Even in the age of gender-neutral parenting, there's no such thing as a free lunch

Evidently the latest equity crisis according to pundits from the New York Times to the International Monetary Fund is not enough mothers with small children working demanding day jobs.

One might suggest it’s a bit of a First World Problem. But it’s also something of a reality issue.

I don’t want to get side-tracked into the gender wars here. Apparently we know that not just women but mothers with young children must be represented in the workforce in exactly the same proportion as in the population.

As Steven Rhoads and Christopher Sarlo respectively just noted in MercatorNet, the Swedish government used to let couples transfer parental leave but when dads kept transferring it to moms they changed the rule, while the IMF wants to Canada to spend billions on day-care that will pay for itself provided women are compelled to work.

So evidently in a world obsessed with sex but terrified of gender you’re going to have it all whether you want to or not. But never mind.

Let me instead try to make several very basic connected observations that apply even to gender-neutral parents and workplaces. Let’s begin with the obvious fact that parenting takes a lot of time and energy.

No matter how assiduously we try to professionalize and delegate it, entrusting our precious offspring even as infants to government-funded strangers who keep them warm, dry, safe and busy in day-care and then in then school, parenting takes a lot of emotional and physical effort over many years.

As a kindly older gentleman commented while helping a pregnant friend with a toddler struggling to load groceries in a supermarket parking lot, “Don’t worry, dear, the first 21 years are the hardest.”

And since we have only one life to live and 24 hours in each day we live it, some at least of which must be devoted to sleep or a related form of unconsciousness, what we put into parenting must to some extent reduce what we put into employment, hobbies, self-actualization and so forth.

Don’t think I am indifferent to family or the myriad ways the modern world is unfriendly to it. Far from it. I’m in a state bordering on panic on everything that undermines family, from radical gender ideology to carelessness to the relentless pace of the economy, a strange confluence of libertarian economics and libertine social views. I certainly think an employer should value employees as human beings for self-interested as well as more noble reasons.

But here’s the reality thing.

Because child-raising takes so much time and effort even if confined to the hours between 4:30pm and bedtime and from when the alarm goes off to the 8:30am handoff, plus emergencies, people who become gender-neutral “parents” become less valuable to employers.

In a Nieman Reports piece “Where Are the Mothers?” Katherine Goldstein insists that, to retain talented millennials, news organizations and others “must better meet the needs of parents with young children—and create better work-life balance for everyone”.

But as Adam Smith famously said, in the marketplace we do not speak peremptorily of our needs but considerately of our employer’s and customers’ advantages.

It’s easy to call my statement Scrooge-like and heartless and demand that employers accommodate our choices as if they did not have consequences. But employers, be they kind or callous, don’t have a dime they didn’t get from customers.

So if they are to pay as much for less productive input from some employees, including benefits and promotions, they must either pay less for more productive input from others or charge customers more for the same stuff. Which isn’t just bad for business. It’s unfair.

Yes, I said “less productive”. You can redefine excellence or praise “flex-time”. But someone who’s always available and puts in long hours gives more to the firm than someone who is not. And especially in the high-intensity, 24/7 modern economy, where we are expected to be available via email even while asleep, time spent parenting is necessarily time not spent working.

It may well be time well spent, even better. Some people don’t want children, can’t have them or never find the right partner. And many would call the extra money and accomplishments poor compensation though others would take the opposite view. I personally find working yourself to death a bad plan and I do have children. But however we might feel, there is no free lunch.

To be less productive at no reduction in pay means having it all at someone else’s expense. It could be fellow employees, customers or taxpayers. But however one divides the domestic stuff from diapers to cooking, people who have children create less wealth in the marketplace and cannot take as much out unless they pick someone else’s pocket.

Somebody must surrender money they did earn for you to get money you did not. It’s a reality thing. And it may be social justice. But it’s not justice.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.  


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