Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Is BioMom Happier than Baba?

There's been a bunch of back-and-forth going on in the newspaper articles, blogs, and listserves that I frequent about David Leonhardt's article in the New York Times about two economists research (Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers) about changes over time in women vs. men's self-reported happiness.

Basically the story being told by the research reported by Leonhardt is that there is a growing "happiness gap" between men and women.

Here is a direct quote from the author:

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have
switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work - and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don't enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the
gap is 90 minutes.

The Language Log has a great overview and critique of the entire discussion if you're interested.

In particular, Jezebel is quoted on the topic from this blog entry (I'm borrowing the quote in its entirety because it is so funny):

Remember that study on women being less happy than men? Sounds about right, right? The internerds thought so! (Different ways internet commenters said no shit: "Boo hoo, the feminists made their bed and now they have to lie in it with their cats" and "Men are dogs. Dogs are happy. The end" and "Duh, we get Halo, and you get periods." ) But hold on! Some linguists think it's not true! It's an academic freestyle battle! So after the linguists called bullshit (and by the way, what the fuck is up with linguists knowing everything about everything?) the original economists who published the study struck back to say the linguists were wrong, women really were unhappier, and here's their proof:

* Gender happiness gap at the beginning and end of the sample
oprobit HAPPY SEX [aw=wt] if YEAR==1972
oprobit HAPPY SEX [aw=wt] if YEAR==2006
* Changes in the gender happiness gap using only the first and last years
xi: reg vhappy i.SEX*i.YEAR[aw=wt] if YEAR==1972 | YEAR==2006
xi: reg unhappy i.SEX*i.YEAR [aw=wt] if YEAR==1972 | YEAR==2006

Ha ha ha ha, here's a little regression theory for you guys! (Get it? Blow me! Don't you think I'd be happier if you could?)

Maybe the real happiness gap started setting in whatever year it became popular for economists to stop working on the economy by day and getting their wives off at night and started applying advanced calculus to every single mundane happening in their lives including though not limited to why their wives were faking it! Because that happened in 2004.

The idea of significance is old and the point that the Language Log makes is obvious. Despite this critique, however, I think the article has a true ring to it. BioMom and I are currently discussing our future as two career women with two young kids. My stint at the local college ends at the end of this year and I'll be expected to return to my home institution that is 2.5 hours away. With that I'll be commuting a few nights a week. This reality has put a significant dent in both of our expectations of ourselves as mothers and as workers. I've really enjoyed being home more, and becoming the "primary" to the kids. She's really enjoyed ramping up her career. But both of us ahve also experienced a 'grass-is-greener' effect with each other. I mourn the potential loss of being a 'serious economist' and she mourns the potential loss of not being 'primary' to the kids (especially Big, to whom I've been the primary caretaker for the majority of his life.

Another quote in the original article rang true for me:

Ms. Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother's goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. "I sort of want all those things, too," the student said, as Ms. Stevenson recalled, "but I also want to have a great career and have an impact n the broader world."

I've often thought that gender roles (if not too constraining) provide a nice 'short cut' to complicated rational decisions in life. For example, in the proto-typical (stereotypical?) 1950's household, men and women didn't have to spend time (read: opportunity cost) negotiating about who was going to mow the lawn. The upside for the 1950's women was that her constrained choices in the job market translated into easier decisions for the family. It just made economic sense that women stayed home and raised the kids, while men went to the market and worked.

Of course, there were a bazillion downsides to this 1950s stereotype, not least of which was that women who wanted to work didn't have a nice range of choices from which to decide, and men were discouraged to stay home with their kids (and even take a strong role in raising them).

Feminism can take some credit for expanding these roles. This is the upside. Women, now have many more options in school and in the labor force, they can choose to stay at home, and some lucky ones can even have a bit of both, with some part-time options available (albeit quite limited). Further, men can choose to be stay-at-home-dads (if the family can afford it).

The downside is that with choice, comes anxiety. Especially when the ghosts of traditional roles still haunt our homes. I've long said that women can't win in the work/stay-at-home wars. If you stay at home, women wonder why you don't work, or are envious that you can afford not to. If you work, you feel guilty being away from the kids. Without the strict roles of the 1950's we have nothing to blame but ourselves.

As Jezebel put it, maybe it's all the economists causing the problems. In that case, our household is facing a triple-whammy: two moms, two careers, one economist.

Now that's significant.


hw said...

I've read this twice now because it really resonates with me.

I just returned back to work full-time after taking parental leave. And, because I was downsized during parental leave, we had to put a lot of consideration into what I was looking for...a job, or a career. In the end, I was offered a great full-time career. But that now puts us both on career tracks and tracks that often have conflicting agendas.

Being a two mom household, everything is negotiable. It's not that we have to challenge gender roles, it's that nothing can be assumed so it's always a conversation to figure out who should do what.

We both miss being home and spending much more quality time with the kids. When I wasn't working, I really missed it. The key is to find a balance between the two and that's where I struggle.

And now I get to the end of typing this and I initially had a really salient point to make that escapes me in the haze of exhaustion.

giddings said...

Yeah, HW --
I think that that is what is so interesting and challenging about being same-sex couples. At some level we can't take anything for granted. But the hard part is that we can't take anything for granted. . .