Psychic Income of Motherhood
To the extent that women’s decisions about developing and investing their human capital are influenced by rational calculations of costs and benefits that seek, as economists put it, to maximize “utility”—sometimes referred to as happiness or selfinterest—why would they ever choose to have children? A ridiculous question, some would say. But consider for a moment that, as Schumpeter pointed out, children are no longer an economic asset. On the contrary, today raising a child through age seventeen costs a two-parent, middle-income family an average of $153,600—and the costs rarely stop there.55 Parents whose children graduated from high school in 2006 are looking at an annual cost of $12,875 for tuition, fees, room, and board at a four-year public college ($30,816 at a private college), and those with infants can expect to pay $35,600 a year for a public university ($85,200 a year for private school) by the time their kids are ready for college.56 Not only are children costly to raise, they are noisy in the process, cumbersome to transport, and magnets for germs. In addition, concern for a child’s well-being makes its parents lifetime hostages to fate. In the critical cost-accounting of utilitarian values, the concrete sacrifices of parenthood weigh heavily against the transcendental joys, which are difficult to gauge, especially in comparison to, say, a carefree vacation spent skiing at Squaw Valley or relaxing on the beaches of Santa Monica. The mental attitude formed by this accounting reminds me of a woman I once saw driving a shiny red Mercedes sports car with a license-plate frame that read, “She who dies with the most toys wins.” The Mercedes was stopped at a light next to a mother and two children in a Ford SUV with a prominent sticker that read, “Proud Parent of Two Wagner Ranch School Honor Students.” Bumper stickers have become a sign not only of one’s politics but of the way people score life.
Some even argue that children detract from intimate relationships between adults. According to Daniel Cere, a prominent strand of contemporary scholarship on courtship focuses on “close-relationship theory,” which “draws attention to the vexing impact of children on adult close relationships.”57 Reviewing a body of courtship literature in which children are either ignored or are portrayed as stressful hazards to marriage, Cere cites an influential book that devotes two chapters to examining the obstacles to satisfactory relationships. The first chapter surveys a variety of problems, such as drug abuse and alcohol, that might undermine relationships; the second chapter is dedicated entirely to children.
Despite the risks and costs of childbearing, many would argue that most, if not all, women really want to have children because that’s what they are made to do. Childbearing as a biological imperative conveniently avoids the cost-benefit issue by invoking the authority of Charles Darwin himself. Once it has been established that humans are programmed to propagate their genes (otherwise, we would not be here), then the rational approach to family choices helps explain the different investments parents might make in raising their children after they have arrived.
Although the biological imperative may have impelled procreation among the earliest members of our species, the biological imperative seems less vital today. As an explanation of women’s behavior, it hardly accounts for the dramatic rise in the proportion of childlessness over the past few decades. The biological imperative, of course, may vary in degree, with some women feeling an overwhelming urge to procreate (the traditional mothers), some having relatively little interest in the process (those in the postmodern group), and many others somewhere in between (spanning the neotraditional and modern categories). The choices of those in-between women would be most sensitive to prevailing perceptions of the costs and benefits associated with childrearing, which bring us back to the question of how the decision to have children is framed within the rational-choice perspective.
Childrearing, as we normally understand it, essentially involves altruistic behavior. Taking a leaf from the pages of Adam Smith, Becker notes that while selfishness is assumed to prevail in market transactions, altruism dominates in family behavior. It is a matter not of biological imperative but of costs and benefits. Parents readily sacrifice for their children, depleting economic resources that might otherwise be put to their own material pleasures, because the well-being of their children increases the parents’ stock of happiness. According to Becker it is naive to assume that altruists do not benefit from the transactions that seem to yield only monetary sacrifices. In reality, he explains, “altruists receive psychic income in place of money income."58 Empirically, this proposition is difficult to disprove. When people weigh the costs and benefits of an action and then choose to behave in ways that lead to a measurable gain in, say, leisure time or money, they have exercised rational choice to maximize utility. If they choose to behave in ways that involve sacrifice and loss of measurable benefits, it can still be claimed that they are exercising rational choice but weighing the benefits on a scale of emotional returns, which are not as easy to calibrate as time or money. In a sense, psychic income is a deus ex machina that resolves the potential conflict between the rational-choice model and altruistic family behavior, which might otherwise appear irrational from a cost-benefit perspective.
This is not to say that psychic income, or the intangible personal and emotional benefits that it represents, is imaginary. People frequently engage in calculated behavior that they know will incur measurable costs and tangible sacrifices, and in the end they still feel that they have gained in the bargain. When Jerry Brown was governor of California in the late 1970s, he once advised the University of California professoriate not to complain about their salaries, since the accounting did not include all the psychic rewards they derived from their positions. Publicly most faculty complained that they could not pay the mortgage or dine at Chez Panisse with psychic income. Privately, some faculty probably agreed that the governor had a point—which might explain the behavior of those senior professors who qualify for retirement pensions equal to virtually 100 percent of their salaries, yet continue to remain at their posts.
