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Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving

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A moving, cross-national account of working mothers' daily lives--and the revolution in public policy and culture needed to improve them The 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, th A moving, cross-national account of working mothers' daily lives--and the revolution in public policy and culture needed to improve them The 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. Taking readers into women's homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, Collins shows that mothers' desires and expectations depend heavily on context. In Sweden--renowned for its gender-equal policies--mothers assume they will receive support from their partners, employers, and the government. In the former East Germany, with its history of mandated employment, mothers don't feel conflicted about working, but some curtail their work hours and ambitions. Mothers in western Germany and Italy, where maternalist values are strong, are stigmatized for pursuing careers. Meanwhile, American working mothers stand apart for their guilt and worry. Policies alone, Collins discovers, cannot solve women's struggles. Easing them will require a deeper understanding of cultural beliefs about gender equality, employment, and motherhood. With women held to unrealistic standards in all four countries, the best solutions demand that we redefine motherhood, work, and family. Making Motherhood Work vividly demonstrates that women need not accept their work-family conflict as inevitable.


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A moving, cross-national account of working mothers' daily lives--and the revolution in public policy and culture needed to improve them The 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, th A moving, cross-national account of working mothers' daily lives--and the revolution in public policy and culture needed to improve them The 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. Taking readers into women's homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, Collins shows that mothers' desires and expectations depend heavily on context. In Sweden--renowned for its gender-equal policies--mothers assume they will receive support from their partners, employers, and the government. In the former East Germany, with its history of mandated employment, mothers don't feel conflicted about working, but some curtail their work hours and ambitions. Mothers in western Germany and Italy, where maternalist values are strong, are stigmatized for pursuing careers. Meanwhile, American working mothers stand apart for their guilt and worry. Policies alone, Collins discovers, cannot solve women's struggles. Easing them will require a deeper understanding of cultural beliefs about gender equality, employment, and motherhood. With women held to unrealistic standards in all four countries, the best solutions demand that we redefine motherhood, work, and family. Making Motherhood Work vividly demonstrates that women need not accept their work-family conflict as inevitable.

30 review for Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This is an update to The Second Shift--Collins goes around the world and interviews women. It is super interesting that policies determine how people feel about motherhood and marriage. We assume that these are cultural things, but apparently giving people a year off and forcing them to take it makes men believe that fatherhood is just as much their responsibility. It was also striking how American women have 0 expectation of government help or support for childcare.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alexis

