stephanie Coontz is the author of "The Way We Never Were" and the recently published "The Way We Really Are" (Basic Books, 238 pages), two books that explore the myths and realities of American families. Coontz is a sociologist at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Salon spoke with her recently.
Why do you think the media is suddenly so obsessed with kids and working mothers, with cover stories in two major newsweeklies in the same week?
On the one hand, I think
they are appealing to some legitimate concerns. We have this 24-hour
turbocharged economy, and it is hard to sustain commitments of any kind
in it. And at the same time, our caregiving commitments are growing.
Because government and employers have pushed more of the costs of
raising kids onto families, the number of households which have major time
responsibilities for aging parents has tripled in the last decade, to one
out of every four households. So there is an awful lot of stress
and tension and juggling going on.
But I think that whether intentionally or not, these stories, particularly the U.S. News & World Report one, are aimed right at the hearts of working women
and implicitly endorse a stopgap, short-term solution that is not
family-friendly, one that will not help kids. That is the notion that
women should quit work for a few years after childbirth.
You say in the book that kids who have working moms and kids who
don't fare pretty much the same. Is that correct?
Yes. The research is overwhelming. A new
national study on child care found that if a woman
starts out insensitive to her child, then if the child
is in child care for more than 10 hours a week or in child care where
there is a big turnover of caregivers, that tends to intensify insecurity and weaken attachment. But you are still talking about two risks interacting there.
In those cases, I think that it would be appropriate to tell the
mother -- but why was it only the mother that they asked about? -- or rather the parents to spend some more time with their kids. In other cases, though,
when the child care is of high or even medium quality, you are
talking about variations between kids that are minuscule. Only 1 percent of the
difference that they find can be attributed to child care. So this has
been very much blown out of proportion.
How do researchers differentiate between mediocre care and excellent care?
Well, there are some things that almost all researchers agree on.
Excellent care is where there is a lot of talking and interaction
with the children, where they are not just farmed out to watch
TV or to play on their own. And there is high continuity of
caregivers. Children are perfectly capable of attaching to one, two or even three people, but they have to have some continuity, so a high turnover is a problem. But child care is always done as a footnote
in these stories. Since we know that high-quality child care can actually
improve kids' lives, why are we not spending more time talking about how
to get such high-quality child care, rather than talking about whether
women, and it is always women, are kidding themselves about balancing
work and family?
Have you found any negative effects
on women who do stay home?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes staying home
is obviously the appropriate thing to do. It is not always the best thing
to do right after childbirth; it may be that you find that you need to
stay home when your child is 1 or 2, or you may need to cut back when
your child is a teenager. It is really
more a matter of cutting back than it is quitting work entirely. First of all, new
research shows that while a (male) breadwinner, female-homemaker family was
quite stable during the 1950s and 1960s, in today's world, where most
women have considerable work experience before they get married and
before they have children, after marriage, the sudden backsliding into
traditional gender roles is extremely disorienting to families. The woman gets quite depressed, she doesn't feel that she has access to the outside world and status in the
outside world; she doesn't feel that she has as much leverage in
non-child-rearing decisions. And she is quite right in feeling that,
because studies show that families tend to be more egalitarian when there
is an equal contribution to income. So she gets depressed.
husband, who has also changed his expectations and really would like to
be more involved in child care, and has had the experience of having a
co-provider wife, often takes on more hours at work, gets excluded from
the child rearing, and he says, "Well what is she depressed about? I am
the one making the sacrifices, why isn't she more grateful?" Researchers
are finding that this can sow the seeds of conflict that eventually are
causes of divorce, in some instances.
Did you find any evidence of this in your research?
Yes, I get lots of stories about this backfiring. Women finding
that staying at home caused a lot of conflict in their marriage, women who would say for months or years, "I have to
sacrifice for my kid." A red flag goes up for me when I hear people talk
about "sacrificing" for their kid in that particular way. Not because I
don't think you should put your kids first; I really do. But when people
really feel that they are sacrificing by staying home, they are not
necessarily doing their child a favor. The research shows that people
feel better about themselves and have more patience to engage in good
parenting when they're feeling good about their roles, whatever those
roles might be.
There is a trade-off. If you go back to work, yes, you
are more likely to be harried, you are more likely to have some conflicts
with your husband over housework and child care. But those conflicts can
also pay off, because the best predictor of whether a man does housework
and child care is not his own ideology but the pressure from his wife. Men do more and better
child care when their wives are not there to take over for them. Some women really set
themselves up, when they stay home, as gatekeepers. They treat their
husbands as unskilled assistants. They
don't give their husbands the right to make the mistakes and learn their
course, the other side of it is that quitting work reinforces the wife's pre-existing
social disadvantage in the labor market. That has real long-range
implications. Very few of us can afford to quit work entirely for the
entire time that our kids are being raised. For example, college tuition
costs have tripled. You usually need two incomes when your kid is a
teenager, and you may need more flextime. If you don't have a
track record at your job, then you don't have the clout and experience to
get that flexibility, then you have to quit again. Who is going to quit?
