File Under “Feminism is Good for Families”

I love Stephanie Coontz. If you haven’t checked out her books yet, you should. She’s a history professor who focuses largely on the American family, and her work is fascinating. This latest op/ed is no exception.

Coontz’s work consistently points to the facts that (1) there really was no great 1950s golden age of the nuclear family, and (2) as gender equality increases, so does quality of life for men, women and children. Her Times op/ed is about research that suggests parenthood leads to decreased marital satisfaction and even divorce. More than 25 studies have confirmed that with parenthood comes a steep decline in marital happiness. However:

The Cowans found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.

Marital quality also tends to decline when parents backslide into more traditional gender roles. Once a child arrives, lack of paid parental leave often leads the wife to quit her job and the husband to work more. This produces discontent on both sides. The wife resents her husband’s lack of involvement in child care and housework. The husband resents his wife’s ingratitude for the long hours he works to support the family.

In other words, gender-egalitarian marriages and marriages where parenthood is planned tend to be stronger once kids are in the picture. And kids do better socially and academically in stable and happy marriages.

Coontz also emphasizes the importance of maintaining individuality and separateness from your children — not dedicating your entire life to being a parent at the expense of your marriage and your sense of self. It’s advice that is too seldom directed at women, for whom parenthood often comes with the expectation of total and constant devotion to someone(s) else.

The take-away: The conservative family ideal of a stay-at-home and subservient mother dedicated entirely to the domestic, a breadwinning and household-leading father, and as many children as God gives you is a recipe for unhappiness. Gender egalitarianism, including reproductive planning and the pursuit of individual needs and desires, is a better pro-family strategy.


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15 comments for “File Under “Feminism is Good for Families”

  1. February 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I don’t entirely agree with your take-away. Coontz says clearly that people who plan parenthood, who discuss arrangements, parenting philosophies, and general life plans before children show up are much better off than people who slide into parenthood without much thought (often because of cultural pressure). Now, if a family decides to have one parent stay home because it fits their situation and ideals better AND that person chooses so as freely as humanly possible, that family will quite probably have a good deal of stability and happiness.

    Paid full time work is by no means the single best thing you can do with your life.

  2. Nia T.
    February 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Ashley, I don’t think what Jill is trying to say is that nobody should ever be a stay-at-home parent; rather, I think what she’s getting at is that nobody should be FORCED to be a stay-at-home parent because “that’s how it’s supposed to be” or because that’s the “right way” to do it. (Jill, if I’m wrong or misinterpreting you, please feel free to correct me.)

    Personally, I think gender egalitarianism includes the option that one parent stay home. It just means that other options are discussed and that nobody who would be unhappy with that arrangement is forced to stay home just because they have a vagina, and that the idea that the arrangement of one stay-at-home mom and a breadwinning father is the best way to do things for EVERY family is nonsense, no matter what the “family values” set says.

  3. Leigh
    February 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Ashley, I think your scenario fits in just fine with Jill’s take-away that gender egalitarianism is the ultimate pro-family strategy.

    You describe a situation in which a couple discusses as a unit and mutually agrees upon the next course of action. Sounds reciprocal and respectful on both parts.

    You also describe a gender-neutral scenario in which the debate is over whether or not one parent should stay home. That’s a very different conversation than deciding whether or not the mother and the mother only should stay home and care for the kids.

    I disagree that Jill’s take-away supports paid full-time work as the only route to happiness. The point is that the dynamics within most happy, stable marital relationships–the presence or absence of reciprocity, mutual respect, egalitarian power relations, and progressive gender politics–are not typically the dynamics of the so-called traditional, nuclear family.

  4. February 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Hopefully you two are correct, but I’m going with what she explicitly says, which is:

    “The conservative family ideal of a stay-at-home and subservient mother dedicated entirely to the domestic, a breadwinning and household-leading father, and as many children as God gives you is a recipe for unhappiness.”

    Minus the “as many children as God gives you”, this is a description of a SAHM and a husband who works, which she says is “a recipe for unhappiness.”

