The Book Club

Shift Workers in the Kid Factory

Dear Jon:

It’s helpful to know something about your background because so much of the debate over family is really a debate about our own family lives and arrangements. So let me respond in kind before I get onto the Deutsch book.

I’ve pretty much abandoned political labels when it comes to the public debate on the family, but this wasn’t always the case. Before I raised kids, I called myself a feminist liberal. Now I call myself a pro-child liberal. What accounts for the difference? The real-life experience of raising three kids, now grown. So here’s my story: I have always worked outside the home, and my husband and I believe in sharing tasks at home. We’ve tried different arrangements for sharing breadwinning and child-rearing. I have worked full-time while he stayed home with two babies and with plans to write a book. (The babies did well but the book didn’t get written.) In the seventies, we chipped in with two other couples with kids to buy a run-down three-flat building in Chicago. Each family had its own apartment, but all three families shared meals, child-care, and the work of keeping the cockroaches in check. Later, when my husband worked nights at a newspaper and I was in graduate school, we had a tag-team childcare arrangement. And we’ve used a variety of daycare arrangements along the way. (The one exception: We’ve never had a nanny.)

My experience runs counter to Deutsch’s main argument in two respects. First, equal sharing grows out of trial and error rather than rigid ideological principles. And sometimes “equal sharing” is not fifty-fifty at all times; it fluctuates according to the age of the kids, work opportunities and downturns, and individual choices or preferences. Second, mothers and fathers can be equal, but equality does not mean they must behave identically.

Deutsch’s own evidence supports much of this. The couples who seem to be most satisfied in the division of responsibilities for paid work and child-care are the couples who seem the least ideological. They tend to be younger, less educated, and less careerist. Compared with the upscale and ideologically uptight professional couples, these equally sharing working-class couples tend to spend more time with their children. However, they are more gendered in their parental roles. The women work but see themselves as the primary parent. The men do a lot of traditional women’s work at home but see themselves as the primary breadwinner. But these gendered identities don’t seem to get in the way of sharing work and home responsibilities; in fact, they seem to make sharing more matter-of-fact. On the other hand, at least a few of the feminist fathers talk the talk better than the working-class fathers but don’t walk the walk nearly as well. Thus, the crucial distinction is not between gendered and ungendered but between career-primary and child-primary parents.

Consider Mary, a secretary, and Paul, a fire inspector. They live in a small 1960s ranch house with their five children. Their house is full of life and noise; kids’ pictures hang all over and games fill the table and floors. The kids’ activities are the main focus of Paul and Mary’s life and attention. Deutsch, who says she often feels sorry for people with big families, nevertheless notes that a conspicuous sense of enjoyment pervades the way Mary and Paul talk about being parents. She writes: “It might sound a bit corny, but love sustains this family through all the challenges including how to divide the work at home.”

By contrast, the career-primary parents sound as if they regard their children as nothing more than a source of housework. True, caring for children takes time, money and years of effort. But, in Deutsch’s account, these couples go beyond such an acknowledgment. They see children as vomit and poop machines that have to be tended by shift workers. Her career-primary parents don’t seem to like kids that much: They describe their own infants as scary, dirty-bottomed, demanding presences. Too, these couples tend to talk about children in the language of the workplace. They talk about communication conflicts, negotiations, and “rolling needs.”

Earlier in our history, children were regarded as economic assets and later as emotional assets. For Deutsch, they are neither. They’ve been reduced to work–thus, the contemporary emphasis on parenting as the performance of a set of discrete and finite tasks to be divvied up rather than on parenthood as a permanent status, or, more to the point, a vocation. In the book we will discuss next, Mary Ann Mason goes even farther. She says children have become property.

Back to you,