Wants or Preferences?
Beginning in the 1960s, women’s capacity to exercise choice in regard to family size was dramatically advanced by opportunities to control procreation through modern contraception, legalized abortion, and assisted reproductive technology. At the same time their options regarding labor-force participation increased. These developments created new alternatives for women in the realms of work and family life, which led to changes in family size and patterns of employment. Women now have fewer children and work outside the home more than in the past. This realignment of family-work lifestyles raises a question: Does the current distribution among traditional, neotraditional, modern, and postmodern arrangements accurately reflect women’s genuine lifestyle preferences? Social scientists offer at least three cautious answers to this question— “no, not exactly,” “yes, pretty much,” and “too soon to tell.” Reflecting the negative assessment, Hewlett notes that for the most part the high-achieving women she studied did not choose to be childless and, indeed, yearned for children.12 This observation is common. Various surveys have shown that many women who are childless would have preferred otherwise. According to Gallup polls conducted in 1990 and 2003, for example, 62 to 70 percent of the respondents over age forty who did not have children indicated that they would prefer to have at least one child (and more than half of them said two children) if they had it to do over again.13 The U. S. Census Bureau reported that between 1976 and 1992 women’s average birth expectations remained fairly constant at 2.1 children. Among women ages eighteen to thirty-four in 1992 only 9 percent expected to have no births in their lifetime, yet the rate of childlessness among women over forty years of age in 2002 was almost double that amount.14 According to Sharon Hays, when asked “how you would feel if you never had children,” many of the mothers in her study expressed despondency. “Nearly one-quarter of the women I talked to actually cried when I asked them this question,” Hays reported. “And the answers of nearly all mothers—‘lonely,’ ‘empty,’ ‘missing something’—were stunningly consistent.”15
As for women’s inclinations toward mixing paid work and family life, public opinion polls show that significant percentages of women would prefer not to work at all outside the home or not to engage in full-time employment. In response to a nationwide Gallup survey in 1980, for example, 55 percent of the women who wanted to be married and have children did not wish to have a full-time job or career outside the home.16 The Virginia Slims surveys conducted between 1974 and 1989 convey wavering inclinations toward paid employment and family life. Asked what they would prefer if free to choose, 36 percent of the women in 1974 said they would rather have jobs than stay at home and care for the family; the proportion favoring this choice increased to 52 percent in 1985 but then declined to 42 percent in 1989.17 According to the 1997 Survey of American Families, 49 percent of women respondents agreed with the statement “When children are young mothers should not work outside the home.”18 This view is supported by women’s responses to many surveys in the 1990s.19
Numerous polls show women articulating ideals and favoring choices about family size, child care, and work that do not exactly coincide with the outcomes expressed in their behavior regarding these matters. But should we take these results to mean that the 2002 distributions of family size and home care do not reflect what women really want? Before answering we should recall an old saw in survey research: “Tell me the answer you like and I’ll write the question.” When faced with life’s many choices, the desire to have children and care for them at home may be real and strong, but at a given moment it may not be quite as strong as other desires. One might want to have three children, a large house, a high-status career, and a small yacht to sail around on when not working, minding the kids, or taking care of the house. But if it is not possible to obtain all of these worldly delights simultaneously, which come first?
In most of the surveys examined here, wants are not disciplined by preferences. Preferences are wants ordered according to how much they are favored at the time choices have to be made. Do you want a yacht? Yes, indeed, very much. What about a large house? Yes. If you had enough money to purchase only one, which would it be? And would you put off both purchases, along with the high-paying career necessary to pay for them, until after you’ve had and raised the three children you want? And so it goes. Although surveys have consistently shown the average ideal family size to be around 2.5 children, many women in their twenties and thirties faced with the real – life choice between working and raising two or more children may want the latter but have increasingly expressed a preference for work.
