Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Taking Time Off

Thanks to Cold Spring Shops for pointing me to a good discussion about the price that professional women pay for raising their kids at Crooked Timber from Sept. 3. I totally missed the debate. That post was inspired by Jane Galt at Asymmetical Information.

Jane writes: Should we stay home, or shouldn't we? It's a difficult question for professional women. We don't necessarily earn much money (not if we're journalists, we don't), but we love our careers. We want to be successful as much as our husbands do. Taking five or eight or ten years off to get the kids started off right before they go to school is going to mean irreperably harming our prospects for advancement. We want very badly to convince ourselves that day care is really just as good, better even -- or at the very least, that it is sufficiently not-worse that it's justified.

But in order for me to justify the decision to first, have kids (it's not like the world needs more of 'em, after all), and then, hand those kids over to someone else for most of the day, I need to be satisfied that that someone is going to do pretty much as good a job as I would at raising them. And the thoroughly unsatisfying answer is: how could they?

I've been struggling those same issues. Let's break them down.

1. We put 10-15 years into school or bottom level positions. Just when we're about to reap the benefits, it's time to have kids.
2. Daycare is unreliable and very expensive. Some jobs may not pay enough to cover daycare for mulitple children.
3. Some women make that economic sacrifice. They work just to break even, so that they can have a career when the kids go to first grade.
4. Some women are unwilling to make the emotional sacrifice. They can't bare to leave their kids with someone else for sixty hours a week.
5. If you take off 6,8,10 years, you have no career left. Do over. Go back to start. Do not collect $200.

What's the solution?
1. NOW advocates more government subsidized childcare.
2. Crooked Timber says that we have to change the business culture which assumes that the employee has someone at home to take care of him. And give businesses tax incentives for "family friendly policies." (Like what?)

Yes, there should be more subsidized childcare, but it wouldn't help me out. I don't want my kids in childcare full time if I can help it. I don't care who's footing the bill. I've had my kids in various forms of part time child care -- group home settings, nannies, etc... Frankly, I do a better job.

What works for me and almost every other full-time caretaker I know? Part time work. And the magic number is three days. Women (and men) want the opportunity to use their mind, earn some money, gain respect, but they also want to play a big role in their kids' lives. I can (and do) let someone else watch my kids for 10-20 hours a week, but that's my limit.

Part time work also offers women a way of taking time off from the career, rather than throwing it all away. The problem is that part-time work is hard to find and pays badly.

Another solution that I feel queesy about comes from my friend, Margie. Margie has a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions, but is currently at home with two kids in suburban Long Island. She wishes that she never got the PhD. She wishes that she had not scorned careers in elementary school teaching and nursing, because those careers are much more accomodating to women with kids. Should women who know that they want to have kids purposely avoid careers that are hostile to women with children (like academia)?

A third solution is to say "screw it all," dump the career without regrets, and have fun with the kids.

May I just say that we are lucky to have such problems. First, we get to make a choice to stay home. Not everyone is able to afford that decision. Second, we have a career and not a dead-end factory job.

UPDATE: Stephen Karlson at Cold Springs Shops wisely points out that, "there are gains from trade in finding alternatives to the treadmill, none of which need imply a lesser status for the workers so employed."

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