All posts by amandamyre

Gender Series Part 1: How Stay-at-Home Motherhood Informs My Feminism

I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember, so it was jarring for me when I got married, had a baby, and proceeded to raise that baby at home, sans paid employment.

There are several reasons why this occurred. I’ve always wanted children and didn’t think they would be incompatible with a career. After all, my own mother got a Ph.D. and proceeded with a career while homeschooling three kids.

It turns out, though, that I hate typical jobs. I hate offices, I hate office dress codes, I very often hate socializing with co-workers (despite the fact that they can be quite wonderful), I hate hierarchical structures. The whole affair is off-putting.

Even worse, it took me a very long time to really understood what a career was and how one might go about putting one together. I simply did not know what I needed to know.

When I married, the man I married was taller, older, and wealthier than I was. He had a much higher salary. Financially, it did not make sense for him to stay home while I worked. Emotionally, it did not make sense to put my tiny baby in daycare and work for low pay at a job I didn’t enjoy. So I stayed home, thinking I would take care of my child (eventually, children) and also write books.

Living this way has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when you take care of a baby all the time, you don’t have a lot of time for other things. It taught me that the amount of non-childcare work you can manage may depend on how good a sleeper your child is – some sleep 14 hours a day, some 9, and that’s a very big difference from the caretaker’s perspective. It taught me that it is actually hard to give your child up to someone who isn’t a trusted family member, or sometimes even someone who is, even when you are very tired. It taught me that unless you are willing to do this, you cannot hold down a regular job.

Eventually your child grows older, and most parents are willing, at some point, to entrust their children to non-family care providers. I found a part-time nanny when my first child was a year old and was in the middle of a particularly terrible patch of insomnia. By part-time, I mean 4 hours a day, three days a week, plus a 4-hour stretch of time on Saturdays during which my husband and I could go on dates.

When my oldest was 2, I signed her up for daycare… 2 days a week. Her younger sibling went to daycare at the same age, but for 3 days a week. Now that the older one is in elementary school, she is in someone else’s care 9 hours a day, 3 days a week. The other two days, she’s in school 6.5 hours a day, which is not enough for a full workday, and on those days I have my younger child at home with me as well. Until the younger child is in kindergarten, 9 years after I first had a baby, I will not have time in my week for a full-time job.

That is an enormous amount of time to take off paid work. It would set anyone back. I probably won’t reach the career heights I could have reached if I a) hadn’t had a baby at all, or b) had been willing to let someone else take on the task of raising that baby. If I had another baby right now, that time would stretch out beyond ten years.

I am a very privileged person, and much of this came as a result of my own choices and preferences. However, it is notable that my husband, because he had a higher salary than I did and obviously much more earning potential, did not face the same choices. There was never any question that his career would be interrupted by family life. He has always been able to:

  • Simultaneously have a career AND have his children taken care of by a trusted family member
  • Travel without arranging for a babysitter
  • Go to conferences on weekends without arranging for a babysitter
  • Not worry about taking time off work when the kids get sick
  • Go out to dinner with co-workers for networking purposes without arranging for a babysitter

Not only is his career taking precedence over mine, but I am actually working to provide advantages that he can use to advance beyond women who are paid employees – women who might not be able to do any of the above. I do this because it benefits my family. My husband and I have lots of financial options this way, and we are able to provide just about anything our kids could need.

As a mom, I’m very comfortable with this. As an individual with ambitious goals, I eagerly anticipate providing even more benefit to my family by getting that writing career to a successful stage during the time in my kids’ lives when they need less of my attention than they did as babies or toddlers.

As a feminist, however, I can see that if everyone lived this way, women would be at a disadvantage compared to men. They would have less remunerative careers, and would be much less likely to reach the highest levels of any field. And, in fact, this is what we see in real life. Being a stay-at-home mom has provided for me a thorough education in the reasons why women are less economically and politically powerful than men, and despite what people like Jordan Peterson may tell you, most of it has less to do with innate psychological characteristics than with the realities of reproduction and family life.

What would have changed things for me? What would help change things for women in general? I think improvements in gender equality would require both changes to gender socialization and changes in public policy.

