September 6, 2017

Moms at Work: Policies and Perspectives in Europe and the US

Sociologist Caitlyn Collins frequently remembers a familiar phrase from her childhood. Collins’ mom, a successful sales director, often said with a sigh: “If we were in Europe, this would be so much easier!” So, was Collins’ mom correct? Are the lives of working mothers that much easier in Europe? Collins now investigates how public policies affect family life in both Europe and the US. She shares some of her findings on the laws and cultural attitudes that shape women's careers and lives.



Image Sean Garcia. audio Free Music Archive: Jared C. Balogh, Gillicuddy, Broke for Free, Nheap, Rushus.


Claire Gauen (host): Hello, and thank you for listening to Hold That Thought. I’m your host Claire Gauen. You may have noticed a name change there – I got married over the summer. A lot of my friends have also recently gotten married, and even more are starting to have kids. With all the infants and toddlers around, I hear a lot about the stress that comes with trying to be a full-time parent and a full-time employee** at the same time. It’s a common problem – one that sociologist Caitlyn Collins has studied in depth. Collins’ interest in work-family conflict started long before she decided to become a sociology professor.

Caitlyn Collins (guest): I grew up with a mom who worked as a director of sales and marketing, and both she and my dad worked really, really long hours like so many American parents do.

CG: And, like so many American parents, sometimes they found childcare hard to come by.

CC: You know I have vivid memories of when my mom couldn't find a childcare solution and she had a board meeting early in the morning. She'd put us in the car with sleeping bags, and we'd go to her boardroom meetings. My sister and I would sleep in the corner in sleeping bags, and it was my job to keep my little sister quiet so we didn't interrupt the meeting.

CG: From her spot in the corner, Collins got an up-close view of something that not all kids get a chance to see – the professional life of a working mom.

CC: I have really vivid images in my head of being a kid and seeing my mom in a room full mostly of men, commanding a room which I found really inspiring. But then she had to rush us into the car, get us to school on time, and sometimes late. And she spent a lot of time being really stressed and really overwhelmed, and she kind of always had this mantra that I have repeated in my head from my childhood which is, "Ugh, if we were in Europe this would be so much easier."

CG: If we were in Europe, this would be so much easier. It’s an idea that most families in the US have probably heard before. But how true is it, really? Is life as a working mom that much different – that much better – in Europe? And if so, why? Over time, Collins became more and more interested in answering those types of questions. She especially wanted to know the effects of government policies on family life. So, as a graduate student she went straight to the source. She started talking with European working moms. 

CC: I did interviews in western Germany and wrote my master's thesis about the experiences of working mothers there.

CG: Over time, the project expanded out to Sweden, Italy, and the United States. Collins ended up conducting 135 in-depth interviews of middle-income working moms. So what did she find? Spoiler alert: in some ways, Collins’ mom was right. American policies do lag far behind Europe in important ways – we’ll get to that in a minute. However, Collins also found that the situation in Europe is more complex than she originally imagined.

CC: When I went to Germany, kind of with that thought of my mom's suggestion that things are better over there, I thought I was going to go to Western Germany and hear women say, 'We love the policies we have here. This makes our lives so much easier.' And that's not what I learned in that context.

CG: At the time of Collins’ interviews in Germany, policies there allowed mothers to take up to three years of paid parental leave. That’s right. Three years. Paid. Americans are only guaranteed 12 weeks of time off work – and that’s without pay, which a lot of people can’t afford. So why on earth wouldn’t German moms love this policy?

CC: They felt imprisoned by these policies because there is a cultural expectation that you take advantage of the quote unquote 'generous' leave available to you.

CG: Across the board, Collins found that a policy’s success depends a lot on what you want. In Germany, many moms wanted to continue working. But with three years of paid leave on the table, they felt enormous pressure to stay home.

CC: And in a German context, these women actually explained to me that they were marked as bad mothers if they didn't take the full three years of leave.

CG: So three years paid is great if you want to stay home for an extended period. But what if you want professional success?

