Three books argue how improving the way society treats parents and their children is in all our interest.
One thing I used to know: writing about motherhood was twee. Then I had a child and couldn't stop.
I realise now that I had fallen for the myth: that the topic of parenting is narcissistic and insignificant. This view holds that it is the world beyond the familial front door where the serious stuff happens, like the economy, business or politics, away from the housework, caring and love.
That I had once had some sympathy with such sexism makes me feel ashamed. Women who write about parenting are often dismissed as sentimental and lightweight. As Hillary Frank wrote in a recent article, 'The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers', motherhood is "the biggest, most complex topic I have ever reported on . . . And yet it has been treated as small, niche and unimportant, and covering it has changed how I am treated by my colleagues."
Even if emotions were not a subject worthy of examination (news to psychologists, poets and playwrights) it is evident to any parent who works, or uses hospitals and publicly funded schools, or tries to find affordable childcare, just how closely these domestic and public worlds are interwoven. And just how often they can rub against each other.
Three new books examine the way that parenting is shaped by — and in turn, shapes — society and the economy. They raise questions about businesses' responsibilities to its employees and the corporate fetishisation of long hours. They shine a light on gendered roles at home as well as the motherhood pay penalty in the workplace. They explore the impact of the state on family life through benefits and subsidised childcare.
Ultimately, the authors argue that thinking seriously about parenting, parents — particularly mothers — and children is in all our interests. If children are the future, governments need to implement policies to help women participate in the economy but also invest in young children and reduce inequalities.
For Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, economic trends are the underlying drivers of various approaches to raising children — from helicopter to permissive parents. In Love, Money & Parenting the two economists mix personal anecdote drawn from their cosmopolitan familial lives as two European academics now based in US universities, as well as education and economic data.
They find that in those countries with low inequality, such as Sweden, parents tend to be more permissive. In countries with high inequality, parents are "both more authoritarian and more prone to instil in their children a drive to achieve ambitious goals". This is most notable in the US, where parents who fear that their offspring will be left behind end up landing their kids with busier schedules than top business executives. "The rise of helicopter parents can be understood as a rational response of parents to a changed economic environment," the authors write.
Economics also explains different approaches within countries too. "The parenting choices of the rich differ systematically from those of the poor," the authors write. "For example, psychologists have long noted that authoritarian parenting is more prevalent in families with low income."
The authors also look at gender roles, arguing that "social and economic discrimination in labour markets [will mean that] parents will have weaker incentives to invest in their daughter's human capital, since the return to such investment is low".
Gender is explored more fully in two books by sociologists who focus on the tensions at home and work faced by mothers. In Making Motherhood Work, Caitlyn Collins argues that complaints of work-family conflict are seen as women's "own fault and their own problem to sort". This is because, she argues, motherhood is trivialised and seen as a lifestyle choice, a bit like having a puppy. Needless to say this completely misses the point. As Collins points out, children provide crucial benefits as future workers and taxpayers. "We don't rely on pets to one day become our teachers, post office employees, doctors and garbage collectors. Raising children well is in a country's collective best interest."
As with Love, Money & Parenting , attitudes are shown to vary in different countries, in this case shaped by social policy and politics. Here, Collins interviews 135 working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy and the US to understand the different impact having children has on careers and home lives.
In the US, where Collins teaches at Washington university, she writes that there is a sense of "yearning, that across the Atlantic at least, another world is possible". It is the author's specific mission to see what can be learnt from European policies, without falling for the myth that they have reached a truly gender-equal "nirvana". So, she stirs pasta in her interviewees' kitchens, plays with their sons and daughters to try to understand just how policy and cultural expectations affect mothers' lives and outlooks.
It is Sweden, home of the "latte papas", where she finds mothers are the "least conflicted and most content". There, parents can take 16 months of paid leave, with 90 days reserved for the father, the so-called "daddy quota". In practice, most of the leave is used by women but about one-quarter is taken up by men. Then there is affordable, quality childcare — Collins notes, the Swedish government spends more on pre-school services than defence.
The result is that Swedish mothers expect to work. "Of course [any mother] is working, I mean, what else would she do?" says one mother, sipping cucumber water. The women also expect the fathers to look after their kids, talking of their partners' "right" rather than "duty" to do so.
Elsewhere, the family-work pressures are far fiercer. In Italy, the women are frustrated not only by the government's lack of commitment to support for mothers and young children but also fathers who prefer to be mama's boys than step up. One woman shows the author a picture of the family drawn by her child in which the father is omitted. These variations show that motherhood is not a fixed identity but moulded by cultural expectations and socio-economic forces.
It is the US that is the unhappiest by Collins' description. There is no national work-family policy, no maternity or paid parental leave. Mothers complain of exhaustion, returning to work well before their baby can sleep through the night, and of the trials of pumping breast milk at work.
Ultimately, this book is a rallying cry to value "caregiving, as well as the people who provide that care". Collins is frustrated by lip-service. "It means little as a country to praise families as the bedrock of the nation", she writes, "if we fail to reinforce these values with the material and financial [support]". "The costs of child-rearing cannot remain private and feminised", she argues, rallying men to the home, though falls short of prescribing policies.
Like Collins, Shani Orgad also concentrates on middle-class women. In Heading Home , Orgad, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, focuses on stay-at-home mothers, in particular wealthy and educated ones based in London who drop out of work to look after children while their high-flying husbands continue to earn a salary. She finds that, for many women, their decision to leave work was not simply born from a desire to bake cakes and finger-paint. It was far more complicated. It was a decision made after they found themselves caught in the tangled weeds of long-hours work cultures and their husbands' assumptions that they would be the ones to quit their jobs.
These women, she argues, were the "fortunate beneficiaries" of education and reaping the "rewards of the abundant possibilities opened up to women of their generation". Yet even they could not make it work. Many expressed sadness, wishing they had articulated their desires. They told Orgad: "I didn't have that conversation, about what I want, with myself, with my husband, and with my workplace."
Orgad argues that if these affluent women find it hard to juggle work, family and childcare, then those with less money must find the struggle so much harder.
When they leave work, these highly educated women try to find status in their roles by "becoming the managers of their families". Unlike their mothers, who were tied by domestic drudgery to the kitchen, "they have rechanneled their extensive skills and knowledge as former talented professionals into a new role". Rachel, a former senior accountant, relays her day, making packed lunch, shopping, washing, volunteering to do the school accounts, housework, then school pick-up, homework, after-school lessons, dinner, bedtime and at "nine o'clock, I'm free!"
The author asks that women "unmute" their disappointment and "demand the creation of social infrastructure" to bring about equality at home and work.
It is easy to mock helicopter parenting, or to dismiss the frustrations of wealthy mothers at the school gates. But by talking to women and locating parents within their social and economic contexts, such stereotypes seem altogether less frivolous and altogether relatable.
There are many possible interventions. Recent discussions of basic income, trumpeted by Silicon Valley tech titans, for example, have echoes of a strand of feminism that endorsed wages for housework, espoused by Selma James in the 1970s.
But before looking at possible prescriptions, these books demand that the first step is to question the value we place on caring. Only then will we really begin to see change.
• Love, Money & Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, by Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti
• Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, by Caitlyn Collins
• Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, by Shani Orgad
Written by: Emma Jacobs
© Financial Times