The birth rate is falling throughout much of the world. Yet many people still want to be parents, and they invest great time, energy and love in their children. The essays in a new symposium by CCF offer research evidence on the state of parenting among a diverse group of American parents. Each essay suggests possibilities for how our society might come to the aid of today’s parents.
Kathleen Gerson busts the myth that there is such a thing as “having it all.” On the basis of interviews with 120 young adults (33–47 years old), she found four basic patterns for managing the conflicts between the world of work and raising children. Some are hyper-traditional, with men in very time-consuming jobs and women without paid work doing intensive mothering. Others opt out of the dilemma of balancing work and family problems by remaining single or childless. Another pattern Gerson found was in families where women “do it all” rather than have it all. In these families, both mothers and fathers work for pay, but mothers continue to do the primary parenting. Finally, about one-third of the people she talked to can be described as egalitarians, experimenting with building an equal partnership despite the obstacles. Only the egalitarians prefer the choice they have made; most of the others would prefer egalitarian relationships, but have not found a way to achieve them in a society that demands more from workers than ever before, and with a philosophy of childrearing that requires intensive attention. Gerson suggests that it’s time to change the workplace, so that families can live the lives they desire.
Maureen Perry-Jenkins offers some concrete suggestions for what needs to change so that low-wage workers can meet their families’ needs. In interviews with 360 low-income working families, a shortage of time was a recurring theme. Parents needed time to sleep, care for babies, and connect with their partner, but they also needed predictability in their schedules. Control over time makes it possible to have last-minute doctor appointments or a needed sick day. Jobs need to have predictable schedules. But beyond that, workers talk about the benefits of autonomy and the ability to get respect for taking initiatives at work. Conditions at work affect parents’ mental health and their relationships with their children and partners. Perry-Jenkins suggests that to support today’s families we must to improve workplaces and build cultures of respect and support. One way to support the next generation is to pay attention to the conditions of work for their parents. Work matters.
In the next essay, Lorena Garcia argues that the world around us matters a great deal for our families. Garcia interviewed 68 middle- and upper-middle-class Latinx parents in the Chicagoland area. What she found was both optimism and worry. The parents were optimistic that they had the knowledge and financial resources to help their children pursue their dreams. Yet they worried, especially about their sons. They worried about the vulnerability of Black and Latino boys to gun violence in the city. Even though most did not live in high-crime neighborhoods, they worried about gang-related violence and violence at the hands of the police. They gave their sons a version of “the talk,” trying to help them reduce their vulnerability to police racism. Garcia reminds us that all parents are concerned for their children’s safety, but that particular worries vary by race and class. Despite economic privileges, the Latinx parents in her study had serious concerns about their sons’ physical safety. No parent should have to go to work worried about their children’s safety. Garcia shows us that good family policy must include reducing gang-violence and police racism.
Dawn Dow offers a view of African-American mothering that is at odds with the presumption that all mothers similarly feel a conflict between paid work and parenting. In interviews with middle- and upper-middle-class African-American mothers, Dow found that working for pay is considered part of a mother’s responsibility—that financial support for children is part of mothering work. Indeed, stay-at-home mothers are more likely to have to explain their choice than are those in the labor force. What sets these mothers apart from how other American mothers talk about parenting is that they felt supported by their families and communities for their paid labor. They have often been raised in a household with two incomes and lived in communities where a woman’s strength and independence are seen as virtues. Their families and communities provide emotional and instrumental support for employed mothers. Dow’s research reminds us that not only must we change the structures of workplaces to support parenting, but we must support cultural expectations and communities that validate parents’ ability to combine earning a living with caring for others.
Although some of the essays in this symposium are all about mothering, Stephanie Coontz reminds us that dads count too. She suggests that a major obstacle to the successful coordination of work and family life is the assumption that the problem belongs only to mothers. If fathers were not presumed to be entitled to focus solely on earning a living, mothers would never be presumed to have to do it all. A historian, Coontz reminds us that this exemption of fathers from the demands of family life is not traditional at all. For millennia, fathers and mothers shared the duties of making sure everyone ate and supervising the children. Coontz provides data on the kinds of parental leave available to fathers, and shows the inequity of providing more or better leave to mothers. Coontz suggests, however, that when paternal leave taking becomes more normative, as in Denmark, it can lower the motherhood penalty in wages and increase household wages. Indeed, fathers who take parental leave raise more egalitarian sons. This suggests that feminists must work as strenuously for fair and generous paternal leaves as we do for maternal leaves.
In the final essay of the Symposium, Caitlyn Collins takes us on a deep dive into the social policy that makes it easier or harder to be an employed parent. She interviewed 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. The European countries have quite different social policies, but all have more family-related policies than does the United States, so employed mothering is less stressful in those countries than in the United States. The kinds of job protections that matter include parental leave for caretaking, maternity leave surrounding childbirth itself, paid vacations and holidays, mandatory sick days, and available and affordable child care. Collins ends by suggesting that the lack of policies in the United States sends the message that our families are on our own—that the community owes nothing to those raising the next generation of citizens. The United States lags behind other societies and is exceptional for the lack of support for family life.
The essays in this symposium show why parents cannot do it alone, and why they should not have to. It is time to focus on what parents need from the rest of us to successfully raise the next generation. These essays suggest that parents need workplace policies that presume all workers are also caretakers at some point in their lives. Every child deserves a parent whose work does not challenge their mental health, a parent who can be effective at work while also providing caretaking, and neighborhoods that are safe. These essays show that the family policies we need include parental leave and workplace flexibility, but those alone are not sufficient. Reducing gun violence, reducing racism and its effects, and creating workplaces where employees feel respected are also among social policies needed to support American parents and their families. are also among social policies needed to support American parents and their families.
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.