CC: Unfortunately, sociological research suggests that leaving the labor force for that long is somewhat detrimental to a woman's career, right? And it's hard to onramp back after three years out of the labor market. And if you have a second child and do the same, that's six years out. Right? So you're, for example, lifetime earnings trajectory is diminished as a result. Your occupational attainment over the life course, in terms of climbing a career ladder, has diminished, as well.

CG: Seeing these trends, Germany has since changed its paid leave policy to cover one year away from work, instead of three. According to Collins, this story reveals how policies reflect cultural values – values like what it means to be a good mom, or a good employee. Importantly, it also shows that both policy and cultural attitudes can change. For another example of how this works, we turn to Sweden. As you’ve probably heard, Scandinavian countries are known for their gender equality. And this equality can really be seen in family life.

CC: So first of all, if you've been to Sweden before - it's shocking to an American audience, it certainly was for me, to see men with strollers everywhere out in public alone, without women around. Men in groups with strollers, babies on their chests, walking around getting coffee, playing at a park, whatever. And there are no women in sight. This totally shocked me because it's not part of what I understand is the American reality. Swedes have a joke that Americans get off the airplane, look around them and say, 'Why do so many men work as nannies here?'

CG: Of course, those men are dads caring for their own kids. It really says something about the United States that that seems weird, right? But in Sweden it’s the norm. And work-family policies reflect that.

CC: The government has long offered a gender equality bonus for parents who split the parental leave time equally. It's literally a cash incentive to get men to take more leave time. So if that's what you want, Sweden might be a good place for you.

CG: Just to reiterate that last point – families in Sweden get cash, on top of their paid leave, if moms and dads choose to equally split their time at home.***  With that, let’s turn to the elephant in the room here. What is up with the United States?

CC: The American case is really interesting because the U.S. has a context that rhetorically says that families are the foundation of our country. They're the backbone of our society, and we value them endlessly. We talk about families being the most valuable part of our lives that gives us meaning, hope, fulfillment in ways that we don't get from any other arena in our life. However, this rhetoric is not backed up with actual public support in the form of policies and laws that enable families the time and resources necessary to take care of one another.

CG: So unlike in Germany and Sweden, our supposed cultural values do not line up with the laws of the land. We say families are the most important thing, but our policies don’t reflect that. Like, at all.

CC: For example, the US is one of only two countries on the planet that doesn't have paid maternity leave. We have no universal child care system. We have no minimum standard for vacation and sick days. We have no universal social insurance entitlement. We have no minimum income. We fall far, far behind the rest of the industrialized world in providing these work-family policies for families, and it's having absolutely disastrous consequences on families, and especially on the working mothers that I interviewed here.

CG: We probably all have examples, either from our own families or from people we know, of parents, often moms, pushed beyond the max. So often in the US, women are expected to be full-time employees and full-time moms and still do all of it successfully and gracefully with a smile on their face. For most human beings, it’s just too much. In her many interviews, Collins heard this story over and over and over.

CC: So one very easy indicator of how much more stressed out women in the U.S. are is that they started crying during the interviews way more often than the women in the other countries - especially in response to one question that I was not anticipating prior to asking it. And that question that I ask usually around two thirds of the way through the interview is, 'You know, everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a good mother or a good father, but to you - what does it mean to be a good mother to your children?' And a lot of my American moms’ eyes welled up with tears and then had giant tears rolling down their faces. Many times, we had to pause the interview for them to regain their composure. And what they told me afterward is that they feel like they're failing their children. They feel like they're trying in every way, shape, and form they can to be the best parent they can be, but they're simply unable to fulfill their own idea of what it means to be a good mother because they don't have enough time in the day or enough resources to be the sort of parent they want. To me, that's a really devastatingly obvious form of inequality if we live in a place where women cry in an interview when they're asked what it means to be a good mom because they simply don't think they are, even though they're trying their hardest.

CG: As devastating as that is, it’s the reality for countless women. This level of stress is seen as normal, almost a rite of passage for new moms. And when this level of distress is the norm for so many people, any little bit of relief is a godsend.  