Undoubtedly, one of the important reasons women have children is the psychic income it is expected to yield. In this regard Schumpeter was correct, if somewhat inarticulate, when he noted that a vital benefit of motherhood was its “contribution to physical and moral health—to normality as we might express it.” He might also have included the contribution of motherhood to the fulfillment of emotional life. Children beget one of the few transcendental experiences in life outside of drugs and religion, both of which have their own costs— and, perhaps, music, which ends when the curtain falls. Jewish people have a word for the psychic income of motherhood— nachous, the joy parents get from their children. The traditional congratulatory mantra of Jewish grandmothers—“They should only bring you nachous”—conveys a heartfelt wish for the essential reward of motherhood, which is hoped for but not certain.
Unlike hard currency, psychic income is elusive; we never know which individuals will enjoy it, what source it will come from, and what its worth is on the market. Children as a source of psychic income for motherhood pose a unique
case in that they embody two characteristics—uncertainty and permanence—which combine to form an exceptional risk. The uncertainty about how much joy and emotional satisfaction a child will bring resides, on one hand, in the unknown traits of the newborn and, on the other, in the yet-to – be-established response of the mother. After all of the modern prenatal medical tests are conducted, one of the greatest unspoken fears of mothers-to-be is that their child may be born with severe handicaps or may develop disabilities as they mature, which would raise the intensity of altruism to a level the mothers did not bargain for. That may be an extreme example, but there are all sorts of traits—levels of activity, physical appearance, sex, and personality—that might elicit more or less emotional satisfaction. And while mothers naturally love their children, the depth of their responses—even to perfectly healthy children—varies and cannot be fathomed ahead of time. Some mothers enjoy being around small children and interacting with them more than others. Some mothers who love their children dearly have a difficult time enjoying more than short periods of time with them. There are employed mothers who are soon anxious to return to their jobs and place their children in day care, and others who dread leaving their toddlers. On the subject of childrearing, Calvin Trillin explains that he and his wife, Alice, “agreed on a simple notion: your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.”59
The level of uncertainty about the psychic income (we might call it joy or emotional satisfaction) to be gained from children is probably greater than with other sources of psychic income, such as employment in highly gratifying work. But even if the uncertainty were the same from all sources, the gamble associated with the benefits of children is compounded
by the fact that children are permanent. In comparison to other sources of joy, the benefit derived from children cannot be entirely imagined until it is acquired, and by then there is no refund available. No other altruistic activity is quite as irreversible—priests can leave the church, social workers can decide to sell real estate, even Mother Teresa could have left the slums of Calcutta if she was so inclined. The probability of divorce in modern times lends an added dimension of uncer – tainty—not about consuming the benefits of children but about sharing the long-term costs.
Having children is a gamble in which the mother’s stakes on happiness are high and the risks are evident, but both are difficult to calculate with precision. Who can imagine the long-term pleasures and pains that await, from the ceaseless midnight demands of the early years to the warm routines of the three-to-eleven golden years to the separation struggles of the pestering teenage years to the welcome respite from teenage menace during the empty-nest years, which are interrupted by the intrusiveness of the roommate years when the grown children return home for an indeterminate period? Parenthood is a bewildering journey full of surprises—some more agreeable than others.
According to pathbreaking research by Noble prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky on what they called “prospect theory,” people have psychological tendencies that distort efforts to make rational choices under conditions of uncertainty.60 One such tendency, identified as the “certainty effect,” is commonly expressed when we are faced with a choice between a course of action that will lead to a guaranteed gain and an alternative course that will lead to a larger gain that is only probable but that on average will yield the better return. Although people are likely to be more highly rewarded by selecting the probable outcome, most are firmly inclined to take the guaranteed benefit. Consider, for example, the choice between being given $400 or taking a chance on $700 by playing a game of roulette that is set up to let you win eight out of ten times. Preferring the certainty of the smaller gain, most people will take the cash and run. We tend to be averse to risk, at least when the probability of gain is high.61 When we hear that the proverbial bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, we rarely question under what percentage of the bushes we will find the two birds.
How well the certainty effect applies to decision making in the broader context of lifestyle choices, where nothing is really certain, remains an open question. Laboratory findings that people tend to underweight the value of outcomes that are probable in favor of those that are guaranteed are at best suggestive when it comes to decision making about motherhood. What they suggest is that when weighing the probable gains in psychic income from motherhood against the human capital that they will almost definitely accrue by staying in school for a few more years or against the paycheck that assuredly will arrive each week by going to work, young women will tend to choose the more certain outcome (even when the utility of motherhood would be higher than the other options).
