One of the saddest results of modern happiness studies was the finding that while marriage increases happiness, having children decreases it, and happiness does not return to previous levels until the children have left the home. The authors of these studies were surprised to find that even though their control group consisted mostly of couples who experienced involuntary sterility and were childless as a result, they were still happier than married couples with children! (See, e.g., Baumeister, Meanings of Life, at p. 161 and 388-396.) As if the drop in general happiness were not bad enough, the birth of the first child is associated with a large, permanent drop in relationship satisfaction. In earlier times, the presence of children at least decreased the likelihood of divorce; now, each child increases the likelihood that the couple will divorce or break up.
However, as with ancestral gender-based assigned tasks, children were, until the past couple of generations, nearly unavoidable. One made the best of a bad situation, and even found a sense of meaning in it. The sense of meaning may even be proportional to the perceived drudgery and thanklessness of childrearing.
Traditional roles, again on balance from selection, have probably been mostly fine for the majority of humanity throughout time. Women have competed for choice in mating with both their families and with the purchasing power of prospective husbands. However, even the limited mate choice of the past has produced strong pair bonds for ordinary women and men, as is easily seen from modern societies that continue the practice of arranged marriage. The negative things we have read about the traditional sex roles in marriage have mostly been written by extraordinary, unusually intelligent, perhaps male-brained women saddled with poor matches. These unhappy women were more likely to write compellingly about their experiences - and, perhaps, their narratives are more likely to have been placed before us moderns, for reasons to be explored later - than the more ordinary, perhaps more likely content, majority of women.
Some degree of pair bonding is a human universal, but societies vary in polygyny and even polyandry. In monogamous societies with cultural (and material) patterns that favored monogamy, there may have been extra adaptation for strong pair bonding. In modern populations, some are probably more adapted to monogamy than others.
Recently, of course, childbearing has become increasingly optional even within the context of a highly successful pair bond. With the availability of reliable birth control and abortion, few women in developed countries are really forced to procreate.
However, at the same time, sex roles have become more universalized. While women still do the majority of childcare, they are also expected to compete with men in the labor market. In fact, single mothers with children have become one of the most common patterns in developed countries today. Housewives - now euphemized, because reviled, along the usual euphemistic treadmill, as "stay-at-home moms" - are still extant, though radically less common than in previous generations.
What is almost nonexistent is the childfree housewife - a woman who does not do market labor, is supported by her husband, but does not have children. Ours is one of the first generations in which this pattern is even an option; unfortunately, I will argue, few have taken advantage of its considerable appeal.
Most of us are familiar with the lives of those living other patterns - couples who both work, with or without children; single people, with our without children; and those "stay-at-home moms" like my own. Let's explore the unfamiliar, rarely travelled road of childfree housewifery, from a variety of perspectives, to examine who wins and who loses.[Note]
From the husband's perspective, he has a person with whom he is strongly pair-bonded who has the time, freedom, energy, and cleverness to take care of him in all ways. While most of her services might arguably be available on the market (if we include black markets), the attention and skill she devotes to providing them as a result of the pair bond would likely make their market equivalents vastly more expensive. As explored in books like Richard Titmuss' The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, their very provision in non-market terms may fundamentally change their character.
She may be an amazing cook, carefully attending to his tastes and health and challenging him with her creativity. She may ease his life and increase his comfort (and even status) by maintaining his clothing and their living quarters, at a level of care an arm's-length market stranger would be unlikely to provide (though, from fiction, sleeping with an otherwise forming a romantic relationship with one's housekeeper is hardly an uncommon pattern!).
She may cut his hair, so that he need not pay a stranger for the privilege of being touched with instruments that touch the scalps of hundreds of other strangers. She has the time and energy to maintain her body and looks, and to engage in her own pursuits, creative and intellectual. If they had children, or if she were obliged to do a great deal of market labor, this would not be the case. The benefits of her beauty, achievements, and available energy fall to him, as his willingness to provide for her materially is what enables her to have them.
The working, providing partner well-suited to a childfree single income family, I argue, may essentially have the futuristic equivalent of what is sometimes called a "catgirl" - a pair-bonded, beautiful, clever dream-creature extremely devoted to him - but without the problems associated with the futuristic scenario.
The couple never suffers the drop in relationship satisfaction associated with the birth of the first child, and the burden of each is made lighter and more meaningful by the work of the other. If they are the kind of people who can find adequate meaning in a pair bond and other pursuits, they can successfully avoid the ancestral trap of childbearing - while retaining all the benefits of ancestral caretaking and protection patterns, not to mention all the benefits of modern Dreamtime "zero-th world" society.
The non-working partner, of course, enjoys freedom from the rat race - from market labor and all the energy drains it entails - as well as from welfare loss from childbearing. She is free to forage farmer's markets and exotic grocery stores for cooking ingredients, with plenty of time left after all her (really not unpleasant) caretaking tasks to pursue her own interests. What other women do as expensive hobbies - cooking, sewing, knitting, aesthetic arrangement - she may engage as her main occupation.
Sex acts for women as a gauge of the happiness of their relationships and of general life satisfaction as it relates to their partners. In a situation in which a woman is valued so much that she is taken care of materially and respected for her labors, her satisfaction and wellbeing translate into more sex, to the benefit of both herself and her mate. When her energy and satisfaction are sapped by full-time market work and/or childrearing responsibilities, sexual frequency cannot but drift downwards.
To form a pair bond with a catgirl of one's own level of cleverness is a great privilege toward which many aspire. Few imagine how enticing it can be to BE such a beloved, pair-bonded yet utterly free catgirl.
This pattern is clearly not available to everyone. Many people may not be able to find meaning in life except through breeding. And it may be that only a minority of women are presently capable of the enjoyable, but hardly brainless and undemanding, tasks of housewifery. I also suspect that the monogamy orientation of the male partner (if there is one) most limits such pairings; while female humans may self-modify sexually in many important ways, it may be that only particularly monogamy-adapted males can find deep satisfaction with such a pattern. I doubt men have much control over whether they are such fellows, and certainly do not cast blame on those who are not; however, those without a strong monogamy orientation are excluded from this pattern.
Who loses, then? Why is this pattern so rarely seen, even among those well suited to it?
The main losers are the relevant governments. Market labor and the market exchanges this pattern replaces are taxable events. The satisfaction from this pattern is not at this time taxable. Also, the childfree pattern refuses to produce more "citizens" for the relevant governments to bleed.
Corporations may also lose, for the same reasons: their labor pool is contracted, with some of the most able excluding themselves from it; therefore, labor is marginally more expensive. In addition, non-market provision of services means demand for their products and services decreases - both in this generation and the less-populated next.
This may be part of the reason this pattern is presently rare and reviled, with "housewife," as mentioned above, on a euphemistic treadmill toward necessarily including children in the pattern to remain even close to respectable.
However, a truly free society, I argue, would see much more of this pattern among those well suited to it. It is fucking rad, and I encourage you to consider whether you might be suited to it, and to avoid playing into governments' and corporations' interests by reviling those who freely choose it as their life pattern.
Note.Feel free to mentally change the genders here. While on balance I'd expect most couples capable of enacting this pattern to be as I describe, there are now no rules stating that this must be the case. Lesbian and gay couples, and the occasional gender-reversed hetero couple, may derive the same benefits as the heterosexual couple in traditional roles as described.