Monday, February 19, 2007

A Not-As-Depressing Book on Working and Motherhood

I just finished reading a fascinating book called Kidding Ourselves by Rhona Mahony. I am surprised that I hadn't heard of this book until recently, given the relatively large number of depressing feminist tomes on working and motherhood that sit on my bookshelves. As it turns out, many of these books (which include Flux and The Price of Motherhood, to name a couple) actually cite Kidding Ourselves, which made it doubly surprising that I hadn't heard of it before, although I think I have figured out why. It is a fairly academic book that might not appeal to the masses in the way that the anecdotal Flux or the "written by Wall Street Journal Economic Reporter" Price of Motherhood might. It also deals with a topic that I don't think many women want to face- the prospect of househusbands. Mahony argues that until men do as much childwork and housework as women do (which will end up decreasing the total amount that women do), women will have a hard time getting ahead professionally. Much of her book details how women can negotiate with their husbands to have them take on more of the household tasks, not just in approach, but also how to strengthen your own position.

Unfortunately, much of the strengthening goes on long before you have children. Mahony argues that one of the best ways to improve your outcome in a negotiation is to improve your BATNA. BATNA stands for "best alternative to a negotiated agreement." How do BATNAs work? Say you want to buy a new car. You go to the dealership, and try to negotiate the price on a car. Your BATNA is what happens if you and the dealership can't agree on a price, and you end up walking away. If you don't have a car, your BATNA might be "don't take that job across town, but find a job closer to home, and I can ride the bus." That is a pretty bad BATNA. Being able to take that job across town might be worth a lot to you- more than the blue book value of the car. When you have a bad BATNA, you are more likely to do worse in a negotiation, because your reservation price (the most you are willing to pay) is going to be pretty high.

But if you can convince your parents to lend you their car for a while to get you to and from work, your BATNA then becomes "borrow Mom and Dad's car." This is a pretty good BATNA. It doesn't cost you anything. Maybe it's a 1992 Buick, and maybe they will only lend it to you for a couple of weeks, but it means that your reservation price goes down. You can still take that job across town, and you don't have to pay anything extra in the immediate future. You are willing to walk away at a lower price.

This is a really simplistic example, but you get the idea.

So women need to improve their BATNAs. Part of this BATNA is your employability, your ability to earn money. In other words, how dependent are you on your husband? More dependent = worse BATNA. Less dependent = better BATNA. Your education and qualifications largely determine your employability, your ability to earn the big bucks. Mahony isn't saying that women should leave their husbands if they don't help out, but your ability to exist on your own factors into how you and your husband approach this negotiation. She also suggests that having a better BATNA can prevent physical abuse. I am not so convinced on this point- I think it probably helps women get out faster, as I know at least one well-educated career woman who stayed in an abusive relationship for a little too long, but as for preventing it... I am not so sure. Anyway....

What earns the big bucks? In short, math and science. The more math and science that you take, the more options that are open to you. My husband and I found this out when hearing about my dad's experience getting his plumber's license at the age of 59. My dad is a smart guy (and a licensed contractor for 25 years), and has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. He lacked confidence about his abilities to pass the test (supposedly it's hard) and get his plumber's license. He signed up for a prep class at the local community college halfway through the term. It turns out that he was outperforming the other guys in the class by leaps and bounds. Why? Because he knew geometry. He passed the test the first time. (go Dad!!!) My DH and I said that high schools should put up posters everywhere that says "If you don't take this math class, these careers will be cut off for you!" Who knew that if you didn't know geometry, you would have a hard time becoming a plumber???

So girls need to take more math and science in high school. Taking 4 years of math and at least 3 years of science in high school keeps potentially lucrative college majors open to you. This is the second part of increasing your BATNA- majoring in something that will help you get good-paying, gainful employment. Mahony is sympathetic to the liberal arts perspective (I get the feeling that this is her ideal, but she knows she lives in the real world), but one of the nicest things about this book, as compared to most of the other books on this topic that I have read, is that it is not just for upper-middle class women. This book is intended for women of all walks of life. It's not a pretty fact of life, but if you are scraping to put yourself through college, your time might be better spent majoring in economics, chemistry, or engineering, rather than something like English or philosophy. The first group of majors positions you for more lucrative employment than the second group. And more money = better BATNA.

