Courtesy of Caitlyn Collins

Lost in Translation: "Working Mothers"

2019-06-12 | 8 min. read

Caitlyn Collins, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, spent four years interviewing 135 working mothers in Europe and The United States about the “work-family conflict” that many employed mothers face. Collins documents the results of her study in her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

The Section Magazine spoke with Collins about why American mothers face greater stress over work-family balance, the realities of parenting in Sweden, and what steps can be taken to make motherhood and employment more compatible.

Courtesy of Caitlyn Collins

The Section Magazine: Your book looks at working mothers in four different countries: Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United States. What are some of the biggest differences that you saw?

Caitlyn Collins: It was very clear to me that women in these different countries wanted and expected very different things out of their work and family lives. For example, women in Sweden wanted to combine working full-time with childrearing, and they expected that men, employers and the government would help them do that and in fact, that is exactly what [happened in Sweden].

Women in Germany, for example, wanted to work outside of the home--they just desperately didn't want to be penalized for being mothers in the workplace. Historically, they have [parental leave] policies in Germany that allow mothers to spend the first few years of their kids’ lives at home. [This policy] sounds great on paper but taking three years out of the labor force can be detrimental to women’s careers and those who returned to work early felt stigmatized for it.

In the US and Italian context, women did not expect help from employers or from their male partners to help balance work and family life. One big difference between Italy and the U.S. is that women in Italy did expect the government to help them reconcile their work and family commitments. They were furious at what they perceived to be the lack of support from the Italian government and they thought they deserved much better.

American women didn't think about the government at all. American women looked at me blankly when I asked what the federal government could do to help them reconcile their work and family responsibilities. It hadn’t even crossed their minds that the government could help, whereas women in the other countries had a lot of suggestions for how their governments could better support them.

American women live in a country where providing for your family is your responsibility. Women are expected to do all of the work themselves and heartbreakingly, unlike the women in Europe, women in America tend to blame themselves for their stress, conflicts and for being overwhelmed.

What do Swedish policies look like and how are they implemented into the daily life of a Swedish mother?

In 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to implement a gender-neutral parental leave policy for both parents. Today Swedes get 480 days of paid parental leave to be divided equally between partners in a cohabiting household (If you're a single parent you get all 480 days). Parental leave is paid at 80% wage replacement and can be used flexibly until the child is 8 years old. Sweden has what they call a “gender equality bonus”, which means if parents divide parental leave equally, the government will send them a check. This incentivizes couples and it is an example of how policy can be a lever for positive social change.

Sweden also has a public child care system that is universally available for children starting at the age of one. It's the best early childhood education and care system in the world. All of their daycare providers have a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. It's charged on a sliding scale so poor families pay nothing and even the very wealthiest families only pay roughly $1,900 per year for full-time childcare.  

All of this is paid through a federal system of taxation that to Swede’s symbolizes the buy-in from all members of Swedish Society. They believe that it's in their collective best interest to support kids being raised well because they know children are their next [generation] of workers and taxpayers.

Do Swedish mothers feel the same type of work-family conflict that many of their American counterparts feel?

Absolutely not. Swedish women even laughed when I used the phrase “working mother” and that gave me a reason to pause and ask “why are you laughing?” The women would say “what else would you do? We don't even have that phrase ‘“working mothers”’ in the Swedish language because if you are an adult you probably have kids and you are working”. Women in Sweden don’t know stay-at-home moms; that's not a thing in Sweden because the government as well cultural attitudes support the idea that women should be able to work if they have kids and that men should be involved with caregiving. That is an enormous difference between the American and Swedish context.

What do Swedish women expect from their partners when it comes to raising kids, earning a living, and doing housework?

Equality. It's as simple as that, to be honest, they don't hope for it to be equal they expect for it to be equal and those are two very different things. It takes work to try to maintain an egalitarian division of labor in the household. One [Swedish] mom said to me that she felt the slow creep of a more traditional division of labor in her house and she called a family meeting with her husband and was like “we have to chat about this because this doesn't feel equal to me and we need to do something to rectify what has unconsciously become less equal.” So they came to an agreement her husband would clean the kitchen before bed every night and that was his way of contributing in an egalitarian way.