It would help if women were not socialized to desire men who already out-perform them; that is, if women were encouraged to consider being in relationships with men who are poorer than they are, or don’t have as much earning potential. It would help if men felt more free to take on the role of primary caregiver.

In terms of policy, it would be extremely helpful if quality, affordable childcare was available across the nation, and if parental leave were longer and more gender-neutral. For example, if parents could get a year of parental leave each, and they could be used consecutively, and if quality, affordable childcare was available to all children starting at age 2, it would help to level the playing field. Single parents might need two years off, and that should be available too.

Of course, even daycare doesn’t take away all the disadvantages of being a primary caregiver. Most of those disadvantages revolve around the time commitment required by parenting. To mitigate them, you would have to mandate shorter work weeks, so that putting a child into daycare 40-50 hours a week would cover everything an employee could need to do, including networking activities.

Even then, of course, employees with children would still be at a disadvantage relative to employees without them, and stay-at-home parenthood would not disappear, nor would it fail to provide some advantage to families. However, put all these pieces in place, and we would see a massive improvement in gender equality.

There is one more issue at play here, and it is this: I did not have any family members living nearby. Some families can get close family members to help with childrearing, but this only works if they live geographically nearby. I plan to explore this problem further in a future post.

Humanity As Natural Resource

South Korea’s birth rate fell below replacement rate in 1983. Replacement rate, if you’re somewhat less interested in demographic statistics than I am, is 2.1 births per woman. Now, South Korea’s birth rate has fallen below 1 birth per woman. Far below. They’ve achieved a truly stunning birth rate now of 0.88 births per woman. It is the lowest birth rate in the world.

The South Koreans are hardly alone. Birth rates across the industrialized world are below replacement rate, especially in Western European and East Asian countries. In the United States, the birth rate has been below replacement rate since 1971, and has fallen to a 32-year-low as of last year.

Why?

A lot of reasons have been proposed – everything from economic recession to cultural factors. No doubt most of these factors do contribute to the problem. But what if the biggest reason is that humans, as a species, are being consumed like fuel in a gas tank? The engine that is consuming us, of course, is the corporation.

I am not against capitalism or corporations. However, I do think capitalism needs careful management, especially in certain areas. Health care, for example, is not something you can shop around for when your appendix has just ruptured. The principle of competition applies differently to this field than to others. Perhaps family life is another of these areas.

Here is the central problem: corporations do better when their employees don’t reproduce. If the employee is female, she might get pregnant and start taking time off to go to medical appointments. When she gives birth, she will definitely need to leave the workplace. Caring for a child is a huge time commitment. The only way to get out of that time commitment is to hire a nanny, which is and probably always will be out of the financial reach of most people.

This is why tech start-ups rely on the labor of young, unmarried, childless guys. This type of worker won’t get pregnant, either on purpose or by accident, or need maternity leave, or ask for a place to pump breast milk at work. They won’t whine about spending 100 hours per week at work instead of experiencing the joys of fatherhood. When they get old enough to do that, they’d better suck it up, or find a job at a different company.

This is how employers reward childlessness. They ask for a level of commitment from workers that makes it hard for those workers to do anything else with their lives besides try to succeed at their jobs. If they don’t, they will probably be out-competed by those that do.

Eventually, employers might run out of employees. But with billions of humans on this planet, this seems pretty unlikely to be a problem in the near future, or medium future. When it becomes a problem in one area, a sufficiently large employer – a corporation, usually – can solve the problem by moving, or by incentivizing workers to move.

Why was this never a problem in the olden days, however defined? Corporations have been around for a long time. European colonization of large areas of the world was achieved in large part by entities such as the British East India Company, chartered in the year 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I.

From studying my own genealogy, I happen to know that during the 17th century, my own ancestors’ average family size was… large. I haven’t calculated it exactly, but it must have been on the order of 12 or so. This was standard for the region (the American colonies) and the time period. My ancestors didn’t work for any sort of corporation. They were almost uniformly farmers. That is, they lived in an agricultural economy, rather than an industrialized economy. Their birth rate was much closer to that of modern Niger (nearly 7 births per woman – the highest in the world) than that of the modern United States.

On a farm, children are helpful. They function as free labor, so the more, the better.

