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Some Thoughts on Family Policy

By Jeremy Adam Smith | January 19, 2007 | 0 comments

Recently I was swapping emails with a group of feminist activists I've known for 15 years. We were talking about progressive family policy.

At some point in the dialogue, I realized that we were starting from two very different assumptions. Theirs was that progressives should fight first and foremost for daycare and preschool, so that mothers could go to work and pursue worldly ambitions.

I couldn't help but feel that my friends saw kids as a burden that public policy should strive to alleviate, shades of Linda Hirshman. And until, oh, about 29 months ago, I pretty much shared their assumption and priorities.

Before my son Liko was born, we figured that after six months my wife would go back to work and we'd engage some form of childcare. Wrong. Liko didn't want his parents to go to work. This might have been a problem, except that we agreed with him. We didn't want strangers to take care of our son. We didn't think it was best for him or for us.

And so we overhauled our lives: first she stayed home with him and I worked; then I (mostly) stayed home with him and she worked; recently I went back to full-time work and she's home with him again. I've thought a great deal about our caregiving impulse and its relationship to our values, and what it might mean for the family policies I'd support as a parent.

UC Berkeley prof Neil Gilbert neatly identifies two feminist models of family, consistent with the different assumptions my friends and I held. The first, functional equality, emphasizes "a model of gender relations marked by a symmetrical division of labor and responsibility" and the elimination of gender categories altogether. This model—whose current most vocal proponent is Linda Hirshman—tends to negate the value of caregiving and argue for children to be placed in daycare, as an alternative to taking parents out of the labor market. The second feminist model, social partnership, regards marital relations "as a partnership built on economic interdependence, mutual adjustment, and self-realization through a combination of domestic activity and paid employment." My friends embraced the functional equality model; my family has adopted the social partnership.

Just to be clear: Childcare and preschool are good. High-quality childcare should, like health care, be available to anyone who wants and needs it. Moreover, I believe that daycare and preschool should be guaranteed and tightly regulated by government. It's a matter of equity as well as economic development. More women (and men) in the workforce is good for the economy.

Good for the economy, but is it good for children? Is it necessarily a good thing for all mothers and all fathers to march off to work every morning? There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that answer no to these questions; taken together, they suggest that parents working outside the home too much, too early in a child's life is bad for the kid as well as the parents.

In her new book What Children Need, Jane Waldfogel surveys the research and synthesizes the results. She finds that "Children whose mothers work long hours in the first year of life or children who spend long hours in child care in the first several years of life have more behavioral problems…Children do tend to do worse [in health, cognitive development and emotional well-being] if their mothers work full-time."

The effects of paternal employment have hardly been studied; social science firmly places the burdens and joys of caregiving on moms.

Does this mean that conservatives are right? Are working moms guilty of neglect and responsible for America's social ills? Emphatically: no. First of all, and most critically, we need more men to contribute more to taking care of kids.

We need to be careful in interpreting these results [writes Waldfogel], given that in nearly all cases studied the fathers were either working full-time themselves or were not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time or a lone mother working full-time. And so their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother.

The number of guys who take care of children has doubled during the past ten years, for reasons that remain mysterious (although I think it has quite a lot to do with the success — yes, friends, success — of the feminist and GLBT movements, which have altered gender roles and changed power relations). Male mothering (there's a controversial use of a verb!) should be institutionalized, supported, protected, ennobled, and promoted.

Second, the studies also show that parental sensitivity and responsiveness "is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development–more important than parental employment." So there's no point in staying home with your kid if you're not sensitive and responsive–better to hire a nanny. This also means in part that the gender of the caregiver is irrelevant; what's important is that the caregiver–nanny, dad, mom, whoever–is responsive and sensitive to the child's individual needs. (My fellow radicals: forget all that utopian nonsense about kids being raised in creches. Practical experience and research, mostly on Kibbutzim, has shown that treating kids like collective property is actually harmful to their health and well-being. Plus, most parents don't like it.)

Third, we need genuinely family-friendly policies that respect parents' choices and will allow parents of any gender to stay at home as much as possible with their kids for at least the first year. To my mind, this needs to be the progressive policy priority. Such policies are well-known and widely implemented outside of the US, consisting of paid parental leave and wage replacement, job and legal protections, guaranteed health care, requiring employers to consider requests for part-time work, etc. As usual, the social democracies of Scandinavia set the standard; meanwhile, the United States looks like it watches too much Fox News.

It should be acknowledged that support for parents to stay home can help keep parents out of the workforce or inhibit career growth. This impacts women most, but there are solutions to this problem. Sweden combines benefits for parents to stay home with comprehensive daycare and preschool programs and career support for when they go back to work, with good results. But I don't want to move to Sweden. It's too damn cold.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith is producer and editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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