Retro Marriage

One Reason Women Stay Home: Because It's Easier on Everyone

Two career couples must constantly negotiate who does what.

This article on women who stay home is undoubtedly going to trigger a lot of commentary on the internet. Stay-at-home Moms, Lisa Miller argues, reduce the amount of stress on the marriage:

The explanation for the disconnect, the researchers surmised, was that French people, like Americans, lie to themselves about what they want. French women (like their American counterparts) do the bulk of the domestic work, and the majority also work full time. Quoting from colleagues’ earlier work, the sociologists showed that sexism in France is as much a part of the culture as great bread, wine, and a long lunch hour. In France, “there were numerous men who were available to look after children during the week when their partner was employed … but nevertheless did not take responsibility for child care even when they were free.” They were saying one thing and doing another, which in marriage, says the historian Stephanie Coontz, is “a recipe for instability and unhappiness.”

That same year, an American sociologist published a paper describing similar results. Predictors of marital unhappiness, found Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, included wives who earned a large share of household income and wives who perceived the division of labor at home as unfair. Predictors of marital happiness were couples who shared a commitment to the institutional idea of marriage and couples who went to religious services together. “Our findings suggest,” he wrote, “that increased departures from a male-breadwinning-female-homemaking model may also account for declines in marital quality, insofar as men and women continue to tacitly value gendered patterns of behavior in marriage.” It’s an idea that thrives especially in conservative religious circles: The things that specific men and women may selfishly want for themselves (sex, money, status, notoriety) must for the good of the family be put aside. Feminists widely critiqued Wilcox’s findings, saying it puts the onus on women to suck it up in marriage, when men should be under more pressure to change. But these days you’ll find echoes of Wilcox’s thesis in unlikely places. “We look at straight people,” a gay friend said to me recently as we were comparing anecdotes about husbands, “and we think marriage must be so much easier for them.”

When I look at Kelly and Alvin Makino, I feel the same way. I have worked full time for almost all my daughter’s nine years, and only very rarely have I ever felt that nature required anything else of me. I love my job and have found work to be gratifying and even calming during periods when other parts of my life are far less so. Like 65 percent of American couples, my husband and I both work to pay our bills, but my commitment to my career extends way beyond financial necessity. My self-sufficiency sets a good example for my daughter (or so we tell ourselves), which is one reason why even if we were to win the lotto, staying at home would not likely be a course I’d choose.

And yet. I am not immune to the notion that I have powers and responsibilities as a mother that my husband does not have. I prepare our daughter’s lunch box every morning with ritualistic care, as if sending her off to school with a bologna sandwich made by me can work as an amulet against all the pain of my irregular, inevitable absences. I believe that I have a special gift for arranging playdates, pediatrician appointments, and piano lessons, and I yearn sometimes for the vast swaths of time Kelly Makino has given herself to keep her family’s affairs in order. In an egalitarian marriage, every aspect of home life is open to renegotiation. When two people need to leave the house at 6 a.m., who gets the children ready for school? When two people have to work late, who will meet that inflexible day-care pickup time? And who, finally, has the energy for those constant transactions?

Economist Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize for developing a theory of the firm: an explanation for why we have companies with employees at all, rather than simply having an owner contract for services on an ad-hoc basis. They formed companies, Coase theorized, because it allowed them to reduce the transactions costs of doing business: it's time consuming and costly to figure out how much you want to pay someone to serve as an occasional CFO. Easier to put them on staff and pay them a flat rate for doing all the CFO stuff.

Miller is suggesting that the traditionally gendered marriage also reduced transaction costs. Gay couples I know who've adopted children generally report that one parent ends up as "Dad" and one parent as "Mom". One person ends up in charge of the doctors appointments, the playdates and the ballet recitals; the other may help, but only one is the executive. And I gather that it's not just because we have some sort of social expectation that someone will be "Mom"; it's because the costs of sharing the duties outweigh the benefits. If two people are in charge of scheduling playdates and planning birthday parties, then you have to spend an enormous amount of time sharing information about these things. Moreover, you need to spend more time developing a joint policy on playdates and birthday parties: what sort of kids? How many? Who gets struck off the permitted list, and for what offenses? This is not only time consuming, but also, creates opportunities for spousal arguments.

This is what Miller is describing among the two career couples: constant negotiation over who will do what. This may contribute to the decreased satisfaction with their marriages and their lives that people report after they have children.

If the division of labor is a more efficient, less bothersome, way to handle the duties of childrearing, then it may be that gendering that division also has benefits. Leave aside arguments about whether women have innate tendencies in one direction or another; even a 100% culturally conditioned gender division might have benefits that lead to its adoption. Assigning the home tasks to one gender means that you don't need to negotiate who will stay home, reducing marital conflict. It also eases any regret that the stay-at-home partner might feel over their decision.

It also makes it easier to agree on the legal institutions that surround marriage. To take just one example, a divorced woman in 1960 could expect to be awarded a substantial portion of her husband's income until she remarried, because the expectation was that she had contributed to his success by taking care of all the home production--and sacrificing any earning power she might have had.

Now, she's much more likely to be given a few years worth of alimony while she gets back on her feet and finds a job. Which makes the decision to stay home a very risky financial bet. My understanding is that the feminists who pushed to change the rules in teh 1970s saw this as a feature, rather than a bug: they wanted women to have good reason to stay self-supporting. But with some women staying home, and others not, it's hard for the divorce laws to be fair for everyone.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we should return to the old-style Mom's-home-Dad-works marriage. There are also costs to such arrangements, which have been well-enumerated by the feminist movement over the years. But if you think about staying home not just as a way to invest more in your children, but also as a way to reduce conflict (for yourself and everyone else), it gets easier and easier to understand the appeal.