The madness of American motherhood
or, and interview with Dr. Caitlyn Collins, author of "Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving"
Almost a year ago, I read a book that truly blew my mind and has stayed with me ever since. Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, by Caitlyn Collins, is a cross-cultural examination of working motherhood in four Western societies: Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Though a series of in-depth interviews, it becomes clear that American mothers are not only more stressed than our European peers—but we also much more likely to blame ourselves for our perpetual overwhelm. To move forward, Collins argues that we need to abandon the notion that we are individually responsible for attaining the balance we seek, and instead “politicize our understanding of mothers’ stress and socialize the responsibility for solving it”.
When I first reached out to Caitlyn Collins for an interview, she was on maternity leave but promised to talk to me once she was back at work. And, guys, it was worth the wait! Caitlyn is an associate professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She conducts cross-national research on gender inequality in the workplace and family life. Her public writing appears in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and the Atlantic. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her feminist partner and their daughter. I strongly urge you to buy and read her book in its entirety—it was one of my favorite books I read this year.
JW: Can you summarize your major findings?
CC: American moms really stood apart from the European moms that I interviewed for the sheer amount of stress and overwhelm and exhaustion that they felt in describing how they were trying to navigate employment and motherhood day in and day out.
Moms in Europe had plenty of complaints—especially in Italy—but they had significantly more policy supports in place than US moms did. Germany, Sweden, and Italy all have ample paid parental leave. They all have high quality public childcare—which, in Sweden and Germany is guaranteed for children at the age of one and in Italy at the age of three. They all have abundant paid vacation and sick days available to them. They all have high quality public healthcare systems.
The US has none of these. And so what I saw, unfortunately, was that that lack of support was reflected in American moms’ own views about what they thought they deserved and who should be supporting them. The really sad finding was that US moms expected no support. They expected to largely go it alone, and they expected very little from their partners, their employers, and—most importantly—the government. Most women never even mentioned the government as a potential form of support, whereas that came up constantly amongst the European moms because they expected it. And when American moms did have access to any sort of policy supports like a short paid parental leave or the ability to stockpile their own vacation and sick days and use them to take time off after having a baby, women talked about feeling “lucky” or “privileged” that they were allowed to do that.
We really need to develop a sense of entitlement to more support in the United States for both mothers and fathers. We have to expect more, because it is the norm everywhere else. And the stress and overwhelm that moms in the US feel is not their own fault. That's the main message that I try to communicate to audiences. It's not their own fault, and it's also not something they're capable of fixing on their own. These problems are structural and systemic. They are not individual and personal, though we live in a culture that's constantly telling moms and dads that it is their job to fix all of this on their own and that they can't turn to other folks for support, which I think is a tremendous part of the problem.
The problem, of course, is that the folks who are best situated to make this argument to politicians are working parents themselves, and working parents are fucking tired! But if we thought of ourselves as a voting block—working parents or working moms as a voting block—we would have more political power than any other group in the country.
JW: One of the things that really struck me was that there was no equivalent term for “working mother” in Sweden because it's just expected that all adults work. What are some of the important Swedish policies or cultural practices that support both working moms and dads?
CC: So Sweden is a country that we refer to as a “dual breadwinner, dual caregiver society”. The cultural norm expects that most adults have children and that both men and women are equally involved in raising those children. Importantly, Sweden is also a country that thinks of children as a public good. They acknowledge that when we invest in children being raised well, it benefits all of us.
This is not at all how we talk about children in the United States. We talk about kids as a private and personal responsibility, almost the same as a pet. We tell people, “don't get one if you can't take care of it all by yourself”. But kids and pets aren't the same. Pets don't grow up to be our doctors and our teachers and our trash collectors and our next door neighbors.
Abundant research shows when we invest in early childhood development and education programs, we reap the benefits economically. Upfront investment save us from having to spend money on programs later in life. So there's an economic argument to be made for supporting children, but—of course—there's also a feminist argument, a moral argument, and an ethical argument that taking care of children should be a national value, like it is in Sweden.
This valuing of children is reflected and reinforced in their laws and the policies that come out of those laws. For example, Sweden's welfare law says that a child has the right to equal access to time with both of their parents. Can you think of how different the United States would look if we had a mandate like that?