    And because I have heard many people state that staying home is dumb, risky, wasting your brains or education, turning you into a brood mare, etc. etc. etc. I don’t let comments like that sit unchallenged. I HATE the mommy wars, and the fact that one side of it often shows up on feminist blogs annoys me to no end, and that doesn’t change when it comes up unthinkingly.

  5. February 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Ashley, as others have pointed out, I didn’t say that full-time work is the only route to happiness. I specified “stay-at-home and subservient” — by which I meant clearly bowing to pre-determined gender roles, instead of making the decision as a couple for the wife to stay home.

  6. February 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Jill, but I don’t think that your intent was clear at all. I read “stay at home and subservient” as a flippant description of the “traditional” family dynamic.

    The women I know who do stay home because they think it’s a woman’s duty, who do believe in godly submission to their husband (which for the record I think is pathological bullshit) would not at all think of themselves as subservient or recognize subservience in themselves.

  7. February 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    The women I know who do stay home because they think it’s a woman’s duty, who do believe in godly submission to their husband (which for the record I think is pathological bullshit) would not at all think of themselves as subservient or recognize subservience in themselves.

    And? Lots of people don’t recognize a lot of things in themselves, even though they ought to.

    Are we seriously trying to make some kind of distinction now between “submission” and “subservience”? Really?

  8. February 9, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Minus the “as many children as God gives you”, this is a description of a SAHM and a husband who works, which she says is “a recipe for unhappiness.”

    Most of the SAHMs I know would take issue with the idea that “a stay-at-home and subservient mother dedicated entirely to the domestic [and] a breadwinning and household-leading father” is an accurate description of their family. My phrasing — with the use of “subservient” and “household-leading” was intentional. I wasn’t being flippant, I was describing a very particular familial set-up.

  9. February 9, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Are we seriously trying to make some kind of distinction now between “submission” and “subservience”? Really?

    Clarification: I’m referring to the idea that such a distinction exists specifically within the context of constant marital arrangement, which is what we’re discussing.

  10. anon
    February 9, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Ashley – yeah, Jill was clearly describing a particular kind of family, not saying that all SAHMs are subservient.
    And thanks, Jill. I still feel like all young women are expected to want the marriage and family thing. I’m not sure I do, and even if I do choose to have kids, I am no way in hell going to devote myself entirely to them and forget any other identity I have.

  11. Rachel_in_WY
    February 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Per usual, Stephanie Coontz kicks ass. I come back to “The Way We Never Were” all the time to find statistics and sources. Her work is a great resource.

  12. Julie
    February 9, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I thought Jill’s intent was fairly clear. I am not a SAHM, I work part-time and go to school full time, but I have friends who are and not one of them would describe their relationship in the terms that Jill used. They are not SAHM’s because they believe it to be their godly duty, but because they are in a position where they can financially afford to only have one parent working and they are happier being home with their children than working. They are all equal partners in their relationship and their husbands don’t “lead” their homes- they work together to provide the best family life for their children, just like my husband and I do with both of us working.

  13. Kyra
    February 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Personally, I think the ideal “standard model” (standard as in “usually happens,” not “should happen”) would be both parents working part-time. This would result in each parent having both a role in the “breadwinning” and professional life, and ample time to spend with the children, without the resentment triggered by grass-is-greener mentalities by either party.

    The problem is, of course, that jobs that allow you to work part-time tend to not pay as much, and also don’t provide healthcare. It’s thus harder to make it work in this society.

    But it would be all-around wonderful to see families able to provide easily for themselves and their kids on two twenty or thirty-hour workweeks rather than two forty-hour workweeks—less second-shift stress or “I want a life outside this house!” stress, more time for either working parent to spend with their kids, even perhaps more time to themselves—and possibly a solution to some of our unemployment problems, if 3,000 hours of work to be done were spread between 100 30-hour employees instead of 75 40-hour employees, for expample.

  14. Julie
    February 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    That would be wonderful Kyra! I can not even begin to start a list of how much easier my life would be with that kind of schedule for both my partner and I.

  15. Lyndsay
    February 9, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Definitely on the both partners working part-time idea. I have thought that for a while and have wondered why more people with hiring power don’t think the same. Surely some people in a company would be okay with working part-time if it meant the same per hour pay. Why isn’t “part-time” more encouraged with all these lay-offs going on?

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