Let's start with the latest fretting from New York's Times.  For U.S. Parents, a Troubling Happiness Gap.
The happiness gap between parents and nonparents in the United States is significantly larger than the gap found in other industrialized nations, including Great Britain and Australia. And in other Western countries, the happiness gap is nonexistent or even reversed. Parents in Norway, Sweden and Finland — and Russia and Hungary — report even greater levels of happiness than their childless peers.

The researchers, led by the University of Texas sociology professor Jennifer Glass, looked for factors that might explain the international differences in parental happiness, and specifically why parents in the United States suffer a greater happiness penalty than their peers around the world.

They discovered the gap could be explained by differences in family-friendly social policies such as subsidized child care and paid vacation and sick leave. In countries that gave parents what researchers called “the tools to combine work and family,” the negative impact of parenting on happiness disappeared.

“We comprehensively tested every other alternative,” said Dr. Glass, the lead author of the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September. “The two things that came out most strongly in explaining the variation were the cost of care for the average 2-year-old as a percent of wages and the total extent of paid sick and vacation days.”
Plus, take your pick of too little freedom.
“There’s an incredible anxiety around parenting here that I just don’t feel in other countries,” said Christine Gross-Loh, the author of “Parenting Without Borders,” a comprehensive look at modern parent culture across the developed world, who is raising her children between the United States and Japan. She points to Americans’ anxiety around children’s college and future prospects, and also to our emphasis on keeping children physically safe, and the harsh judgment of parents who are perceived to be doing a poor job of it.

“In Japan, my 6-year-old and my 9-year-old can go out and take the 4-year-old neighbor, and that’s just normal,” she said, while in the United States that kind of freedom can draw criticism and even lead to interventions by Child Protective Services.
Or is it too much freedom?
In countries where there is a strong agreement about the norms around parenting, parents may worry less about their own choices. Without a single overarching parenting tradition, American parents may feel like they have “too many choices” as compared to parents in more homogeneous cultures, says W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “A clear and well-defined script can be psychologically comforting,” he said, and its lack can leave parents feeling “unmoored.”

Dr. Glass agrees that cultural differences add to the greater relative parent and nonparent happiness gap — but she notes that those cultural differences are also reflected in our family policies. Much of our anxiety around our children in the United States, she said, is very clearly a reflection of our policy choices.

“We have to compete for good child care. We compete to live where there’s a good elementary school,” she said. “We compete for activities because a child’s entire fate seems to depend on where he goes to college, because there’s no guarantee — if we don’t, our child might be left behind.”
For centuries, there was a clear and well-defined script.  Plus a well-defined division of labor, reflecting the reality that it was the women who went into labor.  Work-life balance?  What was that down on the farm?

That's my great-grandfather Ira Lincoln Hopkins at far right of the picture.  He raised dairy cattle the same way his father Francis Hopkins, with the beard, did, following a well-defined script that first appeared in Plymouth Colony in the seventeenth century.  But he was able to serve as county assessor and retire to a house in Sheboygan Falls with electric lighting (controlled by funky spring-loaded push-buttons that would cause apoplexy in a modern building instructor) and running city water (albeit with a cistern down cellar, imagine the funky stuff that might have come with saving rain water.)  Plus automobiles and aeroplanes.  And two of his daughters watched Moon landings.  On the farm, there was no such thing as work-life balance.  "Sunday might have been the Sabbath day, and the Lord might have rested, but those cows had to be milked -- by hand -- before and after church."

And, work norms or well-defined scripts, there's still the possibility of a person, whether on the farm, or in the manufactory or office or classroom, outworking others.  In the scheme of institutional evolution, we're still working off that centuries-long structure of responsibilities and obligations.  And confronting the choices.

Let me quote you a passage from R. M. Neal's High Green and the Bark Peelers.  "Sometimes I've felt that way about my world -- wondered why today's young instructors aren't as fiery eager to work themselves to death as were the men of my generation when we were just starting.  I'll guess that today's youngsters are quite as eager, but they don't admit it."  Mr Neal, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism wrote that in the late 1940s, long before the place went nuts.  It's possible that the younger cohort of professors, who recognized the leisure-facilitating potential of electric lighting, typewriters, and household appliances, didn't have to be on duty all the time, the way their older colleagues did.

