In news you have always intuitively understood to be indisputable but knew was routinely dismissed, ignored, or downplayed because of raging sexism, it turns out that women who have kids — at least two — are more productive than literally everyone who has ever existed. In other news: FACE.
Seriously: FACE. Everyone knows women with kids do more of the kid work on top of doing the housework and the work work. But at least there is now a study saying it, this one from the research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And the study was done by men, so you can trust that these are not just secret witches trying to rule the world and eat your balls, as you correctly suspected with all the other studies.
The study looked at the effect of children on work productivity for "highly skilled" women over the course of a career. Ylan Q. Mui at the Washington Post writes:
They decided to analyze the amount of research published by more than 10,000 academic economists as a proxy for performance. A job in the ivory tower of academia requires higher education by definition, and their work is easily searched, recorded and ranked.
The results were surprising. For men, fathers of one child and those without children performed similarly throughout much of their careers. But men with two or more kids were more productive than both groups.
The effect for women was even more dramatic. Using their own method for analyzing research publications, the authors found that within the first five or so years of their career, women who never have children substantially underperform those who do. (The difference in productivity between women with one child and those with no children is more muted using a different ranking for research. But in both cases, mothers with at least two children perform the best.)
Mui notes that these are, of course, privileged women. They are highly educated and obviously gainfully employed. Their pregnancies were likely planned, and were made considerably more manageable by maternity leave and paid time off. They probably all have childcare or nannies or systems in place to be able to meet work deadlines and commitments through all the usual inconveniences of young children that force many less privileged working gals to miss hella time off for runny noses and mild fevers, to say nothing of the sheer number of days off the average daycare takes off that parents must scramble to cover throughout the school year. Dear Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis could you please do a study on that?
Some caveats: It's important to note in spite of my snotty tone of feminist victory that productivity levels did drop for a period of time when kids were young, to the tune of 15 to 17 percent. Mui writes:
For those with multiple children, the first child results in a 9.5 percent drop in performance, the second child cuts out another 12.5 percent and the third child caps it off with an 11 percent decrease in productivity.
In other words, three preteens will result in a 33 percent loss in productivity on average, the equivalent of four years of research.
But as any parent knows, the days are long and the years are short. That's the case here, too. Mothers tend to be more productive both before and long after the birth of their children. When that work is smoothed out over the course of a career, the paper found, they are more productive on average than their peers.
"While you have small children, it has an impact on you," said Christian Zimmerman, one of the paper's authors. "But after that, it seems that the impact is the other way."
And Zimmerman goes on to note that it is entirely possible that there's a bias here because maybe the kinds of ladies drawn to becoming academic economists are also ballers of productivity in other arenas in life, the super-duper organized kind who would have multiple kids and be awesome at it, which he says is called "survivor bias." But I thinking working mothers are victims of bias no matter what they do.
And here in this passage is where I must part ways with Mui's thinking on the study:
Even so, the results feel counterintuitive for any working mom (re: all of them) who has drowned herself with guilt over missing a deadline because a sick child had to go to the doctor. Or struggled to pay attention during a conference call after a long night of toddler sleep regression. Or snuck out of the office early to make the neighborhood Halloween party.
But I think the results are totally intuitive and FACE-worthy, and you don't even have to be a parent to get it. Being busy often makes you more productive. Having to do a lot of shit makes it easier to add one more thing to your plate. Jon Stewart highlighted this idea in a recent interview with NYMag about how he managed to accomplish his directorial debut amidst a crazy schedule:
What was going on in your life that made you want to make your first movie? You were writing it at night and on weekends during the 2012 presidential race. Did it feel like an antidote?
It's more like trying to keep that little man in your head from going, "You failed everyone who ever loved you." I wouldn't say it was an antidote to American politics. It was more like — do you know how sometimes when you were a kid, if you had a shitload of stuff to do, you felt like you got it together? If you had soccer, you would go to school, you'd go to soccer, and then you'd get home and you'd actually get your homework done. But when it wasn't the soccer season, you'd just find yourself waking up in a puddle of SpaghettiOs in front of Bullwinkle.
It is spoken and it is so: Mothers of at least two children are Jon Stewart making his directorial debut and everyone else is in a puddle of SpaghettiOs in front of Bullwinkle. Shout it from the rooftops.
But there's another layer to this: Jon Stewart is a man. Every woman, especially mothers, knows there is a huge difference between perception and reality, between how she's spending her time as a mother and worker (read: being an awesome, multitasking machine who blends emotional availability with levelheaded pragmatism) versus how all that invisible work will be gauged by society at large (read: ignored/disparaged/undermined/uncompensated). In other words, these women do know they are easily doing double or triple the shit of the average worker just to get out of the house in the morning. It's society and the employer who treats all that as nothing, and instead guilts her for missing a deadline or two, or never promotes her because of the impression that she's overloaded, when in fact, she's outperforming everyone else. This study is manna from mommy heaven. This study is vindication.
Needless to say: FACE.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.