Caitlyn Collins on Making Motherhood Work

Collins Making Motherhood Work coverThe work-family conflict that mothers experience today is a national crisis. Women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant. Social policies don’t help. Of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies: No federal paid parental leave. The highest gender wage gap. No minimum standard for vacation and sick days. The highest maternal and child poverty rates. Can American women look to European policies for solutions? Making Motherhood Work draws on interviews that sociologist Caitlyn Collins conducted over five years with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. She explores how women navigate work and family given the different policy supports available in each country.

Tons of academics and journalists have written about motherhood and work-family conflict. What’s different about your book?

 Making Motherhood Work pushes the conversation about work-family conflict beyond national borders. There’s clear consensus: the United States’ free market approach to social provisioning is failing families. Working mothers’ struggles are only intensifying. We need structural change. Many of these writers point to European-style policies as promising models.

This book is the first to compare work-family policies cross-nationally from the perspective of mothers themselves. I begin—rather than end—with the question of policy. What’s life like under these different policy models? Making Motherhood Work complements accounts of U.S. women’s experiences with stories from European women. I engage them in a virtual transatlantic conversation to consider a wide range of possibilities to better support mothers and families. Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for (or against), and enact work-family policy as a force for social change.

How did you approach the research for the book?

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working moms in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States over the course of five years. I spent time with women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and with their children, partners, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. We can think of these women as a conservative test of how employed moms think and feel about work-family conflict. As sociologist Pamela Stone writes, if middle- and upper-class working mothers struggle to manage work and family, these difficulties are akin to “the miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss.” Things are much, much harder for mothers who are low-income, have little formal education, unrewarding jobs, unreliable or no transportation, and for people without legal residency or citizenship. Studies with these women are vital. I hope this book inspires more research on disadvantaged mothers across national contexts.

Where do mothers have it “best”? Can we import their policies to the U.S.?

The most satisfied women live in Sweden. I left Stockholm feeling optimistic about prospects for working moms. Cultural attitudes and work-family policies can play in reducing gender inequality. I show that Swedish social policies are part of a larger cultural discourse about parenting, work, and gender equality. Their social democratic policies operate in the context of societal beliefs that child-rearing is a collective responsibility, that both men and women can and should work for pay and care for their families, and that workplaces recognize and support employees’ nonwork responsibilities and interests. These cultural beliefs are incompatible with the neoliberal ideology ascendant in the US. In other words, work-family policies are symptomatic of larger ethical and cultural understandings of what is and isn’t appropriate for mothers. As such, they play a role in reproducing the existing social order.

The larger point is this: context matters. We can’t roll out a Swedish or German or Italian policy in the U.S. and expect it to have similar consequences. Instead, with any policy, we need to examine its assumptions, content, and practical implications in relation to the wider political, economic, and social context. We need to evaluate policy reforms in light of prevailing cultural ideals to understand their effects on mothers. They’re likely to differ in important ways for different groups of women.

What about dads? They struggle to manage work and family life, too.

Absolutely they do. I focus on mothers because in all industrialized countries, they’ve historically been the targets of work-family policy. Women are still responsible for most housework and childcare. They report greater work-family conflict than men. And they use work-family policies more often than men. The conversation needs to be about dads as much as about moms.

These policies are necessary but insufficient if they’re offered to and used mostly by women and not men. In other words, work-family policies should be enacted in a cultural environment supportive of gender equality. Policies can be pro-mother without being pro-equality. To be clear, ridding a society of sexism isn’t a necessary precondition for implementing work-family justice oriented policies. But we need a renewed conversation about gender equality policy and policy instruments aimed at changing men’s behavior alongside work-family policy debates to improve the social and economic climate for all working parents.

What’s the one takeaway you want readers to remember?

Work-family conflict is not an unfortunate but inexorable part of life as a working mom today. This book shows that mothers’ stress is not of their own making, and it can’t be of their own fixing. Work-family conflict is a phenomenon that societies have created. This means that societies can change it, too. U.S. Americans can enact policies to remedy the unequal social conditions that fuel mothers’ stress and undue burden for caregiving. What we’re missing is the political and social will to do so.

You argue we should abandon the goal of “work-family balance.” Instead you advocate a social movement for work-family justice. What does that mean?

Framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is too individualistic. The U.S. is a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. Suggesting mothers seek “balance” doesn’t take into account how institutions contribute to this stress. We need a social movement centered on work-family justice. I define this in the book as a system in which each member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care. The rhetoric of justice highlights the reality that this conflict isn’t the outcome of individual women’s shortcomings or mismanaged commitments. Instead, it’s the result of cultural attitudes and policies embedded in workplaces and systems of welfare provisioning. In Erik Olin Wright’s words, as with all social problems, work-family conflict doesn’t reflect some fixed law of nature. It reflects the current social organization of power. Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice.

What’s the one social policy you would implement if you could wave a magic wand to help U.S. moms?

High-quality, affordable childcare. My next project is an ethnographic study of the U.S. childcare system, an extractive market we don’t tend to talk about in these terms. Without a robust public option, consequences are dire for kids, parents, businesses, and our economy. Like work-family conflict, the crisis of care is not inevitable. But it’s central to reproductive justice. We can do more, and better, for U.S. families.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @caitymcollins and read more here: