The Happiness Gender Gap Again

Stevenson and Wolfers’ paper, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” covered in the Times back in 2007, has just been released as an NBER paper, giving it a second wind. Ross Douthat in his column today argues that it means that we need to do a better job stigmatizing single motherhood. That’s one way we could go. In my 2007 Free Exchange post on the subject, I suggested destigmatizing female indifference to familial responsibility.

[We should] strongly and repeatedly reinforce the point that women should not have to do so much of the unpleasant domestic and child- and parent-care work. It seems to me our culture remains awash in quasi-Victorian super-sentimenal romanticism about the mother-child bond, which makes women feel guilty if they approach childrearing with the same sort of genial detachment of even attentive, involved, and loving dads. Surely many men ought to do more of this work. But I think men doing more is less important than women doing less. Neither women nor men ought not be made to feel guilty if they outsource this work to daycare, nannies, or assisted-living facilities.

The happiness studies show that men now spend less time unpleasantly occupied than they used to. That’s good! Our focus should not be on the equitible distribution of unpleasantness, but on an overall reduction. The best path is cultural change that lowers to women the cost of opting out of unfair social expectations—expectations that lead them to spend too much of their time devoted to unpleasant acts of altruism.

There’s no logically logical reason why Ross’s restigmatization campaign can’t go hand in hand with my destigmatization campaign. Ladies: don’t be a single mother, because that would be bad for you, and if you are a mother, ignore your kids more, because that would be good for you! But I’m afraid there’s a kind of deep cultural logic that rules out this sort of arrangement.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

20 thoughts

  1. Will, this is post is beneath you. Seriously, you're taking one small-but-scary step towards being a Brad DeLong-style asshat. First, you should link to Ross's post. People should be able to judge for themselves if his argument is stronger than yours or if they're compatible.Second, and more disturbingly, Ross says almost precisely the opposite of what you allege him to say. Yes, Douthat is calling for the introduction of a new stigma–a revitalized stigma against males who leave their families. Now, you can object to this in many ways. Can a stigma be imposed from above, like a regulation? Does not this very stigma already exist? Aren't men getting an unfair shake in, say, divorce settlements and custody proceedings, etc? etc? (I'm not saying any of the preceding are necessarily true.)However, what you cannot honestly say is that Douthat is calling for “society to do a better job stigmatizing single motherhood.” That's a gross misreading of his argument.You're better than that. A lot better.

  2. I'm sure he's a genial fellow and all but wouldn't reading your penultimate sentence cause Douthat's head to explode? I mean, is this how non-trads approach trad-leaning people if we wish to convince rather than poke? i'm all for a good round of poking, but the trads tend to be relatives and…they don't take kindly to perceived poking, regardless of intent.

  3. PMP, Chill out! First, I omitted the link completely by accident. Fixed! Second, I truly have nothing against stigmatizing irresponsible single motherhood. Third, I think “a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors” is a nice way of avoiding women's agency and responsibility in consorting with serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors.” To stigmatize these men is to stigmatize the women who choose to have their children. No way around it. Last, I won't even think about deleting your comment.

  4. Will, Everything in your response to PMP is great, with the exception that you don't actually respond to his main point: namely that Douthat, does not call for the stigmatization of single mothers. It's nifty, of course, that you think that stigmatizing serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors necessarily implies stigmatizing the women who hang out with them. But when you are quoting a person as arguing for X, it is poor form when that person does not in fact argue for X, but rather argues for some Y that you think leads to X. In this specific case, you're wrong on the merits. The two are not equivalent in practice. Take the case of man who has two small children, then leaves his wife to take up with a new girlfriend. In Douthat's model, he is ostracized, and wife number one is not, even though she is a single mother.

  5. Why won't other prominent bloggers call Brad Delong on his anti-liberal behavior and unfair rhetoric? He deletes good arguments from his blog that make his arguments look bad and leaves three word name calling posts as long as they are only attacking his opponents.What is the deal? Are they afraid of being kicked out certain social networks?

  6. Moms and dads feel bad putting their kids in daycare in part because they legitimately worry that the kids won't receive as good care as they would were they care for by their parents. You might advise them, “Find a better daycare, then!” This sounds like reasonable advice if you haven't ever actually searched for daycares.

  7. I thought Ross Douthat was actually arguing for a stigma against sexual promiscuity. In context of his other writing on abortion, family, sexual mores, etc., this is the reading that makes most sense to me. I think Douthat would actually not support Will's suggestion. The logical extension of Will's “destigmatizing female indifference to familial responsibility” is destigmatizing the choice not to have children. Ross wouldn't agree because he extremely pro-natalist—see, for example, his posts demography in Europe, or his book, in which he argues for tax benefits for people who have children. As far as I can tell, Ross thinks a better society will arise out of traditional families and traditional gender roles, and that government should encourage both. I prefer Will's suggestion, but let's not pretend they're the same thing.

  8. At this point, let me bring up perhaps the most profound sentence in all of literature. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”I deny both Will's and Ross' assertions. There is NOTHING government can do to discourage unhappy marriages, or encourage happy marriages. Enduring marriages are an alchemy … or rather, each marriage needs to be considered sui generis. Stigmatizing anyone only makes someone more unhappy, not less. Which brings me to … “Ladies: don’t be a single mother, because that would be bad for you, and if you are a mother, ignore your kids more, because that would be good for you! But I’m afraid there’s a kind of deep cultural logic that rules out this sort of arrangement.“No one who has even a passing familiarity with the experience of the variety of human experience that anthropology has given us can read that with a straight face. In ancient Sparta, there was no law against adultery. Spartan women where notorious (in their day) for being free spoken, and free lovin'. Today we can point to multiple examples of functional, long-lived matrilineal societies. Upper class European societies did not stigmatize concubines. indeed, bastards were often selected to high office.There is no “problem” with single motherhood. Many fathers walk out on marriages because they find (post kids) that the 'contract' they entered into is no longer the 'contract' they find themselves living! I hate to break it to you, but some women make terrible mothers! Such is the variety of human choice, of human experience, of human error.

  9. tmana,'As far as I can tell, Ross thinks a better society will arise out of traditional families and traditional gender roles, and that government should encourage both. I prefer Will's suggestion, but let's not pretend they're the same thing.'They aren't the same but they aren't in conflict. From one Mom and 20 – 40 hours in day care to Mom and Dad and 20 – 40 hours in day care sounds like an improvement for both Russ and Will. And I really don't think Russ would have an issue with a full time Mom in a two parent family taking 20 hours a week by placing the kid[s] in daycare.But I think Will is wrong. There is no big cultural split because there isn't a lot of opposition to middle class stay at home Mom's utilizing day care. It is the standard. It doesn't happen more because it is a luxury good.

  10. What Douthat is doing here, I think, is suggesting that we “stigmatize serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors” as the very gentlest possible way to suggest the value of traditional social norms to an audience of socially liberal New York Times readers who bristle at the idea of almost any stigmatization of a type of sexual activity. We social liberals, to be honest, can't even seriously entertain the kind of assumptions that lead to common conservative positions — that promiscuity should be discouraged (sometimes by the state), heterosexual marriage encouraged (sometimes by the state), and gay marriage never legalized. We're too deeply steeped in individualism; we want Uncle Sam out of the bedroom. So, before setting off all our red flags, Douthat asks gently, “But aren't there some people whose sexual activities harm society? What about those serial baby-daddies?” If it's hard to cast women and gays as villains, what about, for starters, promiscuous straight men?It's an interesting direction to go, and I'm surprised social conservatives haven't picked up on it earlier. Because once you divorce it from sexism and homophobia, the idea that there's a public interest in promoting certain kinds of private behavior becomes much more difficult to reject. And if you do reject it, you also have to throw out a lot of incentives for private behavior that liberals would like the government to enforce.

  11. Mom & dad both love their child beyond limits. There is compromise on their part. So there is no point that mothers ever ignore their kids for any reason.

  12. I really don't think this gap could ever be filled, some orthodox people really don't want to see females grow like males!

  13. What I wonder — and this may be where language plays an important part — is what would happen if the categories in the GSS question were changed. Very Happy, Pretty Happy, and Not Too Happy doesn't seem like a very fine instrument for detecting differences, except perhaps at the lower end — the 10-15% who are not too happy.

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