It's the woman because her income is already set in this low pattern. Who
is going to quit when the parents or the in-laws need help? It's the
woman. The result is that, and this to me is a stunning statistic, only 9 percent of women aged 40 or over can expect retirement benefits from their jobs,
because of this pattern of interrupted work.
Speaking of flextime, in her new book, "The Time Bind," Arlie Hochschild puts forth the hypothesis
that even people who are lucky enough to have access to flextime, both
men and women, choose not to use it, partly because they feel that their
career won't advance as quickly if they don't have
enough "face time" with their bosses. She goes on to say that men and
women increasingly find the workplace to be sort of a respite, in the way the home used
to be. The paradigms have been turned around, because home is such an
unstructured, crazy place to be.
Well, Arlie Hochschild interviewed workers at one firm. I am sure there is a kernel of truth in her findings, but I would have two problems with
the conclusions that other people are drawing from them. I am not sure
she is drawing them herself. One is that family-friendly benefits like
flextime are mostly cosmetic, and most workers know they are. It is not
irrational of them to fear that their supervisors will count them as
being less dedicated. Study after study that shows that both men and
women who even inquire about parental leave begin to be earmarked
as not really committed.
The other part of the argument, that work, not
home, is the haven, seems to me a very exceptional situation. I do not think it is typical that most people are using the job as a place to escape from
home. To the extent that they are, it is not because we have chosen the
job over the home. It is that the job has made the home so hard, that it
has made it a very difficult place to live, even though we would like to
live there. Work demands are so great that they
destabilize family life. Many, many
people have very tense relations at work right now, especially with all
the downsizing that has been going on. Forced
overtime is increasing for unionized employees, and off-the-books
overtime is increasing for non-unionized employees. We have fewer
vacation days now than we did back in 1970, and lower health benefits. These
lead to tremendous resentments at work. And so what people do when they get to work, is to take it out on their employers by using e-mail for personal kinds of correspondence. It is unbelievable how much wasted time goes on because
people are angry at their employers and frustrated at home. So putting the onus on the individual gets it
wrong way around.
What are the effects of all of this overload, this juggling between work and home, on a child?
We've gone from a
time when the kid had the mother all over them -- in a way that was not
always healthy -- to a time when mothers are somewhat distracted, because they have more work going on. But I have
talked to so many kids of 1950s families who said, "I spent very little
time with my mom. She spent a lot of time housecleaning, but she didn't spend any more time talking to me than I
spend talking to my kids." And the other trade-off is that
men are spending much more time with their children than they did in the
1950s. So I do not see this as an insurmountable problem, I see it as a
different set of stresses. I certainly am all in favor of turning off
the beepers and the faxes and putting the phone on busy and not looking
at your e-mail, when you get home. I think it is important to carve out,
not quality time, but uninterrupted time. Often the best uninterrupted
time is that which comes about in the course of doing chores together -- it
is not sitting down face to face to have these long talks. Washing the
dishes together -- I am in favor of that. Taking a
bath -- kids are apt to give their best confidences when you are giving
them a bath, or halfway reading the newspaper, and only partly paying
attention to them, or doing a chore together, rather than when you just
get right in their face, and say, "Confide in me!"
Even if mothers and children
weren't interacting so much during the 1950s and 1960s when women were
at home more, isn't there a psychological benefit for a child to just
have mom around, whether she is talking to you or not? Is there a way that makes a child feel safer?
I think children need to feel safe. They need to know that there are
adults in their world who care about them and are checking up on them,
but I don't think that it always has to be the mother, or that it even
has to be a combination of just the father and mother. One of the real losses for kids in some middle-class communities is the loss of neighborhood and community, where you could go out
and you didn't rely on your own parents to be the only ones around.
Throughout the vast majority of human history, exclusive and full-time
child care by mothers has been totally exceptional. The co-provider
family was the norm in colonial days, and in medieval history -- siblings or somebody else had to take care of the
I don't espouse the "it takes a village" approach because I think that it's
as romanticized as the 1950s (nuclear family). We do not live in villages anymore. The real issue is that we have to make a village or make a community. We have to think in terms of the way we design our cities, the
way we design our houses, the kind of social space that we reserve,
whether we allow affluent people to withdraw into their private
schools and gated communities. We have to rethink our work and school
schedules to make them less conflictual with family life. People thought
the world would end when the union movement demanded the 40-hour week.
