Friday, September 11, 2009

The last post on the economics of breastfeeding for a while

So, I'm sitting at Chicago O'Hare for another post.  In another five hours (wait time, flight time, driving time in Baltimore), I'll be home.  Since leaving the Grange Hotel at 5:40 this morning and waiting at the train station for the 5:59 AM train and then the flight across the Atlantic, I've read half of a book that a fellow conference attendee passed along to me.  The book is entitled "The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business".  The author is Gabrielle Palmer who gave the one keynote at the conference that I missed.

I have noticed how closely the politics and economics of issues around breastfeeding go together--at least in Ms. Palmer's interpretation. The close link really does not surprise me given the discussion that she and I had after my presentation and throughout the last day of the conference.

Anyone who likes to think about how our nutrition production system arrived at its current state might find this book an interesting read. It is compared (in its publicity) to fast food nation.

I could share many quotes from the book. However, I'll limit myself to one. This is related to the comments the past few days about whether breast milk value belongs as part of the GDP and to a very personal issue--what is the time of a stay at home parent worth? Ms. Palmer had been talking about a trend toward women's place being in the home but not being part of production in the home (e.g. a self-employed seamstress) as much of production moved to factories during the Industrial Revolution. Talking about the census in England, "In spite of the lip service paid to domestic duties, in 1881 the Census excluded women's household chores from the category of productive work and, for the first time, housewives were classified as unoccupied." [I added the emphasis.] The key here is that there was a time when what mothers did at home was considered productive. They may not have put it in whatever they called the GDP calculation back then. They may not have valued breast milk, per se. But they at least acknowledged that mothers at home are doing a job. A very important job, no less. If it was still that way, when people ask me if my wife works, I wouldn't have to say "Well she works, just not outside the home."

Over the past several years, there have been numerous calculations of how much money it would take to purchase a stay at home parent's (usually mom's) services. It is not a small amount. The combination of tasks is important. And working parents like me would not have it nearly as easy to do our jobs. I would not be as easily able to go across the ocean to give presentations and consider ideas about ways to promote public health if it were not for my wife's choice to stay at home. Of course, my dual income friends can comment that they manage to do such things too. I'm just saying that I have great flexibility and have a huge "value added" from my wife's choice to stay at home. It is really too bad that we do nothing to reflect that in the reward system of modern society--when it comes to breastfeeding or other parts of the household production process.


  1. Boy, do I agree about the value of work done in the home. I don't even have kids, and I find my life to be unmanageable. I finally hired my 23-year-old cousin as a full-time personal assistant for a few months, to help me get my life under control. And parenting is an even more valuable job.

    At age 40, I've now had quite a few girlfriends, and have lived with four of them (married two of them). I am always thinking about how best to divide our responsibilities so that both people in the relationship are getting more of what they want, and it's a hard problem. Three of my mates have been artists or writers, which I liked because I thought that would give us a lot of flexibility for homemaking and child-rearing, especially since my own job as a professor has been so flexible, too. But none of those relationships worked out for me, and perhaps part of the problem was my hoping that my partner would do a lot more around the home than I did. So now I'm dating a lawyer who is required to spend lots of billable hours at the office, and the strain is clear.

    The biggest problem with stay-at-home work is the way it can conflict with the stay-homer's aspirations. The person staying home isn't able to have the kind of career that you and I have both so far chosen to do. I imagined that my partner and I might both be able to have satisfying part-time careers, but that's pretty tough given the rat-race nature of the career world. ("What? You haven't published as many articles as I have?") It also requires that person to have a lot of intrinsic motivation, extraversion, and self-worth, because that person doesn't get all the positive strokes and social interaction that we automatically get at the workplace.

    This problem has vexed me for a long time, and I don't know how to fix it. It seems clear to me that we are all worse off for the fact that we all (on average, at least) do more work outside the home than is socially optimal. But I don't know how to correct the negative externality. Impose more taxes on wage-earners and give it to stay-homers? I can just hear the Republican outcries about welfare queens, and personally I don't want to subsidize laziness. Someone would have to rate the stay-homers' work in order to make sure they are really contributing, and that would open another huge can of worms.

