02 April 2013

Gender Preferences v. Economics in Marriage and Parenting

A Real Life Case In Point

The following is from the current online dating profile of a never married, childless woman in her late thirties who is a medical doctor who has completed her residency and is well established in her career describing what she wants in a prospective husband (emphasis mine):
You want kids/a family.  . . . I am not willing to compromise on having my own complete family one day. . . . You know how to save. You make a good living. Yes, I'm a physician, and this means I'm financially independent. . . . But I'd like to work part time once I have kids. I don't want to be the primary bread winner.*

I will represent to you that there is probably not a single male M.D. in the entire United States in his late thirties who would state in an online dating profile: "I'd like to work part time once I have kids.  I don't want to be the primary bread winner." But, this sentiment is very common among women who are medical doctors and among lawyers who have graduated from top law schools and secured jobs at large law firms (although it is rarely stated so frankly and publicly).

I am using this quote as a starting point of this discussion because it blew me away when I read it.

* I have tried to omit or paraphrase her more personally distinctive statements more blandly, and have quoted her as briefly as possible while maintaining the authenticity of the observation, in order to make it hard to identify her from this post.  I offer my apologies in advance to her for any inconvenience that this post may cause but feel that it is very hard to discuss this critical issue in our society without describing these issues in an uncontrovertibly authentic way that isn't just a made up hypothetical.

Gender Preferences v. Economics

Even if she is in a very low paying specialty, like pediatrics or some other primary care specialty or psychiatry, this woman is very likely in the 85th percentile or higher in income and has almost surely paid off her immense student loans by now.  If she is a medical specialist, she is probably in the top 2% to 3% of the population in income.

Professional women in the United States who are interested in marrying at all are usually willing to pay an immense economic price to be a mostly stay at home parent for their children on at least a part-time basis for an extended period of time. The economic cost of choosing the "mommy track" for this particular physician, if she can manage to realize her stated goals, is almost certainly in excess of a million dollars, and could easily exceed two million dollars.  Needless to say, she could secure a good stay at home father, or some quality nannies for a far lower economic cost, if she worked full time as most breadwinner fathers do.  It is not having children per se that is so expensive.  It is the intense desire not to work a full time job while raising them that is so costly.

This is a very high price to willingly pay consider that this woman is a self-professed liberal and not particularly religious and has used the economic and educational equality our society has to offer her to the fullest.  She is not some deeply traditional, profoundly conservative Orthodox Jew or Southern Baptist (although she does seem to have roots in the American South which may have influenced her views of "the good life").  She is not necessarily really ideologically committed to the marriage role she insists on putting herself in, but she is deeply ideologically committed to a mothering style that is not distant and a high standard of living for her family, which can only be achieved by placing herself in that kind of marriage role.

The idea of a woman marrying a man who will be a stay at home father once their children are weaned while she is the primary breadwinner is extremely unpopular among women, even women with very high powered careers. Yet, these women have no patience for a man who makes less money than they do who would be willing to be a secondary earner in the family. This profoundly limits the pool of men whom they consider acceptable husbands. 

A recent article by Megan Mcardle making the rounds of the blogosphere riffing on a terribly embarassing letter to the editor of the college newspaper from one unfortunate undergraduate's mother (Susan Patton), urging Princeton women to meet this aspiration by marrying someone they meet in college does a good job of capturing this sentiment and preference.

These successful, professional women may publicly disavow the notion that marriage involves any element of subordination on the part of the Wife, espouse liberalism, and expunge the word "obey" from their wedding vows, but their realized preferences reveal an intense desire to be economically subordinate to their husbands in marriage no matter how economically successful they may be themselves.  Several recent studies have demonstrated that this is not simply a stereotype but reflects how first world women act in real life.

As explained below, a woman who has gone as far as this woman to develop a successful career and has taken the usual course of dramatically narrowing the pool of acceptable husbands as she has by setting such a high economic bar for herself, is under extreme pressure to disregard any of the seven other criteria she may have for a prospective husband (only one or two of which are almost certain to be subsumed in the breadwinner qualification) if she can meet one who satisfies her economic criteria and wants to have kids immediately himself.

