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.