Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yale Grads Seeking Stay-At-Home Mom Status

A recent New York Times article is causing a bit of an uproar, at least with Kieran Healy. (Hat tip: Orin Kerr.) The article looks at women at Yale who are planning on dropping out of the workforce after 10 years or so to raise their kids, or at least drop out for a few years until their children are in school. Now, discounting some sampling problems and suspect questions, the survey results are nothing new. I remember reading stories over the past few years with anecdotal evidence that this was happening among those who have already completed education at elite schools. Kiernan seems to think that some sort of social bias against women is the reason women are making these choices and takes great offense that some women at lower economic scales don't get to make these same choices.

Now, of course, low-income families do not have the same options about working or not working. Often, two incomes are needed to support a family, whether one parent wants to stay home or not. What, I think, Kiernan misses is that this isn't always about the wife staying home. I for one like the idea of being able to spend lots of time at home with my kids (if and when I have them). I think there are likely a ton of men out there who would like to stay at home. At my previous job, one of our economists had been a stay at home dad for some time before starting there. He said he was amazed at the number of dads in the park during the middle of the day. Clearly, society presses men into work roles they may not truly desire in the same way it presses women into home roles. The big difference is, it has become a lot more socially acceptable for women to stay in the workforce than it has for men to drop out. I think, by far, men have far fewer options for staying at home than women do for working. I think this is an important point that Kiernan seems to dismiss altogether.

Beyond that, there is some debate about the role of child care when both parents work outside of the home. I think my girlfriend and I provide a perfect case study for that. My mom stayed at home until I was in high school. Her mom went back to work only a couple of months (or so) after she was born. She spent her childhood going to day care centers and after school programs. I spent mine with fellow school kids in my early years that my mom cared for after school. By the time I hit second grade, I just spent them with my mom (she wasn't watching other kids anymore). My mom volunteered frequently at my elementary school and even served as PTA president and on the district PTA council when I was older. Both are equally valid and responsible choices for our moms to make.

No, this wasn't because my family was wealthy--far from it. We always had food on the table, but neither of my parents finished college. My dad received his GED after he married my mom, having dropped out of school to work to support his brothers in sisters in 8th grade. He worked as a supervisor at an auto repair shop until he was disabled by a heart condition when I was in 6th grade.

We both ended up at a top-15 national university (where we met) and she went to graduate school at an Ivy League institution and is working on a second masters degree. I am currently at Mason in law school. I've run my own business in the past and now work as the top communications person at a think tank (having had the same job at a previous one). She now works for an executive agency in the federal government. We've both been highly successful so far. Clearly, the different choices our mother's made did not put us on greatly divergent life paths. What was far more important is what our mothers (and, indeed, our fathers) shared. We were both provided with ample love. We were both expected to do our best (and sometimes more). We were encouraged to work hard to get ahead. A value was placed on our academic success. Our parents were involved; they made sure we did our homework, etc.

In the end, kids can flourish from either a stay-at-home parent or one who works. It's the time and effort put into setting standards that help determine success.