Monday, July 29, 2013

What Do American Families Really Want?

“No man on his death bed ever looked up into the eyes of his family and friends and said, I wish I'd spent more time at the office”
-Arie De Geus

Ahh. Family and work. A popular topic especially on the blogs of the New York Times and Huffington Post. A topic that will remain popular until we reach real solutions to the problems that many American families face: The ability to balance work and family life by having access to safe, quality childcare and favorable policies for employees so they may take care of their families while not missing a step at work.


Recently the Pew Research study released data showing that there were more female breadwinners than ever before. This of course would be great news if it weren't for the fact that this accounts for more women that are the sole earner in their homes and are working lower wage jobs. Another recent study also show that 50% of mothers would prefer to work part time. So what does this mean, exactly, about what the majority of American women want? Do they want the corner office or do they want the ability to earn a good enough living to remain comfortably in middle class while being able to care for their families?

One article that sparked my interest a few weeks ago in the New York Times Why French Women Don't Get Promoted stated even though French women have favorable policies that allow them more time at home with their families and have more difficulty getting fired than Americans do, they too, do not have it all. French women still face a glass ceiling that is lower than that of American women and their extended child care policies may be the reason for it. I have never lived or worked in France so I can’t say with certainty that this is something only mothers face. This could be a result of sexism and the lack of laws that exist in France to help protect female workers and not the result of becoming a mother.  

I can see how this would not go over well with those that work in more financially rewarding fields that have already made significant advances in their careers. The thought of losing all they worked for or not being recognized for their talents or abilities may be incentive to choose career over motherhood or to go back to work almost immediately. This may work for the family that can afford the nanny or high end daycare they trust enough with an infant or if mom or dad (or both) work for companies that offer favorable policies similar to those of Yahoo and Google.  

Obviously, this is not the norm. There are many families that are single parent households resulting in the sole caretaker going to work full time out of necessity, not by choice because she (or he) wants the corner office. There also exists dual income families that do not make enough to pay for childcare resulting in one parent staying home furthering their economic woes. There exists families that earn enough to remain middle class, but do not work for companies that would offer favorable policies, forcing  a parent to take  a part time job resulting in loss of benefits and pay threatening their middle class status.

In Norway, there exists childcare policies that encourages women to go back to work, resulting in Norway being the most productive country in the world. Norway does not view providing access to childcare for families and extended time off after giving birth as a handout, but as an investment in their workforce and overall productivity.  This appears to differ from the French model in that the female workers are valued and seen as integral to society. The U.S. is much larger and more diverse than Norway which would undoubtedly make this a difficult feat to master but I think adopting more government sponsored policies so that women that want to work can work would be tax dollars wisely spent and a move in the right direction.

I do not believe the solution the average American family wants to hear is “don’t have kids you can’t afford” because this is not only a poor people problem. And if it were, who is to say poor people should not be able to have children? Unfavorable policies for maternity and paternity leave and access to affordable childcare forces families to take low paying jobs for convenience or not work at all forcing more families to depend on welfare or food stamps. Is that tax dollars well spent?

What American families want are jobs that pay a living wage. Not part time, low wage jobs that do not offer any benefits. What American women want to hear is that their jobs and livelihood will not be in jeopardy if they get pregnant and they have time to recuperate and take care of their baby the few months after giving birth. What American men want to hear is that they too, can take time off to care for a new baby if it works best for mom to go to work shortly after giving birth. 

Every family is different along with their values and desires. I do not believe there is a clear cut answer to every families’ situation, but the ability for Americans to make comprehensive choices about what works best for their family is something we need to fight to get.