Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sympathetic Idiots

I first read about the heartfelt and softheaded Judith Warner's "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" (also a book, now I learn) on Lileks, where James (a stay-at-home dad) recommends that she take a "big frosty glass of chill-the-hell-out with a kicky pastel umbrella."

The book is a hysterical whine about how modern mothers in the US have it so tough today, about how competitive the mothering world has become, and how impossible it is to raise a child and have a career at the same time. It ends calling for higher marginal taxes and a society that is more like France's. I could sneer at this suggestion but it is actually very insightful--France (like most of Europe) has stopped breeding and thus solved the problems of motherhood Warner details.

I think that the emotional seat of Warner's issue is similar to that of Stumbling Tongue's when he calls for a mandatory 40 hour (or less) work week. Their complaint is that life is hard, unnecessarily hard, and that it should be easier than this. They see the striving and competition around them as being pointless, but they feel compelled to compete in that rat race anyway. Clearly some form of top-down, enforced collective agreement is required to Stop the Madness once and for all.

I also think that this ties in with the latest Larry Summers kerfuffle on women being underrepresented in high-end, prestige positions because of some combination of biological bent and having to take time off for mothering. Jane Galt has thoughts on these here, here, here, and here.

Firstly, I think that each of us has a finite set of decisions to make about our lives, and these decisions are either made by ourselves or by something external to ourselves (family, society, technology). For example, you may decide what you want to do for a career, or your family may decide what you will do for a career. Society has changed so that both men and women have more choices than they did before, just as technological advances have given us more choices as well. Are women worse of because they can now choose between motherhood and investment banking, whereas in the past they were only able to do motherhood? Warner and her fellow whiners would say yes, because making the choice is so difficult. I sympathise--making choices is difficult--but I also think that having the choice is better than not having the choice. Making choices is what distinguishes grown-ups from children.

Secondly, Warner whines about the ferociously competitive and lavish birthday parties she is forced to give. I guess all those hard driving ex-professional mom's are now putting their ambition into children's decorations instead of powerpoint presentations. Unfortunately for Warner et al., competitive urges and ambition are part of human nature and cannot be legislated away. Just as the Moms have turned their energies from seeking professional advancement to being the most envied parent on the block, government restricted birthday parties will just move that ambition to some other plane, maybe lawn manicure, or weight of birthday cake. Ambition is here to stay, the question is how to channel it.

Thirdly, all the resources that Warner etc. demands be shifted to moms ignores who these resources will be taken from. In other words, which individuals is Warner putting her personal wants before? These would include single women, single men, and couples who do not want children. It is not clear why individuals and families making these decisions and sacrifices should have stuff taken from them to pacify those unwilling to make any decisions or sacrifices at all.

Finally, all of this conversation ignores all the men underrepresented in prestige positions. For every male tenured Harvard professor, there are thousands of male grad students and post docs slaving away in obscurity. For every male CEO, there are hundreds of thousands of male cubicle drones, punching the clock and grinding away. For every male Partner, there are dozens of male analysts and associates, working late nights on idiotic drivel. What about these guys? Don't they deserve a break?

Many ambitious young men decide that they don't want to be Faculty/CEO/Partner and opt for something quieter and easier. They drop research and focus on teaching, they join a smaller firm, or they decide to leave partner-track and work in a corporation instead. These are real decisions to forsake money and prestige for a better lifestyle, more time with the family, etc. Some of them now are becoming stay-at-home dads. This to me is exactly the situation women are in, except women can leave the madness that is academic/corporate life for the sanity that is the home.


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