With our technology, there is no reason that we couldn't have a 30- or 35-hour week. Everybody says that that is an unreasonable
demand. To my mind it is an unreasonable demand to ask that individual
women shoulder all the burdens of caregiving in today's modern world. I
think it is more reasonable to say that we have to adjust our housing and
our work expectations and our child-care opportunities.
A lot of media attention seems to be focused on the "plague" of
absent dads. Are kids without fathers, whose parents are divorced
or who are raised by single moms, that much worse off?
No. This has been HUGELY exaggerated. Do not misunderstand me: I
think that there are obvious stresses involved with raising a child
alone. But a lot of women raise children alone, even when they have a
father in the home. The key is: Do you have two cooperating parents,
who are both involved with the children and respectful of each other?
That is the ideal situation. And there are
plenty of times when, in the absence of that ideal situation, a kid will
be better off after a divorce.
Let me give you a couple of examples. When
there is high conflict in a home, we know for sure that the kids are
better off if their parents do not stay together. Some of the other
instances are very close calls. For example, even when there is low
conflict, but you have a disengaged father, we find that teens in
two-parent families with disengaged fathers have lower self-esteem than
either teens in two-parent families where the father is engaged or teens
in one-parent families. Because the divorce gives the kid the excuse to
say, "Well, Dad's not involved with me because he can't get along with
Mom." Whereas the one who has the disengaged Dad who is still in the home
doesn't have that excuse. Similarly, we find that the men who are unhappy
with their wives have a tremendous spill-over with the way they treat
their daughters. So although divorce may be traumatic for such young
women, they may end up better in the long run, in terms of their
self-confidence and achievement, than having a father around who is
belittling them. I am not trying to say that people should run out and
get divorced, but I am saying we know that it is far too complex a
situation for anyone to have the arrogance to play God about telling
people what they should do.
Are there any government policies that you see as truly family-friendly, that
aren't just rhetoric?
There are some being talked about, but they are
being talked about too timidly. What we need is a major new
campaign, much along the lines of the Progressive movement's campaign at
the turn of the century, to make family issues a health and safety issue,
in terms of national regulations, guidelines and investment. It
is a health and safety issue to make sure that parents can take time off
without having to give up their jobs entirely. We should have laws that
prohibit forced overtime, where you can sue an employer who prevents you
from taking time off. We should have laws such as Sweden's that allow any
caregiver (not just parents but caretakers of people with Alzheimer's)
to drop down to three-quarters time -- with a cut in pay, of course, but
not to lose health benefits and not to lose seniority. We
have to do something about our ludicrous family leave policy -- it covers
less than 50 percent of the workers, and it is unpaid. It is for wealthy people
only, and for those who work for big corporations only. The maximum of
leave that you are allowed under the act is smaller than the minimum
amount of leave in all of our European counterparts. And we have to invest in
quality child care. Child care is not good. We must make it
better. That should be a major campaign, unless you think that kids are
less important than inspecting meat and regulating airline safety.
of liberals to confront these issues head-on has left the right wing in
charge of not just the dialogue, but the very language, so that it does
get posed in terms of "family values." I was on tour in East Texas a few months ago, I was on a panel, and the first 10 minutes of questions were all about
family values. Instead of just saying, "You are wrong," I said, "Tell me
more, what does it mean in your life?" and after 10 minutes, we were all
agreeing. So, it's a sentiment that is a mile wide but
only an inch deep. Our politicians don't have the courage to dig below
that inch -- in fact, they prefer to keep it at that shallow level.
The U.S. News article cited a 1997 poll in which 75 percent of 950 adults
said moms with kids under 3 who work outside
the home are threatening family values.
You know these polls change from day to day depending on how they're phrased. If you phrase the question, "Are women who work
neglecting their kids?" the overwhelming majority will say no.
In many cases, because it is the only vocabulary people have to express
their concern, they'll use the conservative term "family values," but when you press
people on what they mean by that, they'll define it in a totally different way
than the right wing does. The public defines it in terms of teaching your kids to look beyond the family. They define it in terms of reaching out to
get involved in community activities. Whereas the right-wing definition of
family values is extraordinarily narrow -- even in terms of the
history of Christianity. Christ was quite anti-family. He said that
family bonds can interfere with your commitment to the larger Christian
community. And the early evangelicals took pains to always talk about the
Christian household, to indicate that you had to reach beyond the narrow,
selfish ties of sexual attraction and the narcissistic ties of blood in
order to look out for the larger community.