Thursday, September 11, 2008

Senator McCain's choice of a running mate has stimulated lots of discussion in news media and blogs about the balance of family and career in women's lives. Most future societies imagined in science fiction take it for granted that women will have careers similar to men's. As someone mentioned on this blog many months ago, SF characters often embark on their adventures with no mention of the possibility of children. Maybe this phenomenon results from authors and readers taking it for granted that future technology will guarantee infallible contraception. Even so, some people will certainly want offspring, and someone will have to take care of them. I like the system envisioned in J. D. Robb's mid-twenty-first century mysteries, when the position of "professional parent" exists, with individuals who choose that path being paid a stipend at public expense. Still, there would be many couples in which both partners want to work outside the home at the same time. Robb's fiction also predicts robots advanced enough to serve as nannies.

Will housekeeping and child-care robots, if they ever reach that degree of sophistication, put an end once and for all to the home-career conflict? Or will they produce a class dichotomy in which wealthy and middle-class people have practically unlimited choices while those who can't afford robots still face the same quandaries present-day families do? Would households able to afford robot servants be in the same position as the wealthy people who kept houses full of human servants in the nineteenth century?

There's no assurance, of course, that the present-day trend toward gender parity in employment and career flexibility for both sexes will continue in the direction it's going. Economic and social upheaval might lead to a reversal of the cycle. The 1950s middle-class North American ideal of the two-parent-single-earner household, made possible only by the postwar economic boom, was a short-lived anomaly. It followed a period in which women flooded the workplace. A reversion to the one-earner family might occur as a result of a catastrophe like the population crash postulated in William Tenn’s short story “Down Among the Dead Men,” in which laws forbid women from working in any remotely hazardous job because they are too valuable as “breeders.”

In pre-industrial eras, women almost universally contributed to the household's earnings; they did it within the home, as most men also did. If wage-earning work could be returned to the domestic setting, numerous problems would be solved. Unfortunately, many jobs just don't lend themselves to telecommuting. Moreover, lots of people actually like going out to their jobs rather than staying home twenty-four hours a day.

In Japan, household and caregiving robots are already becoming commercially available. There is hope that robotic “servants” may encourage women to bear more children and alleviate the economic problems caused by Japan’s low birthrate.

Notice that the problem continues to be stated in terms of persuading WOMEN to devote more energy to families. Returning to the topic of a female presidential or vice-presidential candidate, have you ever heard a reporter ask a male politician how he expects to harmonize the demands of family life with a high-pressure career?


  1. Nope, and can anyone think of any futuristic Science Fiction novel of any flavor in which the Kick-Butt Heroine is also a mommy? (Mommy: loving, involved mother)

    There always seemed to be a strong assumption that in order for women to reach their fullest potential they had to be freed of mothering. In the Here & Now, real women have proven that's crap. As a former nanny, I helped several of those women and they did just fine, thank you very much.

    As a former nanny, I can also assure you there will always be people who want to be professional caregivers. There are real human beings who truly love babies and small children, who see them as precious and caring for them an honor and a privilage. It has always been this way since the origin of the species and it will always be this way to the end. While I like the idea of being paid as a Professional Parent, I also believe children deserve and require a great deal more care than a dirty mop. So, until robots become sentient, I'm not for them as nannies.

  2. Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of scientific (statistical and epidemiological actually) - studies reported to indicate all manner of ills for the baby if the MOTHER is under any kind of STRESS during pregnancy?

    Does any other SF futurologist see a possible return to the "confinement" period for pregnancy?

    And if studies indicate that a woman under stress before impregnation produces sub-standard babies, -- well!

    Has anyone noticed how certain scientific study projects get funded and others don't?

    Has anyone noticed how those who work in the sciences and get grant money for studies feel pressure to get the results the funder wants?

    Yeah, fudging results, looking for a given result, is not as rare as we really want it to be although it is certainly very, very rare considering the amount of pressure.

    You want to figure out what's going on and figure out what WILL happen next -- "follow the money" is always a good place to start.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. I have no problems at all with people who choose to make rearing children their career. I don't think they get any where near the honor or respect they deserve. I also think that me need to remove the you're-not-quite-an-adult-and your-selfish stigma we paint on couples who choose not to have kids. And we need to make it easier for women, even married women, who have kids they didn't plan on to pass those kids off to other families who desperately what children.

    I don't want to offend anyone but I think people who can't afford for one parent or the other to take charge of rearing them, shouldn't have kids. I see parenthood as a privilege, not an automatic right. Quite frankly about half the people I know with families had no business becoming parents. And, I'm not saying that the stay home person should be the mother. I have several friends and family members where the dad is doing the house husband thing and their kids are turning out just fine.

  4. Fantasy rather than SF, but still: MATHEMAGICS, by Margaret Ball, a very amusing novel about a warrior woman from another space-time continuum moving to our world and becoming a suburban single mom so her teenage daughter can get a good education. The heroine still fights monsters and villains — as well as school bureaucrats. Julie Kenner's Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom (CALIFORNIA DEMON, DEMONS ARE FOREVER, etc.). The retired demon-hunter forced to return to active evil-fighting has a teenager and a toddler, not to mention a husband who, for most of the series so far, has no idea of her secret life. Imagine if Buffy the Vampire Slayer grew up to become a suburban stay-at-home mother. Kenner's novels are more on the serious side than Ball's.