Okay, check! I took 4 years of math in high school, 4 years of science, and majored in something eminently practical (and am pursuing a graduate degree that might be a waste of time in one sense, but will also make me more employable, at least in theory). Phew! At least that's one thing I didn't screw up.

To make that money, women also need to put themselves in positions where they keep making it, and not gear themselves for the flexible, part-time work that many women consider when picking a career (okay, I am at least a little guilty in this respect- most women I know are, even the well-educated ones).

Another part of the equation that is very, very important is picking the right person, a person who is willing to chip in and do his fair share, has a certain mindset about equality, etc. Mahony argues that women should be willing to marry down- marry men who make less, have flexible careers, men who will be in a position not to say no when you tell them that they need to do housework and help with the kids.

Here is where we part ways. I think that marrying down and having the flexible career matters less than marrying someone who is willing to help and is sympathetic to the values of equality. Mahony admits that she herself married laterally (she married a college professor), and she writes, which is a relatively flexible career, yet she has managed to work out a 50-50 agreement with her husband.

Everyone that I know who has married down has paid for it. Yeah, if your husband is in a law firm or a McKinsey consultant, he's not going to be doing the childcare, but I've seen too many guys in flexible, low-paying careers who don't pull their weight either. And then they get their egos all in a twist and pissed b/c the woman is the breadwinner. Guess what? Some of these guys are in these flexible, low-paying careers because they are lazy. A lazy guy is not going to do the work around the house no matter what. If I'm going to have to do all the housework on my own, I at least want to marry someone who brings in enough money to hire it out. I think the solution is to go for a happy medium- marry someone who is smart and ambitious but working in a maybe not-as-high-powered job as he could be (for instance, college professor instead of investment banker), but liberal-minded enough to not be squeamish about doing house and child work and nice enough to want to make his wife's life easier.

My parents are a good example of this. My mom stayed home until I was about 12. Since my dad was a licensed contractor who worked for himself starting when I was about 5, he had a relatively flexible schedule. Although I swear to you I can hardly remember my dad doing ANY housework (my mom is a perfectionist, so she just did it all), my perception is that he was quite involved with the day-to-day things that you have to do to raise kids. He insisted on helping bathe us as babies, would tell us bedtime stories, take us on outings so my mom could get a break (I remember one time, he took us fishing at a local pond, and I ended up catching a HUGE snapping turtle. Talk about freaky.), help us with science fair projects, etc. Probably my mom did do a lot more of the day-to-day nitty gritty, like making sure we ate, were dressed properly, did our hair, and did most of the laundry, but I really do remember my dad being very involved.

There is another twist to this story. My mom was agoraphobic, and didn't get treatment until I was about 12 (just before she started working part-time). This meant that my dad took care of lots of errands. He took us to school every morning (he was great, because he would drive fast and cut through parking lots on the corners, so we would get there quickly!), did a lot of the outside errands, and also he and I would go grocery shopping every Sunday morning. My mom would make the list, give us the coupons, and he and I would go. We would park our car in the middle of Kroger, split the list up, and divide and conquer. We were a very efficient team.

All of this happened, despite the fact that my mom had a pretty bad BATNA. She does have a college degree, but it was in French education, not something she really wanted to do. She was agoraphobic, and had stayed home for bunches of years. If she had asked my dad to do more (like make dinner once a week, etc.) he would have. The reasons why she didn't are mostly related to her own perfectionism (Mahony talks about this too- if you want your husbands to help you, you've got to lower your standards.).

So what did I take away from this reading? Most of all, marry a nice guy who wants to make you happy, and recognizes that this doesn't necessarily come in the form of jewelry (although I love bling, don't get me wrong), but often comes in the way of taking away the daily drudgery of dishes, cooking, and laundry.

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