Dismantling Myths About Parenthood With New Data

A recent piece on the New York Times by the economist, Emily Oster (Brown), briefly introduces her upcoming book about how common feelings of guilt among young parents – often transferred down by society and its gold standards of ideal parenthood – are refutable by new data-driven evidence suggesting that the feelings of guilt are completely irrational. The key message is that current and future parents should actually chill-out more when taking any decision.

Thanks to recent developments in research methodologies (e.g. moving from observational studies toward randomized controlled trials) and big data, the book challenges dubious mainstream causal claims about a range of topics relevant to young parents that often give way to feelings of guilt: late childbirth (after 30), breastfeeding, sleep training, career-oriented mothers and so forth. Are smarter children a causal result of breastfeeding? Are children with lower risk of various diseases (e.g. asthma, diarrhea, ear infections…) a causal result of breastfeeding? Do mothers become happier in the long term as a causal result of breastfeeding? An interrogative focus on claims of causality of conventional beliefs is critical. As Oyster correctly notes, findings suggesting that breastfed children achieve higher IQ points compared to non-breastfed children is not the same as saying that breastfeeding causes higher IQ. One cannot make a sufficient claim of causality by correlation alone.

What I find most crucially emphasized, is that the health of young parents may matter as much as the health of the child(ren), for the overall well-being of the child(ren) and society. For example, mothers should particularly put their health in priority in the face of robust evidence behind the negative relationship between breastfeeding and breast cancer.

“(…) After all that focus on the benefits of breast-feeding for kids, it may be that the most important long-term impact is actually on the health of the mother. Moms often feel selfish for thinking about their own wants and needs when faced with decisions about their kids. In this case, the data gives you permission to put yourself first for once.”

“Many of the benefits cited here do, however, have some basis in evidence, just not always especially good evidence. And even when the evidence is good, the benefits are smaller than many people realize. This is where being an economist comes in handy.”

“I work because I like to. I love my kids! They are amazing. But I wouldn’t be happy staying home with them. It isn’t that I like my job better — if I had to pick, the kids would win every time. But the “marginal value” of time with them declines fast. (“Marginal value” will be familiar to anyone who remembers their Econ 101. There may not be any useful data on this question, but economic theory still comes in handy.) The first hour with my kids is great, but by the fourth, I’m ready for some time with my research. My job doesn’t have this nose-dive in marginal value — the highs are not as high, but the hour-to-hour satisfaction declines much more slowly. It should be O.K. to say this. Just like it should be O.K. to say that you stay home with your kids because that is what you want to do. In our attempts to focus so much on what is best for our kids, it is a good idea to step back and think about what works for you.”

Oyster’s work provides a further inspiration for me and many others aspiring to use the tools of economics to produce data-driven evidence that may convince society to become more compassionate toward the many stressful decisions taken by young parents these days in the very long term. Bogus societal norms that hurt and condemn young mothers in particular should be defeated, or the least, mitigated as much as possible. Does the future look bright for this purpose? Data-driven evidence can only go as far as to provide an observational insight. Amid rising anti-expert/technocrat sentiments in the Western part of the world, insights from the fields of moral and political psychology may help us to understand why many people may neither interpret evidence merely in individual cost-benefit terms (rationality) nor attempt to select information while avoiding excessive confirmation bias.

What is critical is that data-driven evidence turns into more forceful policy interventions. This is politically difficult, but an absolutely necessary imperative to keep alive. Recent studies led by the economist Henrik Kleven (Princeton), e.g. “Child Penalties Across Countries: Evidence and Explanations” (2019) and “Children and Gender Inequality: Evidence from Denmark” (2018) argue that the most significant cause of the gender pay gap is motherhood – or the “child care penalty” – and that this gap varies greatly across countries due to different gender norms. The child care penalty takes place when one’s earnings drop substantially after giving birth to the first child. Seemingly, women are the sole bearers of this penalty and whose earnings do not appear to recover to pre-birth or men’s levels even in the long term.

The charts below from those papers clearly show how the child care penalty kicks in after periods in which men and women seem to earn fairly similar pay during the course of their careers. Why is there a need for more forceful policy interventions? Despite Denmark’s generous social policy of monthly child care benefits and paid leave, allowed to be split between mothers and fathers for up to 1 year, Kleven notes that such “neutral parental leave” (e.g. decisions ultimately left to the parents themselves) will do little to close the gender pay gap. It might even be exacerbated. For instance, men in Denmark still only account for around 10% of parental leave in the country.

Source: Kleven et. al. (2019)
Source: Kleven et. al. (2019)
Source: Kleven et. al. (2019)

It is difficult to specify what I precisely mean by more “forceful policy interventions”, as top-down solutions on the part of the state entail much bigger debates about the philosophy and politics of presumably limiting “individual freedom” on the issue of solving the gender problem. But if treating the latter as a collective action problem, in spite of the presence of the most generous social policies possible, I believe that a few steps further must be taken by the state. Similar to tackling climate change, I am afraid that leaving the gender problem to the individual or markets won’t do much.

While I conclude, I would like to briefly introduce a comparative case of China. On a daily basis, as someone who was born and grew up in the West, the China case is often received with great contempt. While I absolutely condemn the enormous policy-induced death tolls of China’s various experiments between 1949-1992, I would however be intellectually dishonest to not recognize the efforts done during that period to overturn the many unfair gender norms of a traditionally Confucian society. It is hard to comprehend what a miracle such thing was without oneself coming from a Confucian-influenced, patriarchal society (my parents are Vietnamese by origin). China’s introduction of the 1950 Marriage Law was especially noteworthy, though we all know that the implementation process till this day has gone in many different directions. Now allow me to be more anecdotal: after having spoken to many Chinese friends across the political spectrum, they’ve unanimously confessed that the policy advocacy of more gender equality among the Communist rulers was perhaps their only praiseworthy merit before 1992. I find this repeated observation extremely intriguing.

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