CC: And so when women work at a place that for example gives them, let's say three months of paid maternity leave, women feel like they've won the lottery because they're looking at all their friends around them who don't work for these workplaces and thinking, 'Thank goodness I get these three months off at home. I couldn't be more grateful to my employer for offering them since I know so many other people who don't have them.'

CG: Gratitude is great, right? We’re told regularly that we should be thankful for what we have, and that grateful people are happier overall. But when it comes to work-family policies, gratitude isn’t the best or only response out there. Collins found that European moms tend to think about things differently. For them, family support is not a gift.

CC: Instead, women in a European context very often use the discourse of rights - having a right or an entitlement to these sorts of policy supports. American women don't use that because they don't feel entitled to these supports, right? We don't operate in a context where we think that the government has an obligation to help us meet our caregiving needs. We don't live in a world that works like that. But in a European context, where women expect to be supported in their breadwinning and caregiving roles by the government, when they feel that they don't have the policies they want they use the rhetoric of entitlement to talk about what they think they deserve and aren't currently getting in the government.

CG: This attitude makes a big difference. When you start from a place where family support is a right, instead of a gift, the whole conversation changes.

CC: So for example, Swedish women would complain to me in the interviews when I say, 'Could you talk a little bit about what you might like to see done in policy to better support you here in a Swedish context?' And women would say, 'I think it's really problematic that we only get 80 percent of our pay during our parental leave.' And of course, I could understand why they'd feel that way. A 20 percent pay reduction as they told me is, quote, 'a really really big dip in income.' And I tell my American respondents when I give talks about this project to American audiences, and the whole audience starts laughing out loud. Because the idea that you could get paid anything to take a parental leave is so outside of our idea of what's possible that we can't even envision a world that we'd get 80 percent pay. Let alone 10 percent, for example.

CG: According to Collins, that inability to imagine that things could be different is a huge hurdle to progress. In the US, it’s totally normal for working families to get little to no help. It’s normal to be exhausted and stressed for years, and to still miss out on time with your young kids. But as Europe proves, things do not have to be this way. 

CC: The framing of it being inevitable is part of the problem. Sort of the conclusion to this research that I've been doing is that work-family conflict is not inevitable. It is not an inevitable feature of contemporary life. It's not. It's the product of public policies and cultural attitudes that need to change, if we want to make women's lives better. And that's the idea that it can't be any other way, that they can't envision an alternate reality where in fact you can be anything other than stressed to the limit the first year of your child's life - actually there are other possibilities. In Sweden, for example, the fact that you have a year of paid leave suggests that this could look very different, right? And so that's really the impetus behind this project in the first place - is trying to show American audiences what things could look like if we were to develop the political will to pass different policies, and to perhaps update our cultural attitudes about breadwinning and caregiving.

CG: So why haven’t we found the cultural or political will to make these changes? There are lots of possible reasons. For one, Americans often assume that policies like paid parental leave would be disastrous for the economy. But Europe proves that’s not true. And in fact, so do some US businesses.

CC: Studies have shown that in places where businesses offer paid leave these employers find that offering something, for example like paid parental leave, has either no effect or a positive effect on employee morale, on profitability, on turnover, for example. And this shows to companies that it's actually monumentally helpful for women themselves, but it has either no or a positive effect on key indicators for the company itself, right, in terms of profitability. When your workers are happier and healthier and more sane, they do better work and they're more invested in you as a company.

CG: Being an employee and a parent is always going to have its challenges. But in other parts of the world, shifts in culture and government policy have helped to make mothers, fathers, and kids less stressed, more productive, and healthier – meaning they spend way less on health care. Knowing all this, Collins believes that the US can’t afford to not offer these work-family supports under the law.

CC: All evidence points to the fact that these policies are good for literally everyone. Not just women, but also their kids, also their partners, also good for their employers, and it's also good for the U.S. as a whole. And so, I'm hoping that we develop more political will toward passing policies that are helpful for women and for their families.


**Clarification: Some of the women Collins interviewed for her study worked part-time. 

***Correction: Parents in Sweden get paid more depending on how equally they split their time – the more equal they split it, the more money they get.