That's also before we get into female labor force participation.  For years, the division of labor into domestic and paid work was also a dispensation in which the male breadwinners could neglect their children.  And the cohort of working women that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s might have emulated that pattern, or figured they'd have to pass on the children or hire out the child care.  (Remember the padded-shoulder suits and the floppy ties?)  And professional work is time-consuming.  Here's a passage from the Wisconsin alumni magazine, noting a day-care crunch in Madison, in the summer of 2001.  "Without good childcare, it's difficult for faculty members to consider having children.  There's a feeling that if you're serious about your work, you can't have kids -- which is a completely miserable attitude."  By 2001, though, the old division of labor is overtaken by events, and the faculty wife who manages the domestic sphere while the male faculty member gets the grants and puts in the long hours likely has a therapist or a divorce lawyer on retainer.

But work is a prison, too, laments Judith Shulevitz.
What if the world was set up in such a way that we could really believe — not just pretend to — that having spent a period of time concentrating on raising children at the expense of future earnings would bring us respect? And what if that could be as true for men as it is for women?
Emergence is messy, and to say "world was set up" proposes more structure than any vanguard can properly organize. Particularly if that vanguard was occupied correcting what appeared to be the default settings that emerged over centuries.
Mrs. Clinton belongs to an earlier generation, one whose objective was to free women from the prison of domesticity — at least the middle-class women who didn’t already have jobs — and send them marching into the work force to demand equality there. But true equality will take more than equal pay and better working conditions. It will require something more radical, a “transvaluation of all values,” in Nietzsche’s phrase.
But "transvaluation" is not something that can be accomplished quickly, or by electing the right kind of politicians.
In an important new book, “Finding Time,” the economist Heather Boushey argues that the failure of government and businesses to replace the services provided by “America’s silent partner” — the stay-at-home wife — is dampening productivity and checking long-term economic growth. A company that withholds family leave may drive away a hard-to-replace executive. Overstressed parents lack the time and patience to help children develop the skills they need to succeed. “Today’s children are tomorrow’s work force,” Ms. Boushey writes. “What happens inside families is just as important to making the economy hum along as what happens inside firms.”

Knowing that motherhood can derail a career, women are waiting longer and longer to have children.
Yes, although the ambitious you will always have with you, and Carrie Lukas notes that the ambitious will still choose (or have chosen for them) to avoid the parent track, or outsource the childcare, no matter what public policy solutions might be available.
[S]uch a system may make it economically feasible to take more time off, but opting out of work would still be a sacrifice. Other people—particularly those without children—would continue to work more hours and therefore get further ahead. And this seems to be the root of what really frustrates Shulevitz.

The modern world gives us lots of opportunities to compare ourselves with others. This isn’t limited to the work world, where we can read about women and men earning eye-popping sums of money and attending swanky conferences around the globe. Parenting is increasingly its own competitive sport. Parents (but particularly moms) jockey to give their kids the most enriching, fulfilling, nurturing, healthy childhoods, which we assume will give those favored offspring a leg up in adulthood.

People who dedicate themselves fully to one arena, whether that’s work or parenting, are almost always going to achieve more in their chosen specialty than those of us who dabble in both.
The good news: compared to Francis Hopkins or Ira Lincoln Hopkins, we are seriously underemployed, and our choice sets are much larger.
The good news is that society has become more innovative and created many more options for how we allocate our time. However, that doesn’t change the basic fact of life that our time is finite, and that not everyone can win a gold medal in everything they do. Contra feminists, the answer to this isn’t more expensive government policies; it’s a reality check.
Add to that the nasty habit of complex adaptive systems doing what they d**n well please, and you can bet on any one-size-fits-all policy reform advocated by a vanguard leading to nasty unintended consequences and disappointments.

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