Women’s decisions to have children, however, are rarely a choice of now or never (at least not until the terminus of their childbearing years). For most women it is usually a choice of now or later. Therefore, to the extent that the certainty effect applies in this context, it would tend to encourage the postponement of childbearing. But the more time spent accruing education and work experience, the higher the costs of childbearing in terms of foregone wages. Moreover, if a woman waits until she is in her thirties to have her first child, it may not be possible to have a second.62 At the intersection between capitalism and motherhood, as noted in Chapter 1, there is a trade-off over time between the rising value of human capital, which increases the capacity for production in the market, and the declining efficacy of biological capital, which reduces the odds for reproduction in the family.
But something is missing from this assessment of human behavior. Do women really sit down with a pen and list all the costs and benefits of childbearing, assign probabilities, verify certainties, and then calculate the opportunity costs in comparison to alternative choices regarding work, education, or taking a year off to be a ski bum in Aspen? And if they did that, how would they attribute precise values to the immediate costs, benefits, and probabilities that come to bear on this irreversible lifestyle decision? The answer, I think, is that surely certain highly specific calculations are made: Can we afford to pay the current rent? Will we need to move to a larger house? But, more generally, some vague reckoning is taken in which the values attributed to far-reaching lifestyle costs and benefits of childbearing are informed by normative expectations about what awaits one on the paths to motherhood, education, employment, and professional life.
Although economic considerations bear on choices about motherhood and commitments to work and family life, these personal decisions involve more than a rational processing of empirical information about costs and benefits. In advancing a socioeconomic view of human behavior that incorporates the nonrational aspects of decision making, Amitai Etzioni argues “that the majority of choices involve little information processing or none at all, but that they draw largely or exclusively on affective involvements and normative commitments."63
Consider the choices facing Michelle and Becky. Michelle,
a stay-at-home mother, is feeling bored and unchallenged. She is thinking about returning to full-time employment. She expects that her family’s income would increase, as would her skills and knowledge (what economists consider human capital). She could not tell us, though, exactly how much the family income would increase after discounting taxes, work expenses, child-care costs, and the economic value of her reduced household labor (and adding the value of the anticipated increase in her husband’s household labor). She hopes her husband would be pleased with the decision and willing to cook meals several nights a week—but she is not sure. His job dealing with psychiatric patients takes its toll; he seems to rely on her steady emotional support and enjoys having her make coffee for him each morning. At the same time she recognizes that this decision would seriously reduce her daily relationships with all the other young mothers with whom she has been volunteering in her child’s classroom, organizing swim meets, visiting at the playground and at their monthly book club meeting, and discussing the advantages of being able to supervise and socialize their children, while silently confirming the disservice of mothers whose children are raised five days a week by day-care workers—the very group Michelle would be joining.
Becky, a working mother, is feeling tense and pressed for time. She sees her kids growing up before her eyes, with little daily input from their mother. Her husband complains that she no longer makes his coffee in the morning and the house is a mess. She is thinking about returning home full-time. Becky knows that her family’s income would decline—though, like Michelle, she could not say by exactly how much. At the same time she recognizes that her professional relationships (sometimes considered social capital) will decline as she loses touch with her friends and colleagues at the office, with whom she has been attending meetings, going to out-of-town conferences, trading advice on social and legal issues, and socializing at office parties. And she expects to miss the lively lunches at the local cafe during which her female colleagues debate the intellectual issues that animate everyday life in their firm, while silently confirming the utter, mind-numbing boredom of daily life for women at home (whom Becky would be joining) who spend their time cooking, cleaning, and changing diapers.
Michelle and Becky are facing hard decisions. The choices they contemplate violate their peer group’s expectations and defy their hierarchy of values. But what if Michelle’s decision was being made in 1965, shortly after her book club read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex? And what if Becky’s decision was being made sometime in the future, say 2013, when the opt-out revolution is in full swing?
In both cases economic considerations come to bear as well as affective involvements and changing social norms and values. Seen strictly from an economic perspective, notions of human behavior based on utility and rationality lead us to conclude that the benefits of motherhood are consistently undervalued by the prevalent sensibilities and habits of mind attuned to the opportunities in modern capitalist societies, and that this happens for two main reasons. First, the deep – seated emotional pleasures and transcendental rapture of childrearing are not as tangible on the cost-accounting ledger as the material comforts and alluring amenities of a childfree lifestyle. Second, the indeterminate psychic income, those joys and emotional satisfactions, of motherhood is discounted by psychological preference for the certainty of alternative outcomes.
The economic perspective is useful in that it opens a partial window to the dynamics that influence women’s lifestyle decisions; however, the view from this window excludes important social considerations that weigh on decisions about motherhood and family life. For a fuller picture, we must examine the values and expectations that have been most widely conveyed by those who speak publicly for women’s place in modern society.