Matt Zeitlin on the Politics of Caregiving

Here’s an insightful notewith a graph!from special guest Matt Zeitlin, a brilliant center-left blogger and, just as importantly, a young man who knows how to bowl.

Dana Goldstein wrote about some fascinating research showing that despite all the gains women have made in the work place since the 1970s, and a change in cultural expectations about child care, women still do fives times as much childcare than men. This research is the subject of Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine article, and includes this one surprising finding:

Where the housework ratio is two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States is close to five to one. As with housework, that ratio does not change as much as you would expect when you account for who brings home a paycheck. In a family where Mom stays home and Dad goes to work, she spends 15 hours a week caring for children and he spends 2. In families in which both parents are wage earners, Mom’s average drops to 11 and Dad’s goes up to 3. Lest you think this is at least a significant improvement over our parents and grandparents, not so fast. …

Back when women had to tend fires to cook and put clothes through the wringer and then onto the clothesline, they spent 50 hours a week on housework and men spent 20. (A ratio of 2.5 to 1.) And back in the 1950s, when no one was even bothering to measure how many hours men spent on child care because it was thought to be negligible, the average mother spent 12 to 15 hours caring for her children — the same as they spend today.

From a certain liberal, feminist perspective that I have a ton of sympathy with, and may well share, this is quite distressing news. There’s an argument to be made from straightforward gender egalitarianism that, ceteris paribus, child care ought to be split evenly. After all, men and women should be equal partners in a marriage, and surely basic egalitarianism ought to be modeled in the home, right? Also, from the perspective of enabling the flourishing of all people (which to me, is the central goal of liberalism) more egalitarianism in child care is incredibly important. Child care time directly trades off with other activities (work, self directed leisure time etc) that enable ones flourishing. You don’t have to be an arch Hirshmanite to see that child-care, especially the chores associated with it (which women do the overwhelming majority of) can sometimes inhibit flourishing, and more importantly, that a cultural norm which dictates that women do five times more child care likely inhibits the flourishing of all women, even if many of them “choose” to do it or think they are comfortable with it (I’m not implying false consciousness, so much as arguing that social norms can be injust on the whole even if they aren’t in their individual application). So, if we adopt methodological individualism and some basic liberal assumptions of egalitarianism (ones that could be found, behind, say a veil of ignorance) it becomes pretty clear that the child-care societal norm is wrong and we should try to make a new, more equitable norm.

But what about the children? John Podhoretz makes the good point that in discussions of gender egalitarianism in relationships, marriages and families, the benefit to the children of any arrangement isn’t always discussed (it is sometimes, and I don’t want to say that feminists/gender egalitarians are selfish children haters, but the Belkin piece itself is mostly concerned with the adults). So how should the children’s interests be evaluated. How much autonomy or potential flourishing should women give up for the sake of their kids?

(Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some sort of trade-off). Many radical theorists, like Tufts literary theorist Lee Edelman, think that its this very obsession with “what’s best for the children” is is responsible for stultifying cultural norms that oppress all sorts of non-straight males. And even if there’s some sort of trade-off between gender egalitarianism and maximum benefit to the children, one could argue that justice and equality are supremely important, and that a society which requires women adopt unjust social norms in order to benefit children is not a just society. From the opposing perspective, a conservative could easily make the argument that the norms of child-raising are a classic example of the deeply embedded practices of a society that Rawlsian arguments about justice have no relevance to. No one is actually in the original position, they are in society and in their families and thus have certain ties and obligations that can’t be wished away for the sake of moral reasoning.

But even from the perspective of rights-based liberalism that holds justice at its highest value, one could make the argument that it’s the children’s interest which ought to be highest when discusses what the best norms are for child-rearing and family arrangements. The most obvious argument for putting children first is that they don’t choose to be in a familial relationship, while women, even if fairly strict patriarchal societal norms are in place, have much more freedom of action. Since children don’t make that choice, and using basic veil of ignorance assumptions, we should all assume that we could be children. So even if there’s a chance that we end up being an adult woman in this hypothetical society, at least then we’d have some choice about what type of familial arrangement to enter, if we’re a child however, it’s just a matter of dumb luck what type of familial arrangement we land in.

Of course, the best counter argument to this line of reasoning comes from Susan Moller Okin’s groundbreaking work Justice, Gender and the Family. The wikipedia summary just about nails it, saying “the family perpetuates gender inequalities throughout all of society, particularly because children acquire their values and ideas in the family’s sexist setting, then grow up to enact these ideas as adults. If a theory of justice is to be complete, Okin asserts that it must include women and it must address the gender inequalities she believes are prevalent in modern-day families.”

But even just assuming that we can have this debate within the libreral, Rawlisan framework is already conceding an awful lot. Rawls’ fanciful abstraction that is the original position makes sense for positing the justice of governmental institutions – after all, the individual is the basic subject of governmental institutions, so some abstract model of individual choice makes sense as a way of evaluating how just those institutions are. But it’s much harder to make that same argument about societal institutions or norms. While we very much “choose” what laws we have, we dont’ choose what the societally acceptable and promoted definition of a family is. Even if we can conclude that, as Moller argues, that our current set up is unjust, we can’t change the laws or constitution to amend it. Podhoretz is on to something when the says that familial behaviors are “deeply ingrained,” and thus are the exact types of norms that any conservative (and many liberals) would respect. But of course, I’d be neglectful if I didn’t mention the work of Stephanie Coontz, who argues in Marriage: A History (and more generally in all her work) that the status quo model of the family isn’t all that entrenched, and it’s actually a result of mass prosperity and American-Christian sexual mores, and is no more than 50 years old. So, a Coontzian would argue that we shouldn’t be afraid of altering existing norms in the name of justice because these norms aren’t all that entrenched.

So, in case you can’t tell, I don’t know exactly where I come down on this whole issue, except to say that I have varying sympathies with all four views on my 2×2 matrix of familial ethics.