Sweden was the first country in the world in 1974 to pass gender-neutral, paid parental leave. Now Sweden offers 480 days of paid leave that's expected to be split between a couple. If you're a single parent, you get all of those days. Furthermore, Sweden’s family policy is intertwined with their labor policy and gender equality policy. So they all mutually reinforce one another to help support working parents—not just moms. This is central. In the Swedish context, the assumption is that raising children is every bit a man's responsibility as it is a woman's.
In the US, we are seeing a resurgence—especially amongst highly educated workers—of fathers wanting to be more deeply involved in their kids’ lives. And college graduates today report that they want egalitarian relationships, that they do not want work to be all-consuming, and that they envision a future for themselves where they spend ample time with their families. So, we're seeing a bit of cultural change, but what we aren't seeing is a lot of change in workplaces to support those desires.
To some extent, we're seeing more implementation at the organizational-level to support both men and women as workers and caregivers, which is great. But the problem is when we pass these policies at the organization level, instead of it a state or a national level, we see a gap widen between workers who have access to these policies and those who don't. And the truth is that everybody deserves access to them. And the folks who would benefit the most from these benefits are those least likely to have access to them, which is low-income, vulnerable hourly wage workers.
Sweden's policies are available to everyone, not just those who work for elite firms. It's for everyone. And that kind of communal sense of who “deserves” support is a really different way of thinking about citizenship and employment than how were think about it here in the United States.
JW: You’ve hit on something that’s so important. To change how to value working parents, we also have to change how we value children. In the US, we have these unrealistic expectations around intensive motherhood, but—ultimately—we see children as an inconvenience or an annoyance.
CC: I just finished listening to the audio book of Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff, who has a PhD in the natural sciences and is also a NPR science reporter. She took an anthropological approach to parenting and went and spent time with three indigenous communities around the world to see how unusual contemporary American and European parenting standards and practices are, compared to how folks have been parenting for tens of thousands of years.
It was really helpful for me to zoom out from my own worldview and think about children as integral, welcomed, and cherished members of a community, rather than these little beings who should be quiet and not bothersome. This book really reminded me that actually kids are incredibly capable, they're incredibly resilient, they're such a source of joy.
Our really intensive, stressful version of parenting is not the norm, and it's not how it's been done for millennia, and it doesn't need to keep being the way we do it. We can readjust the way we think about time and our families to access the more enjoyable parts of parenthood and let go of some of these standards that really don't serve us—and, importantly, really don't serve our children.
JW: You mentioned in the book that you were drawn to this work because you watched your own mom navigate her experience with working motherhood, but you've become a mom yourself since it has been published. How has your own experience of motherhood impacted how you view these issues?
Because of my research, I feel like I had as good a sense for what it was going to be like to be a working mom as anyone possibly could before having their own child. And yet I think I am experiencing firsthand just how high the highs of parenting are and just how low the lows of parenting are in a way that only someone who has a kid can experience.
Being a parent is so fun. But we live in a country that really minimizes parents' ability to enjoy that fun because we don't have enough time and resources to sit in the joy with our children. Here in the US, we're so obsessed with managing our time that sitting in joy isn't something we even have the ability to do. And that, to me, is a grave injustice to ourselves as humans, but also towards children as people who deserve to be recognized for the wonderful people that they are and what they contribute and what they deserve themselves.
And on the flip side, there's something indescribably difficult about the lows too. In my kiddos’ early first months, the sleep deprivation and the loneliness and the overwhelm and the monotony—I feel like I couldn't fully grasp it until I had done it myself. And now I feel even more anger and indignation about our country's lack of support for parents who are doing such indescribably difficult and indescribably important work—raising our next generation of humans, of members of our society.
Book that influenced how you think about motherhood… The first book that I read in graduate school that sparked my interest in this study is a book by Pamela Stone, who's a sociologist, called Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.
Family tradition you’re most looking forward to passing on to your daughter… Picking out a Christmas tree together and decorating it. I love Christmas.
Favorite place to visit… San Diego
Best piece of advice for working moms... I implore you to stop blaming yourself for your stress and overwhelm, and expect more from your partners (if you are partnered), from your employers, and from your government.
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