Surveys about what women want in the way of work and family do not address the ultimate question of how satisfied they are with the choices they finally make. On this score, an analysis of nationally representative data from the General Social Survey during the period from 1994 to 2004 reveals that 62 percent of married, stay-at-home mothers age forty-five and under reported being “very happy” in their marriages compared to 53 percent for those mothers in the same age category who were employed full-time. By contrast, more than 74 percent of childless wives age forty-five and under reported being “very happy” in their marriages, whether they stayed at home or were employed outside. But the most important determinant of marital happiness had less to do with women’s labor- force participation than with the emotional engagement of their husbands.20
Self-reports of marital happiness, of course, are subject to the same caveats that apply to social surveys reporting on what women want. Reported levels of happiness in marital life do not exactly square with the modern probability of divorce. Taking a somewhat jaundiced view of the enterprise, Laura
Kipnis suggests that in light of the current divorce rate, “all indications are that whomever you love today—the center of your universe, your little Poopsie—has a good chance of becoming your worst nightmare at least 50 percent of the time.” She goes on to note that the percentage includes only those who actually leave unhappy unions and does not factor in the happiness (or unhappiness) level of all those who remain married.21
Those who argue that women have gotten pretty much what they most want would claim that survey responses ultimately amount to a lot of talk about the things women might want. When it comes to action, however, the choices women make effectively express their genuine preferences regarding family and work, and these preferences vary. Thus, modern women supposedly have taken full measure of the physical, psychological, and spiritual joys of motherhood and decided that one child is enough. For them the added love and emotional satisfaction of a second and third child—the marginal utility, as it were—are judged insufficient to warrant the costs. Traditional and neotraditional women express different predispositions, which favor having families of two and three or more children.
As for women who are childless, Catherine Hakim cites a burgeoning literature that shows them to be sexually active, often married, and disproportionately well educated; childlessness can no longer be explained as a misfortune imposed by social isolation, poverty, or illness. The literature suggests that there are two groups who choose not to have children: “those who reject the advantages of children—who usually decide early—and those who are not prepared to lose the advantages of a childfree lifestyle—who usually decide late.” Hakim concludes, “Voluntary childlessness also refutes the idea that all women have a natural or instinctive desire for motherhood.”22 From this perspective motherhood is less of a biological imperative than a preferred lifestyle choice.
Postmodern women, for whom the optimal lifestyle involves no children, see themselves as childfree rather than childless. They extoll the virtues of a life unencumbered by diapers, running noses, incessant chatter, and endless anxiety. Those who enjoy the pleasures of a childfree lifestyle usually agree with the ironic “musings of a good father on a bad day” published in one of Ann Landers’s columns, particularly the last few lines: “The childless couple live in a vacuum. They fill their lonely days with golf, vacation trips, dinner dates, civic affairs, tranquility, leisure and entertainment. There is a terrifying emptiness without children, but the childless couple are too comfortable to know it. You just have to look at them to see what the years have done: He looks boyish, unlined and rested; she’s slim, well-groomed and youthful. It isn’t natural. If they had had kids, they’d look like the rest of us—worn out, wrinkled and exhausted.”23
Since the early 1990s, as some organizations have tried to become more “family friendly,” concern has been expressed that flextime policies and other workplace accommodations for working mothers discriminate against childfree women, who are often tapped to stay late when a deadline must be met and to take up the slack when working parents have a family emergency or just need to leave early to pick up their children. One complaint is that family-friendly benefits, based solely on procreation, often serve the interests of working mothers in the middle and professional classes. Eligibility for these benefits is established according to lifestyle choices rather than financial need or unavoidable hardships.24 Advocates for child – free women see them as victims not of infertility but of other women who have chosen to procreate. This view challenges the notion that women’s interests are dominated by the common struggle to surmount biological determinism, patriarchal socialization, financial dependence on men, and workplace discrimination. In many ways women who are childfree have fundamentally different needs and interests than working mothers.
Following in this vein, Hakim’s “preference theory” maintains that women do not form an essentially homogenous group in which everyone seeks to combine work and family life. Preference theory posits that there is an unyielding tension between a life centered on family—meeting the continuous demands of marriage, childrearing, and household management—and a life centered on paid employment and meeting the continuous demands of a full-time career (while attending to household necessities). In responding to this tension, Hakim argues, women have distinct predispositions that bear on how much their personal identity and sense of achievement derives from paid work in the market and how much from investments in family life. It is not clear, however, how these predispositions are formed or the extent to which they are amenable to change. Unable to find any systematic relations between women’s lifestyle choices and individual characteristics such as ability and education, Hakim concludes that “there is no single factor that determines or explains why women differ so significantly in their preferences.”25
Thus, on the one hand, a reading of public opinion polls and various case studies reveals a serious challenge to the notion that over the past three decades the changing distribution among traditional, neotraditional, modern, and postmodern lifestyles accurately reflects what women really want (although a critical reading of these sources casts some doubts on their implications). On the other hand, preference theory tells us that because women in advanced industrialized democracies such as the United States have greater freedom than ever before to decide how much time and effort to devote to paid employment and childrearing activities, the lifestyles they have chosen are pretty much what they prefer. (One might demur, however, that preference theory does not so much explain behavior as describe it and then attribute what has been found to innate preferences, which are malleable to varying degrees.)