Presumably, Neil Gilbert did not marry a lawyer and father four children to research his new book. If the 24-hour news cycle has taught us anything, it’s that one need not possess firsthand knowledge of a subject to orate upon it at great length.

But any substantial commentary on society’s struggle to balance work and family benefits from intimacy with both, and Gilbert’s contribution to replenishing the stagnant population ultimately proved to be prescient. His latest book, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life (Yale), is not so much personal observation¯indeed, it could use more¯but a deft and sober analysis of what Betty Friedan hath wrought.

And she hath wrought surveys. The occupational habits of seventy million American women have provided work for grateful sociologists for four decades now, as statisticians, academics, and pundits track their forays in and out of the workplace, and ponder the cause and effects. A Mother’s Work offers an exhaustive¯and occasionally exhausting¯collection of data from these studies, which range from the obvious and overdone (gender divisions in housework, the effect of daycare on kindergartners) to the fresh and significant (the average amount of time employed mothers and nonemployed mothers spend interacting with their children, the effect that the prospect of free daycare has on a couple’s decision to procreate).

Gilbert, who holds a chair in social welfare and social services at the University of California at Berkeley, proffers a smorgasbord of information from which any combatant in the dreary and overhyped “Mommy Wars” can refuel, but he takes neither side. Instead, he wants a world in which men and women can choose a “sequential” career path, distinguished by occasional breaks from full-time employment when the interests of one’s family require attention. The natural tension that exists between work and family¯not only for women but also for men¯would ease in a society that builds “on-ramps” to permit graceful exits and reentries in the workplace, offers credit-sharing pensions for spouses, and awards a stipend or tax credit for parents who stay home with young children.

But these are utopian yearnings for a workplace unlikely to emerge in this fiscal year. For now we have people like Becky and Michelle, described in Gilbert’s chapter “Capitalism and Motherhood.” Becky is a working mother longing to abandon the stress of her job for a more fulfilling life as a full-time mother and wife; Michelle is a full-time mother and wife considering a return to full-time employment to escape calcification amid the Sisyphean routines of the home. The women think they’re making the decisions themselves; but, according to Gilbert, far greater forces are at play.

In fact, the women’s decisions have as much to do with the prevailing social biases as the potential outcomes for the individual and her family. A choice made a month after the release of The Feminine Mystique , for example, is likely to differ from one made in the throes of today’s so-called “opt-out revolution,” which might not even exist, despite a plethora of media reports trumpeting its arrival. “Women with law degrees from Princeton and MBAs from Harvard musing about the allure of staying home to change diapers may be an absorbing human-interest story, but in this case the plural of anecdote is not data,” Gilbert observes drily.

Cultural norms are fluid and malleable, but in a capitalist society they tend to flow away from traditional family life and toward the accumulation of ever more stuff. “The triumph of materialism in modern times feeds the market and leaves childrearing and family life undernourished,” Gilbert writes. “The capitalist ethos underrates the economic value and social utility of domestic labor in family life, particularly during the early years of childhood.”

The “psychic income” that a woman might derive from caring for young children at home is not as tangible as a biweekly direct deposit at her bank. And, according to “prospect theory,” human beings tend to choose a path with a guaranteed outcome over one with potentially greater rewards but a certain amount of risk. Furthermore, while the birth of a child was once considered economic progress for a family, particularly one with a few acres of tobacco to harvest, children now fare poorly on a cost-benefit spreadsheet where psychic income does not count. Modern parenting demands “voluntary sacrifice and altruistic behavior,” not to mention the $153,600 it is estimated to cost to bring up a child today.

Gilbert spent most of his career teaching welfare policy; his books include Welfare Justice and Transformation of the Welfare State: The Silent Surrender of Public Responsibility . The reader seeking to infer ideological bias from his resume will be disappointed. Except for an occasional moan about the injustice of requiring welfare recipients to work in A Mother’s Work , he is often at odds with his tribe. In a curious riff on the academy, he says university teaching “bears only the faintest resemblance to most work in the real world,” and “it is not entirely uncommon for academics to advance revelations about their personal circumstances as universal truths.”

The measurable erosion of the family-centered culture is hastened when the loudest voices share an agenda to glorify the social import and psychological satisfaction of work, which, coincidentally, justifies and confirms their own decisions. “To date, the prevailing norms for working mothers have been shaped by an influential core of the occupational elite who publicize the presumed universal social and psychological rewards of paid employment . . . while ignoring the social and psychological benefits of unpaid caring and household work,” Gilbert writes.

It is at this point that one begins to suspect Gilbert’s motive in writing this book. He forcefully posits the need for “a frank corrective in the prevailing discourse on work and family life,” and A Mother’s Work , deposited into the hands of a few thoughtful lawmakers and CEOs, could begin that effort. But sometimes it reads as a long-needed and long-winded refutation of Linda Hirshman.

Hirshman is the retired Brandeis University professor/philosopher who wrote Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World . In it she chastised elite women for “bounding home” to play with babies while becoming economically dependent on men, squandering their education and forfeiting hard-won opportunities for “full human flourishing.” She proposes that women have only one child and force their husbands to be equal partners in the management of the home. Women who drop out of the workforce to raise their children damage society by enabling a “mostly male ruling class” that will err to the benefit of men, eroding a half-century of progress for women. “Child care and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life,” she wrote. “Gender ideology places these tasks on women’s backs; women must demand redistribution.”

While only mentioning Hirshman by name a few times, Gilbert wields a machete in the dissection of her work. Hirshman advocates what Gilbert calls the “male model” of career success, in which a young person joins the workforce upon graduation from college and stays continuously employed until retirement. Hirshman wants men and women to follow this path; Gilbert wants none of us to do so. “The norm of continuous labor-force participation ignores the implications of increasing longevity in recent times, as well as the fact that having children and staying at home to raise them is not necessarily a life-time occupation,” he writes.

Moreover, he points out, “the joys of work are not evenly distributed.” Hirshman believes women cannot fully flourish while performing the “repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks” of the family. But, Gilbert counters, “walking up and down the supermarket aisle selecting food for a family dinner is a job that has more variety and autonomy than the paid work being done by the supermarket employees who stack the same shelves with the same food day after day . . . . Is caring for one’s child¯changing the diapers as well as experiencing the joy and excitement that comes with the first smile, step, utterance¯a more wearisome job than that of the paid worker doing the same thing for four or five children who are not their own?”

When family care¯be it the care of small children or elderly parents¯is outsourced and becomes paid labor, the work is still largely performed by women. What do we gain, Gilbert asks, when we voluntarily shift the care of the very young and the very old from tasks performed out of love and devotion to shift work done by strangers for pay? What do we lose? Furthermore, he argues, if full-time work is so wonderful, why do so many workers seek an early retirement?

Hirshman’s directive was, ostensibly, for the occupational elite, the Ivy League graduates who could be running companies and courts if they hadn’t powered down for a decade. And Gilbert acknowledges that “feminist expectations about the social benefits of work do resonate with the ambitions and experiences of some women.” But in the public square, the minority sets the temperature for the majority, and it’s getting too hot in the kitchen. It’s time we dispense with the Mommy Wars. They’re a contrivance that disguises a reality: At some time in their lives, most women will hold jobs, and most men will become fathers. Somebody, bring on the on-ramps.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in the suburbs of Boston.

References

A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life by Neil Gilbert

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