    Frankly, I think the norm of women working outside the home is the single worst thing that's happen to our culture in the 20th century. Not because I think women should have fewer options than men, but because the collective strain on our time has been so great. I'd love to split the costs and benefits equally between the genders, but make sure that we all work fewer hours in the aggregate. If, for every woman who started working outside the home, a man had started working inside the home, I think that would have been a big improvement. But, now that women have become more like men, I don't know how to get men to become more like traditional women.

    This has vexed me for twenty years. I've tried a number of ways of solving the problem in my personal life. But I haven't hit on a good solution either for myself or for society. Is there any way to teach people (myself included) to care less about external recognition of achievement? Or can we somehow give more of that recognition to stay-home parents?

  2. I guess to a large degree the above post has been my experience, as well, that you have to have those qualities mentioned as well, as faith, and conviction that what you are doing is the right thing for you and the family. I have had double frustrations in this area, since i live in a culture that went from being kind of like women, were seamstresses, etc... or didn't work, and sat around with helpers, or were agrarian society models, extended family, younger women helped with farm type work, while older women minded the children. So, i feel my situation was very difficult in that cultural there was no real independent women with degrees staying home, in fact we are considered to some degree freaks, or insane or something like that because we have "credentials", in this type of society. What my eyes have seen "culturally"the past almost six years. I will give a few of the most common examples. Professional men and women who are kind of competing to be professionals. So what do they do? Well, the stress in the gender roles is obvious, but, this can exist regardless, so it may be better if these marriages end in divorce that the woman have her own money, right? However, what it comes down to is again, the sense of responsibility towards the children. Since i am an outsider to this culture, i did not have an older woman figure mother/ aunt etc... to mind my kids while i went out and achieved more money, and competed. Second, i did not have skills like sewing that could supply me with money, i can teach english from home i suppose, but, that requires someone to mind my own kid and socializing skills. Now, thirdly, i am looked at suspiciously by women who work at non professional type jobs and have kids or are just stay at home moms without any of these skills eg. sewing etc... Like i am kicking a gift horse type thing. I really don't define myself by others opinions so it doesn't matter, however i am presenting scenarios.
    What i notice most lacking is children having time with parents their own parents, they are getting some parenting, but, not from their own parents. As a result where they may be materially wealthier, they are not in my opinion, emotionaly stable. Combined with a trickling in to the private schools and psychiatrists offices that these famillies resort to and you have a picture of modern life in Greece today for the working professional two parent family. The sad thing is that they feel they are progressing somewhere, where are they progressing too? O.K. honestly what does happen is an antigonizing kind of cultural identity developed with the famillies setting up competition for prizes that are in my opinion not worth it. However, this seems to be the norm. So, even finding a woman who is willing to stay home with the kids is really someone who is secure enough to risk even poverty levels at some point of her life because she trusts, and believes her husband, trusts and believes in her abilities, also to contribute, and who has excelent problem solving and creativity skills. However, emotionally it requires a level of beign able to asses and to plan, and to give value to what is significant. It comes down to value systems as well. And to some degree having kind of met ones own value system by looking within at one point while being still single and able to do this. anyway, just some thoughts, Aristea...

  3. Both sets of thoughts are great. David, it is like society is in one great big prisoner's dilemma. We could all be better off if we made a coordinated change and stuck with it over time, but once one person goes off the plan the whole thing unravels and we're back where we started. Having both parents working outside the home and "outsourcing" many parenting responsibilities does create a lot of issues for society. I'm not sure how to re-align rewards. For my wife and I, I think of lot of the success has been that once we had our first kid, she has drawn an enormous amount of self-worth from the results of her/our parenting. There are days she questions that, but most days she sees the value. Also, having a stay at home parent is almost "counter culture" these days, and so those of us who manage to do that band together in different ways. As through our history in the United States, may groups have banded together for some type of mutual benefit. Religious groups. Ethnic groups. Now, we sort ourselves (to a degree) by parenting styles and seek positive feedback and reinforcement from those around us. THese are not financial benefits, but at least the positive ego stroking that someone values what we do.