Suffice it to say that few men in the economic stratum who meet her qualifications are likely to also meet who desire to find a man who is laid back and not conservative.  I seriously doubt that such men exist, but a girl can dream.

The Biological Clock Issues: Fertility and Birth Defects

Given her age, as a physician, she knows full well that she must decide who to marry extremely soon and start trying to conceive a child the moment she is engaged, if not sooner, to have any realistic chance of having "my own complete family" without aggressive fertility treatments or adopting a child: "most doctors agree that by the time a woman is 40, her chances of getting pregnant each month are approximately 5 percent."  This is about 80% lower than at age twenty-three.

Miscarriage rates and other complications of pregnancy are also more common with advanced maternal age, so the odds that a conception will lead to a live birth is also lower, so this chart really overstates the odds.

Furthermore, the odds that a child born to a forty year old woman will have birth defects is immensely higher than for a younger woman. For example, "At age 25, a woman has about a 1-in-1,250 chance of having a baby with Down syndrome; at age 30, a 1-in-1,000 chance; at age 35, a 1-in-400 chance; at age 40, a 1-in-100 chance; and at 45, a 1-in-30 chance." 

The risk of birth defects is also likely to be compounded by the fact that a man far enough along in his career to be a primary breadwinner for her is likely to be middle aged and carry the mutational risks associated with "advanced paternal age" himself, although this risks, while statistically significant, aren't necessarily as dramatic according to a 2007 study of the issue.

Neither of these statistics, moreover, capture more subtle mutational issues like elevated risks of some kind of autism spectrum condition or ADHD or psychosis that may not manifest until years after a child is born.

These are particular concerns in light of the fact that many people consider a "complete family" one with at least two children and not just one. So, it may be several years from the time a partner is selected until a second child is born, which for a woman in her late thirties starting basically from scratch in looking for a husband could easily mean her mid-40s.

And your point is?

It is not my intention to mock a woman for wanting it all, a desire most women in her position share.  Indeed, she's succeeded in attaining goals that most men and women would find almost impossible to accomplish.  I'm skeptical that she will find what she says that she wants, but I can't seriously fault her for trying.  Indeed, a new study out of Vanderbilt of elite college graduates show that the trend is even more intense among these women.

Penelope Trunk lays out the realities of the situation much more harshly than I ever would, but fairly accurately nonetheless, despite her slippery but not really misleading use of statistics:
Pew Research finds that about 60% of all working women with kids want to work part-time and be home with their kids part-time. (Note that Macleans magazine reports that women with kids who work part-time are the happiest in the world.) Gallup reports that about 40% of women don’t want to work at all. (Note that this leaves a statistically irrelevant number of women who have kids and want to work full-time.)
My point is to illustrate, dramatically, that the gender-blind approach to feminism simply does not cut it as an accurate description of the wants and needs of 21st century men and women in real life.  Our world was designed with that gender-blind ideology in mind, but this approach is deeply broken.

A lot of women, however, are deeply in denial about the fact that they don't want to play a pants role in life until their biological clocks are beating them silly.  Ms. Trunk explains this issue as she outlines the breadwinner and non-breadwinner options and then presents her option three, which is denial:
Most people just will not like these choices. Nothing here is good. It’s reality, and of course it’s not as good as fantasy. The only good, real thing is that you have choices, and you can figure out who you are and what you need and you can get what you need. The only thing worse than the choices I’ve just laid out is not making a choice.
We, as a society, have simply not found a way to come to terms with balancing an ideological (and legal) commitment to uphold the ideal of gender-blind feminism in education and the workplace, and an intense desire of women, even if they have high powered careers, to have children and to work only part-time while raising them.

Solving this problem as a society is one of the fundamental challenges we are facing in what I call the Great Adjustment.  I'm not ready at this point to prejudge what that solution will look like in the end.

Full Disclosure and Personal Reflections

This issue is near and dear to my heart.

I was engaged to be married when I was twenty-one years old and my wife to be was twenty.  The ceremony was two years later with a church wedding and a country club reception, but we had already moved in together and merged our finances and made real sacrifices for each other's futures at that point. 

