Family Feud

Bryan Caplan kindly addresses my brazenly psychologizing argument against his Jamie-Lynn apology. I’m sure we’re talking past each other a bit, but that’s okay!

… if I’m reading Will correctly, he’s saying that there is a gender conflict on the issue of family size: Men want more kids than woman because women get pregnant and do most of the child-care. The problem with this story is that, empirically, desired family size for men and women is practically identical. In the GSS, the average response to the “ideal family size” question is 2.57 kids for men versus 2.56 for women. Indeed, if there is a gender conflict on this issue that the data doesn’t capture, it’s between women who want kids, and men who don’t. (See I Want a Baby; He Doesn’t).

Hmm… I’m not saying there is a gender conflict about family size.

Since we were talking about sixteen year-old girls, I was specifically pushing Bryan to grasp that the cost of having children for non-wealthy girls of that age is high; it may ruin their chances of realizing anything approaching their full potential or of achieving much that is accorded a high level of social esteem. And it turns out that most girls are not wealthy, or of wealth. I wasn’t making any point at all about desired fertility or family size. I was saying that having a child at sixteen has a VERY HIGH probability of severely limiting most girls’ prospects. It seemed to me that Bryan was overlooking this pretty obvious fact, which suggested to me a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to teen girls, which further suggested a lack of sympathy for the cost of motherhood to women generally. Jamie-Lynn is a poor example for girls because she is doing something that would do a lot of damage to most girls’ lives, which is why most parents are not unreasonably terrified of this kind of thing regardless of their interest in grandkids.

But let’s talk about “ideal family size” anyway! I find survey evidence about desired family size or desired fertility pretty irrelevant in a way economists ought to be especially sensitive to. If you ask me how many cars, houses, or television sets I would ideally own without specifying the price I may well give you a pie-in-the-sky answer. I would like TEN cars! But given a world in which I face my actual budget constraint it turns out that I want one cheap car: a 1996 Honda Civic.

In the case of desired fertility, I think lagging social expectations and norms likely play a huge role. I suspect we take the size of our own families growing up as a kind of baseline for our family formation preferences. But as women’s equality has proceeded, and continues to proceed, the opportunity cost of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare has risen, and is rising, for many women. So it would not be surprising if a young woman were to imagine that she would like three kids, given her mom’s 1985 opportunity cost. But given 2008 opportunity costs, she really only wants one, which is what she has. I don’t know if there is a male-female mismatch in preferences here, and I guess I don’t care much. It’s not what I was talking about, in any case.

Moving on…

Now admittedly, Will could rephrase his question in a gender-neutral way: “So what’s the problem with a person who decides to devote his/her life to meaningful life-constituting projects that do not involve [insert gender-neutral unaesthetic stuff about kids here]?” If so, my short answer would be:

1. It’s not hard for a person to do both, especially if he/she is reasonably affluent.

I don’t want the question to be gender-neutral. The point is that having children isn’t gender neutral. Women carry most of the burden.

Isn’t pregnancy hard? Childbirth? Don’t women worry a great deal about what all this does to their bodies and their sense of physical self-esteem? Doesn’t childcare have real costs in terms of competitive careers (i.e., almost all of them)?

I’d be more comfortable with “it’s not so hard” if social norms weren’t so brutal to middle-class, middle-American women who chose to outsource almost all their childcare in the same way men continue to outsource almost all their childcare to their wives. But, as it stands, I think even the average “reasonably affluent” woman bears a pretty big disproportionate burden and this is in fact reflected in diminished labor market prospects. Indeed, mothers face disadvantages in hiring, the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is bigger than the wage gap between women and men, and according to some studies it is increasing. Nope, not hard at all!

2. A person who does both will almost certainly be glad that he/she did (whereas many successful childless people (especially women!) regret their choice.

Yes, I think it is part of our Darwinian design to mostly keep us from regretting our children, even if the choice was regrettable or in moments of reflection actual regretted. Also, it is taboo to admit regretting your children, even if in a mixed and complex way. But if Bryan thinks many, many, many mothers have not and do not in fact regret foregone experience, challenge, success, and status then I fear he’s not paying attention. Motherhood for many women just is a bittersweet experience of frustrated ambition and readjustment to downgraded expectations. Several times my own mother, who I’m sure loved me and my sisters without reserve, expressed to me deep regret for not having gone on to become a doctor instead of ending her education with nursing school in order to raise a family. That can’t be hard.

Anyway, if a career woman past reproductive age finds herself regretting not having children, she can always adopt. But try getting rid of your four year-old, and see what people think of you.

3. The person you create will almost certainly be really glad to exist.

If I gave somebody a million dollars, they would almost be certainly glad to get it. That’s some reason for me to give someone a million dollars, I suppose, but not really much of one.

4. If you think you own any debt of gratitude to your parents, giving them grandchildren is the best way to repay it.

Just being there, loving them, and loving your own life is the best way to repay, I figure.

Maybe Bryan is right that the rewards of family make it all worthwhile in the end. Lots of people certainly say so. But I continue to worry he is being a bit too facile about the high costs of childbearing and childrearing for women generally, not to say for teenage girls.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center