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?