. The second hour, OK. The third hour? Even the best parent may wonder if it’s, perhaps, time for a glass of wine. In the language of economics, the marginal utility of time with your kids—the happiness you get from the last hour you spend with them—is declining as you spend more hours.

Granted, what this does not take into account is how much your kids need you. Raising children is a responsibility, even when it doesn’t maximize both parents’ happiness in any given 24-hour period. In that way, the economist’s argument seems a bit crass, and commenters have pounced on that.

But I think Dr. Oster is making an important point from the pendulum swing’s forgotten other end. Our society romanticizes child-rearing to the point that many of us feel guilty about wanting to have careers just as badly as we want to have kids – if not more so.

This approach transfers all responsibility for child-rearing to the mother, essentially making the same case: Providing childcare, maternity leave, and paths to leadership for working mothers does not make us/our shareholders/our taxpayers “happy,” so we don’t have to do it. Instead, we still force women to feel guilty for wanting to define themselves as more than mothers.

Instead of berating women who enjoy their time at work, perhaps we could all take a little more responsibility for the next generation?

More on Motherhood

Sometimes it feels uncanny. Just one day after I posted on the advantages of being raised by a working mom, Slate is opening a series on single moms that challenges the long-held idea that being raised by a single mom leads kids to having problems later in life.

In fact, single motherhood may simply be a proxy for other disadvantages, many of which are thrust on single-parent families by a society that doesn’t provide many options for working moms. In this article, a single mom talks about the valuable lessons her kids have learned from their upbringing, including the hard parts – and they’re asking for more stories like hers.

I’m glad to see this narrative evolving. I was raised by a full-time mom, and there is no way I’d be where I am if she hadn’t fought for opportunities for me at every turn. I don’t know if she could have done all that – demanding that I get a chance to go to a school that would challenge me, and, when I passed the test against all odds, driving me across town so I could go there – if she were working. When we were little, she ran a daycare in the house to help pay the bills. For a working-class family that eventually grew to four children, there weren’t any other options – and besides, being a full-time mom is all she ever wanted. I respect her and her choices enormously.

But we have to leave room for the idea that there’s more than one way to be a good mom. Including single motherhood. Keep it up, Slate.

Makers and Mothers

PBS and AOL have put together compelling video interviews with women who really are making history. They call it Makers, and it’s well worth your free time. For today, I’m zeroing in on a segment from Madeleine Albright’s interview called “Unforgiving Women.” In it, she says:

I have often felt that, often, women were more judgmental about what I was doing than men. Making me feel like I should have been with my children. You know, “Don’t you miss waiting for your children in the carpool line?” I mean, doing your PhD while your kids are in school is not a bad thing, though I have to say, it took me so long to do it that […] But I think that other women, for a long time, made me feel guilty. [emphasis mine]

While a lot of things have changed since Albright’s time, one thing hasn’t: Women continue to fight it out over which kind of motherhood is ideal.  Continue reading