A marriage relationship includes as one of its fundamentals a willingness to make sacrifices for each other.  In hindsight, though, the hardest question in my mind may be not whether we could have made it as a couple, but whether we should have made the right choices in terms of career and educational choices for each other relative to those we would have made if we had not been a couple.  While all of our choices would have involved sacrifices of some kind or another for the sake of the relationship, we may have made the wrong ones.  We tried to be fair and balanced.  But, in hindsight, we might have both been better off economically if I had been more selfish back then and deferred less to my wife's educational and career aspirations as I built my own career.  I was certainly younger and was probably more foolish back then, but my naivity about careers as a lawyer in the context of being married may have been greater than my naivity about marriage itself and our prospects as a couple.

When we got engaged, I had just graduated from college, where we met, in three years and had just started law school.  At the time she was going into her senior year in college.  We had been each other's Valentines as "just friends" three times before we actually were in a romantic relationship, were part of the same circle of friends for almost all of that time, and we were engaged less than a year after that romantic relationship had been established.  We did what so many people seem to be recommending now.

We waited many years to have children until we had both earned our graduate degrees, I was employed as an attorney at a well established small  town law firm, and she had taken a brief shot at working at a full time job.  But, we didn't have to look for romantic partners for each other when the time came to have children.  We had already had plenty of time to enjoy marital bliss (and marital discord at times) and established ourselves by that point. 

We have two extremely smart, popular, and considerate children who are now in middle school, both of whom were both born when my wife was in her late twenties - the socially optimal time to have kids if you were middle class in America at the time.  My wife stayed at home full time before they were both in elementary school and had full time employment only briefly and intermittently while they were in elementary school. 

My wife has recently been building a new career for herself.  She is doing something now that she would probably never have seriously considered right out of graduate school that doesn't even formally require a college degree, although she loves doing it, and had hated an important part of the work that her graduate education had prepared her to do.  This is a circumstance she shares with my brother's wife, who also retooled her career after graduating from college, sending her in an entirely different direction doing something she loved that didn't actually require a college degree, instead of something she hadn't enjoyed at all that used the training she received in college.  Who knew that college educations could divert you from doing what you love and should be doing as a career in life?  Nobody ever told us that.

Last summer my wife and I had our eighteenth anniversary.  We probably won't have a nineteenth anniversary.  We have been separated on and off since not long before our eighteenth anniversary.  It happened on the same day as a matter of fact as our Governor and his wife, who have been married less long and married at a more advanced age, announced their separation.  We are currently in the process of getting divorced, after having tried marriage counseling and attempting a reconciliation for a couple of months.  They hows and whys of the breakup are private matters.  The divorce decree will probably be entered about twenty-one years after we got engaged.

Could we have been too quick to marry or to young to know what we were doing?  Perhaps.  But, our marriage survived a lot of the early in marriage hurdles that many marriages do not.  If we had been merely cohabiting when our children were born there is a very good chance that they would not have enjoyed nearly as many years growning up in a household where both of their parents were present.  I don't look back on our decision and regret having made it.  We didn't end up having an "until death do you part" marriage, or even an "until all of our children are adults" marriage, but I don't think that our marriage was doomed at the time, even in hindsight.  It was probably slightly more likely than not, ex ante, that our marriage would have lasted.

We may not have been a perfectly compatible couple (obviously), but, we lasted much longer as a couple than the vast majority of couples who ultimately end up divorced do.  The average length of a marriage ending in divorce is about seven years and, more or less, the likelihood that you will ever divorce declines with each subsequent year of marriage.  Indeed, considering the fact that about half of all marriages ultimately end in divorce, we are very nearly the median American married couple, with a marriage the ends in a divorce but only after a quite long marriage for one that ends in a divorce.  We are the marginal married couple at the cutting edge where different policies on marriage and divorce and different economic pressures and different psychological factors all could have made a difference.  Perhaps.

In my blogging on the subject, I try to be factual and as objective as I can be when looking for answers not just for (or even primarily for) myself.  My life has turned out the way it has but what matters is whether we can collectively improve this institution in our society.  Well, my life and the lives of my wife and children matter too, but that's not the main reason why I blog about these things.  I blog to save the world.

So, there you have it.  My cards and "come from" are on the table.

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