Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

Work After Marriage

I know quite a few couples where the woman gave up her career after the first kids arrived. In most of these cases, the woman was better educated than her husband and had better grades and prospects of earnings. Still, the women gave up work and stayed home. A pity for the economy, I thought at the time. The families, as well as the country would have been richer, had these women worked. Some returned to work when the children entered school, but their career path was disrupted once and for all.

I always assumed their choice to stay home was voluntary. But recently another fact about them struck me: with the exception of one couple, they all live in the countryside.  And the one wife that lives in the city was actually the first to return to work.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn digged up more data on this and found that dual career couples tend to choose to live in cities. A metropolitan area holds the key for more job prospects for both partners.

Marriage stability & the In-laws

Here’s the weirdest divorce statistic I have come across in a while: when husbands have a good relationship with their in-laws, divorce probability sinks by 20percent. When, instead, the wife has a good relationship with her in-laws, the divorce probability rises by 20percent. – What the heck?

Contrary to the researchers I don’t believe that reporting of ‘a good In-law relationship’ by the wife also means she suffers from meddling In-laws. I doubt she would have called the relationship good then.

I rather fear that darker forces of nature are at work here. A woman can only have so many kids in a life. I have heard of cases of 14, but say 8 is more like the natural upper boundary. A man, however, can have nearly unlimited amounts of kids – as long as he involves more than one woman. So, the parents of the wife have an evolutionary interest embedded in their genes that prompts them to foster the stability and wellbeing of their daughter’s marriage. Because the kids she will have in this marriage are likely all the kids she’ll ever have; she can certainly not increase the number of kids infinitely by divorcing and re-marrying younger men. It’s the opposite for a man: in theory, he can increase his prospect of children by divorcing and re-marrying a younger woman. Somewhere his parents must also ‘know’ this in their genes and have an evolutionary urge, however little, to nudge their son along…

So, when in doubt, celebrate the next holiday at her parents’ rather than his.. 

2 good reasons to share childcare: prevent divorce and get better sex

This is a true story. Jill is a stunning woman of about 41. She has just separated from husband number two (and partner number three), a father of two of her kids. Her serial separations have been difficult of course, but to outsiders, Jill may look like a divorcee who can afford to ‘shop’, given her looks.

Let’s, however, consider another aspect of the plot. She and her ex-husband agreed joint custody in court, and the ex looks after the kids for 1.5 days on the weekend. 1.5 days during which previously, like in most marriages, Jill looked after the kids. The same history of arrangements is true for her first child, of husband number 1. In other words, Jill now receives from the fathers of her children an effort in childcare she never got (and would have never gotten) while she was married to them.

This finding is no rarity. The time use between the genders is the area that is still ‘unemancipated’ in America. On average, women have less spare time than men, whether they are housewives or breadwinners. And the main reason is childcare. Jill had to divorce to get a fair share of childcare.

Another good reason to share childcare evenly between mum and dad is the phenomenon that men produce less testosterone when they are more involved with their children. (And women, likely, produce a bit more then, given they have more time to relax and can let stress/adrenaline take a back seat.) Less testosterone in men means less demand for sex, and, huh, more patience during the act. (And more in women means, huh, the opposite.) So, sharing childcare should balance out the gap in the need for sex often bemoaned by men, and at the same time make the act more fulfilling for both.

Off you go, guys: look after the kids and give mum a day off!