One of the Swedish women in your book said that when she was first dating her husband she asked him if he would be willing to have an equal division of labor in the household and the fact that he said yes was the reason that she was willing to continue in that relationship.

Yes, you set the expectation from day one and if that person doesn't expect the same thing then it's probably not a good fit. German women told me something similar and several U.S. women also explained having partners who identify as feminists. It was just way more rare in the U.S. where women talked constantly about feeling “lucky”, “grateful” or “privileged” to have a partner who participated equally. Instead of thinking, “this is what I deserve and all families deserve this”.

Are there any downsides to the Swedish model?

I think there are. The Swedish model is based around the idea that a household comprises of two parents and children where both parents work full-time outside of the home. You couldn't, for example, decide to be a stay-at-home mom or a dad because it costs too much to try to support your family.

You make the point that the United States is an outlier among western industrialized countries for its lack of support for working mothers. What is the biggest difference you saw between working mothers in Sweden and those in the U.S. in terms of the cultural expectations and the policies that their governments have in place?

Sweden is often held up as a paragon example of what feminist policy looks like and that couldn't be further from the truth in the U.S. As I say in the book, the U.S. has the most family-hostile policy of any country in the western industrialized world. We have no parental leave system, no universal childcare system, no universal healthcare system, no minimum standard for vacation and sick days, and no guaranteed social insurance entitlement. And what that means is that citizens think of families as a very private and personal responsibility. But the reality is that kids grow up to be our elected officials, doctors, teachers and our garbage collectors and so having them raised well matters.

In Swedish society, they understand that they have a collective responsibility to support parents and children well. They think of children as public goods that benefit everyone and so they pay into a system that supports them.

Courtesy of Caitlyn Collins

Let's talk about a call to action. What could the U.S. do to create policies that support families and children while matching their own cultural context?

It's a really good question because it gets to the heart the message I'm trying to drive home in the book. We can't just take Swedish policies and bring them to the U.S. because Swedish policies work in the context of a society that believes breadwinning and caregiving are both men and women's responsibilities. So bringing those policies to the U.S. is likely to have unintended consequences. I think we have to imagine what it means given our cultural context. We can’t go from zero to one hundred and so for example, we should shoot for eight weeks of paid parental leave and then expand outwards towards universal Pre-K.

[Americans] will say to me: “I don't want to pay for [other people’s] kids. I've raised my kids on my own and I'm not paying for other people's kids.” But they are in fact paying for other people's kids already. Everyone is paying into a public education system for children ages 5 to 18. So, why don't we extend that same line of reasoning to support kids going to Pre-K. We know early education is a huge equalizer amongst families of different ethnicities and socio-economic status.  

We also, need to start trying to change the conversation around masculinity and suggest that men have a duty and a right to be equals caregivers. Being a parent is a gift and getting to spend time with your kids is special and unequal division of labor doesn’t help anyone. We need to drive that point home.

36% of the U.S. workforce are freelancers, and by 2027, it is estimated that over half of the U.S. workforce will be freelance and therefore outside of traditional human resource coverage. What social and policy changes should Americans be moving towards right now to ensure that women will be able to manage freelance careers and motherhood?

All people (not just parents, or women) need flexibility and greater control over their schedules, and many turn to freelance work because they can’t find another way to secure these entitlements. We also tie benefits like health insurance to employment in the U.S. This isn’t the case in all western industrialized countries; why should the ability to seek medical care when you’re ailing be tied to your employer? We can separate benefits from family status and employment status by building a robust social safety net for all U.S. women, men, and families.

At a federal level, we need to guarantee paid family leave and a minimum standard for paid vacation and sick days. Higher education shouldn’t cost more than a house. Neither should childcare.

Women shouldn’t lose their jobs for having a baby. We need to radically rethink the structure of work to accommodate the reality that everyone has non-work responsibilities that require their time and attention. Workers need to think of themselves as entitled to policy supports and time away to care for loved ones or themselves. These are not privileges, they are rights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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