This week’s book review is Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power, by Rhona Mahoney. I first read about this book on Half Changed World, and then it was one of the main sources sited by Linda Hirshman in her recent controversial piece on the failures of feminism, and lastly Bitch PhD reviewed it in her blog.
Well thanks to Half Changed World, I put it in my Christmas holiday reading list, and loved it. Unlike other feminist books I’ve read lately it’s chock full of actual research and actual statistics, rather than anecdotes (although she’s got a few of those too).
It’s a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of why women tend to end up doing most of the housework and childcare in most couples, even two-income ones, even if they started out with fairly equal expectations pre-kids.
The bulk of her book boils down to the argument that at the point when most couples have children, the dice is loaded against the woman in the couple when it comes to sharing responsibility for the child, and usually by extension, the housework.
This is because fundamentally few women really, deep down expect to be the breadwinner, and don’t make choices that will help them be in that position. They will tend to:
- choose courses at school that they like, rather than ones that are economically good ones (e.g. mathematics and science)
- marry up – even if they have done a hard course, they will marry someone a bit older. That person will then be almost certainly making more money than them (by virtue of being in the labour force longer) at the point when they have children
- within their career, choose options that they know will later be easier to do part-time (e.g. many female doctors becoming GPs)
So once you get to the point of children, you have a couple where the man earns a bit more than the woman, and the woman is more likely to have the kind of job that she can fit around children. So in a couple like that, the woman becomes the primary carer by default, because it makes sense.
The book is framed in economic language, and has a great chapter on negotiation, in particular, talking about the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). Basically, this is what happens to each person in a negotiation if they fail to agree. For example, if nobody can agree who will clean the bathroom, one person’s BATNA might be a dirty bathroom, where another’s might be that they clean it.
Once a baby is born, a woman’s BATNA suddenly becomes an awful lot worse than it was before. Suddenly they are attached to the child (on average a woman is more attached to a baby at birth than men – biology is good for something) and their earning power is reduced. And many decisions get made in that context, such as the amount of external childcare needed, and who is going to take primary responsibility for the baby outside childcare, that once set in stone are hard to undo.
So this book is very clear on why we are still where we are after quite a long period (say 30 years?) when overt discrimination against women was not allowed.
It is less strong on what can be done to fix it. Mahoney’s preferred solution is to move to a situation where women and men are equally likely to be primary carers. To get to that point, she thinks that it has to start at the top (as it is easier to live a good life on one income at high incomes, and men are less likely to make the necessary sacrifices at the beginning than women) and gradually filter through generational change. Things that will need to change include women making educational and career choices that acknowledge the chance of being a primary breadwinner, and high earning women respecting men who would like to look after children.
My preferred solution (in my own family at least) would be high status part-time jobs, so that a couple can live on one income that is earned by two people, but that seems even more pie-in-the-sky than Mahoney’s solution (even though it is, ironically, how Mahoney’s family works). The world of work doesn’t have to change as much in Mahoney’s solution (although it does some – fewer female primary breadwinners are willing to work 80 hour weeks than male primary breadwinners in my experience).
As I was reading the book, I was thinking smugly at various points “well I didn’t make that mistake” – for which I think I can thank my parents, and innate competitiveness, mostly. But I realised at the end that I had never, until I got there, internalised the possibility that I could be the primary breadwinner for a family. I had always assumed I would support myself, but there is a whole extra level of stress that comes with supporting a family that most men don’t even notice, because they’ve always assumed that they will be doing it.
If I, who has been very career focused from an early age, can find being a breadwinner stressful, there’s a fair bit of culture change needed before we get to Mahoney’s preferred world. But I’d really like to see it happen.