Parenting, Gender, and the Time Bind

There are two different articles in today’s New York Times that tell complementary stories about gender and parenthood.     The articles seem to have landed in the same paper completely by chance—neither makes any reference to the other.

One article appears in a column (blog?) called Motherlode.  It’s and e-mail interview with Jeremy Adam Smith about growing participation of men in actual, hands-on childrearing.

[Although this is not my point, this article also offers a fine example of what I think of as the elusive use of statistics.  At one point  says the Smith says “Since 1965 the number of hours that men spend on childcare has tripled. Since 1995 it has nearly doubled.”   

I’m perfectly willing to assume that this is true, but what does it actually mean?  Suppose the number of hours men spent on childcare in 1965 was one hour per week.   That would mean that that if men spent three hours per week on child rearing today, the number of hours would indeed have tripled.   But three hours per week remains a very small number of hours.

I do not have any idea what the right numbers are, by the way.  My point here is just that telling us that the total number of hours has tripled may not tell us as much as you think it does.  It may evidence a step towards equality, but it could be but a very small step.]

All that is a digression.  The main point of the Motherlode column is to examine male/female division of childrearing and that factors that have, at least until recently, left this a largely female labor.

It’s worth having a look at the article, but there’s one major feature of our world that isn’t discussed in the Motherlode article.  That’s the subject of the other article, which appears in the business section.

Perhaps the article states the obvious, but it does so in forceful and detailed terms:   It is very difficult to combine the flexible schedule and reduced hours necessary for assumption of substantial child-rearing responsibilities with the development of a professional career.   Taking time off for the crucial first year referred to in the Motherlode article will have lasting consequences in one’s career path.

It’s not hard to see that if two people are raising a child and each  takes time off (in turn) the end result could be two compromised careers.   That’s a huge economic penalty for the division of child-rearing labor.   So at least in a two-parent family, it’s only rational to have one parent focus on career building while the other focuses on the child-rearing.

It’s not a huge leap from this idea of the division of labor/specialization to the notion that the man does the wage-earning and the woman the child-care.   Remember that for the most part men are paid more than women?   So you send the stronger wage-earner out to earn wages, right?

None of this is particularly new or surprising.  It’s just struck me that the two articles are right there in the same paper, but do not speak to each other.


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