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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Looking Backwards
October 9, 2009 - 12:38am

This one week when I was ahead of myself and wrote my entry early in the week, and, what do you know, I find myself changing it at the last minute. I was so intrigued by Dana Campbell’s column yesterday talking about what may be the truth behind the idea of well-educated women “opting out” of high-pressure jobs in order to parent that I wanted to write some thoughts in reply to it. She did a great job of summarizing the discussion that started in the Washington Post last week, and went on to suggest some thoughts of her own. She said that there may be a continuum between full time paid work and “opting out” and that well-educated women are choosing points along that continuum. As I read it, I was reminded of the idea from Labor Economics of a “backward bending labor supply curve”.

Imagine, for a second, a graph that plots the amount of labor offered in the labor market at different wages. You might guess that as wages rise, people tend to offer more labor. This leads to a curve that basically slopes upward, with more labor being offered as wages rise. Then an interesting thing may happen at very high wages; it may actually slope backwards, since, at high wages, people want to “purchase” leisure by not working quite as much as they could. The existence of this backward bending curve is up for debate, but economic theory definitely predicts it as a possibility. I suspect that something similar is happening as well-educated women choose not leisure, but child-care time.

I know of several well-educated mothers who have chosen combinations of work and parenting that do not fit into the traditional “full time” model. For example, I know of several women with doctorates who teach as visiting professors or part-time (their husbands earn health insurance for the family from their own jobs, making this possible). I can think of one medical doctor who works at a world-class hospital three days a week, and has two days to spend with her children. I know of one dentist who gave up her private practice to teach biology at a college that respects women with children. And my own story, as told in Mama, Ph.D., is one of finding a position at a family-friendly women’s college, although I admit that much of the motivation to do so came from a life-threatening illness and what would have almost definitely been a negative tenure decision at my first job. We could easily think of these decisions as examples of choosing child-care options as our income, and the ability to purchase such options, increases.

But it is not just women who are making these choices. I know of several men who took parental leave when their children first came home. I also look to my own husband, who was being wooed by large law firms when he graduated near the top of his law school class, but chose, instead, a job that would allow him time with his family. This decision was even more impressive as such a family that was yet to be fully formed, as at that time we were still waiting for a child to join us. Indeed, perhaps it is not the “mommy track” but the “parent track” that should have been the topic of the famous 1989 article in the Harvard Business Review discussing the trend. As a labor economist at heart, I am wondering if, by including men on the parent track, we might actually be able to show the existence of a backward bending labor supply curve. I’ll have to run that one by my co-author…

I am also reminded, as I read Dana’s column yesterday, of the bumper sticker that sums it all up. It says “Every Mother is a Working Mother.” Don’t we all know that!


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