Before modern corporations, before the British East India Company, before there was much civilization to speak of, there were bandits. Raiders. Vikings. Pirates. People who ventured out in smaller or larger groups to seek economic gain without much thought for the impact on other people’s lives. They were more physically violent than today’s corporations, but in their demographic makeup, they probably weren’t that different from tech start-ups. Men on the younger side, being stronger and more capable than small boys or old men, would have been preferred as recruits. Women would have been a liability, not necessarily because of their physical capabilities, but because they did not have access to birth control, and there is a time in most pregnancies during which the pregnant women is not good for much. Newborns would not be much use to bandits. Nor would small children.

These people were exceptions. Most people around them were farmers, herders, or perhaps hunter-gatherers. An industrialized country is like a country composed almost entirely of bandits. Agriculture itself has been taken over by corporations, with only a very small proportion of the population making its living in that sector – less than 1.5% in the United States right now, and less than 5% in South Korea.

In Niger, the figure is almost 76%.

So there you have it. Employing almost everyone at corporations or similar institutions, rather than in agriculture, seems to be the culprit. Maybe wealthy countries just need to encourage their citizens to move to the countryside and create more family farms.

On the other hand, there is no real reason to boost the birth rate up over 2.1 births per woman. The world’s population was 6 billion when I was a kid, sometime in the 90s, and it has grown to over 7.5 billion now. That’s an increase of 25%, in about 20-25 years. The number of new people born during that time exceeds the number of people in the entire world as of 1804, when the world population first reached 1 billion. We don’t need more people overall, and in fact it would probably be easier to maintain a healthy natural environment while maintaining high living standards for all if we had somewhat fewer humans around.

However, the world population doesn’t rise and fall uniformly. South Koreans are making too few babies to comfortably support all the elderly, and in Niger, most women are probably having far more children than they actually want. Perhaps Niger could use a bit more industrialization, and South Korea somewhat less. Perhaps most subsistence farmers in Niger would choose a different line of work if they could, and South Koreans, notorious for their work ethic, could probably use a little more leisure time in their lives.

In any industrialized country, in order to boost the birth rate closer to replacement rate, the key is to prioritize family life at the expense of corporate profit. There is a raft of policies that would accomplish this, including:

  • More parental and other family leave
  • Better legal protections for pregnant workers
  • Shorter work weeks
  • Subsidized, high quality early childcare
  • Abolition of at-will employment in most sectors

It is very important that these policies be enacted via legislation at the national level, because any company that adopts these policies on a voluntary basis will be out-competed by more ruthless rivals. Any state that adopts these policies at the state level may find that companies will leave and go to a state with less family-friendly laws.

Otherwise, the natural resource that is humanity will be drained away until there is not much left, either of people or of our economies.

Leaving Facebook

People who were college students in the early or mid 00s probably remember signing up for Facebook back when you could use the site to find people who were going to be in the same classes as you. I signed up around this time, which means I’ve been on Facebook for close to fifteen years.

In the olden days, Facebook was a convenient and fun way to connect with people at your university. But then, once there were enough people on the site, Mark Zuckerberg began farming us all for data and advertising revenue. Famously, this data is now being used to manipulate public opinion and win presidential elections.

Facebook users have also been subject to data mining from other companies. If you log into a site using Facebook to look at your quiz results, or to see your word cloud, or for any other reason, that site now has all your Facebook data. They could use it to steal your identity, manipulate your opinions, sell you something, target you for harassment, frame you for a crime, or probably several other purposes I haven’t thought of.

Facebook has ways of tracking people who aren’t on the site at all, so I don’t expect to entirely escape its grasp. However, I do want to at least have alternative ways of connecting with my out-of-state friends, and of connecting with new people too. It’s shockingly hard to imagine how to do this if you’ve been on Facebook for fifteen years and have used it extensively to organize your social life since college.

But really, getting off Facebook is just a matter of getting all your friends’ contact info into a physical address book, downloading all your Facebook data (at the very least Facebook will do that for you), and deleting your account.

Keeping up with friends without Facebook may be more of a challenge. I plan to blog and write letters and Christmas cards. I should have plenty of time to do this, since I won’t be spending all my time staring at my phone, refreshing Facebook.