    In her fascinating cross-cultural study of motherhood experiences, Caitlyn Collins examines how women combine motherhood and work, and how different cultural models impact women's experiences. For her fieldwork, Collins chose 4 countries that were roughly representative of her 4 social frameworks: Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the USA. The research (field work) was confined to middle class mothers, in all cases but Germany (for specific reasons) centering on the capital city. While this limits som In her fascinating cross-cultural study of motherhood experiences, Caitlyn Collins examines how women combine motherhood and work, and how different cultural models impact women's experiences. For her fieldwork, Collins chose 4 countries that were roughly representative of her 4 social frameworks: Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the USA. The research (field work) was confined to middle class mothers, in all cases but Germany (for specific reasons) centering on the capital city. While this limits some of the conclusions (and she adds caveats where applicable and possible), it helps provide cross-cultural reliability. Sweden follows a social-democratic framework, in which the government and the people consider children a shared social responsibility, and the goal is to promote equality. To this end, services are universal and extensive, with some means testing (for example, childcare is based on income, but is capped at approximately US$160/mo). Policies are tweaked to ensure that goals are being met: for example, parental leave was adjusted to increase fathers' uptake, though currently, women still take more leave. Swedish women report the highest levels of satisfaction with the system (80% report job satisfaction) and the levels of support available. What's clear, though, is that the system relies on a three legged stool of support--not just government policy but businesses and society as a whole. Pregnancy is treated as a norm at work and Swedish families report the highest levels of egalitarianism at home. This results in the highest level of labor participation at 84%, with 63% working full time. Swedish mothers felt that working was the norm and that being a housewife was actively stigmatized. Swedes, unlike other countries, felt that daycare was better placed than family members (84% vs 10%) to care for children past the age of 1. Although Sweden is the most egalitarian of the countries surveyed (and in the top few spots worldwide) it is not perfectly so. There is still a pay gap and mothers are more likely to work in the public sector. Women did report some pressure regarding mothering norms, including pressure not to leave their children in daycare too late (the ideal seemed to be between 3-4pm). Germany presented an interesting case because of the differing histories in East and West Germany. For this reason, Collins did research in both parts of Germany. The western model, still reflected in much government policy, is a conservative one, with strong state involvement but one aimed at supporting a "traditional" family with a primary breadwinner (still a model prioritized by the tax system and school hours). There has been movement towards more support for working mothers, but it's a work in progress. In East Germany, however, the model was a two earner family, with women returning to work relatively quickly after childbirth. Working with children under 3 remains more common in the former East, which retains a stronger childcare infrastructure (public Kitas). However, the women in eastern Germany had a preference for "working, but not too much"--a preference for part time work, which was widely available even in white collar jobs. Women here experienced their conflict as one with social ideals, especially in western Germany where working mothers are derided with the term "Rabensmütter", and discrimination against mothers. The former policy of 3 years maternity leave, which sounds generous to Americans, was resented by women as they felt judged for not taking it. Italy's model is familialist: it relies on extended family networks. Maternity leave is mandatory for 5 months; paternity leave did not exist until 2013 and currently stands at 4 days. This shapes habits. Women here feel that they are unsupported, although on paper they do enjoy benefits such as subsidized childcare, and the target of their blame is the government. In return they feel little shame for working around the system, as do their employers (who employ loopholes). Unlike the Germans and Swedes, they make use of low cost private labor as nannies and cleaners, and had the lowest levels of male participation at home. The US has an extreme form of the liberal (free market) model. (Other Anglophone countries follow this model to some extent, especially for childcare, but none to this extreme.) Unsurprisingly, given the low level of supports in the USA, the stories here were the most depressing. American women have low expectations and blame their stress and conflict on their failure to make poor choices and manage their situation--not on their employers' unrealistic expectations of them as ideal workers, or the poor state of US childcare. They consider themselves "lucky" when things work for them, even when they're just getting their legal rights such as lactation time. They experienced the highest level of conflict between ideals--the "ideal worker" and the intensive mothering expected of them as middle class parents. They also had the highest levels of financial stress and the highest need for outsourcing of labor. Although couples paid lip service to egalitarianism, it didn't bear out in practice in most cases, even in couples that had been egalitarian prior to children. The clearest message here is that "What women want" isn't innate or an absolute: women's wants are shaped by policy and culture, and our choices are made in response to the incentives we have. In the US, we have a tendency to brush off women's decisions about motherhood as "choices," as if that represents our ideal and our heart's desire. It does not. It represents what a woman thinks is the best option available to her in a given scenario, not necessarily what she would choose to do in a universe of infinite options. It's also clear that there is a need for buy-in on multiple fronts for women to be supported. Although German and Italian mothers are not as poorly supported as American ones, they, too, report conflict because they lack full buy-in. The US fails here not only because of our hyper-individualism, but because policy solutions are often stymied by out insistence on seeing decisions about women's work and support as a moral question. We are taught to resent "paying for others," but we continually treat issues surrounding childcare as a woman's problem that is her job to handle. Although Collins' fieldwork is limited by necessity (she spent a summer in each country interviewing women, so this limited her geographic scope) she does an excellent job of presenting the women's stories. I believe this was PhD research, but it's clearly written and an excellent read. It's not a journalistic "Europe does it better" book, but one that non-judgmentally seeks to see what each model does better and worse. Even in Sweden, where the overall picture is excellent, she's rigorous in reporting remaining issues, and in all cases, she brings up examples where well intended policies had unintended consequences. As Collins points out, each country exists in its own context and we cannot conjure up Sweden--in part because we lack the tight sense of cohesion and communal responsibility that the Swedes have. While Collins doesn't get into this, the Swedish model also rests on support for other forms of caring for the disabled and elderly, which often also rest on women. Moreover, I suspect that even in an ideal world, the US' diversity would probably demand more diverse models. However, there's a lot to learn from here--if only more of us would listen.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

    Very interesting perspective and I could tell the author put a lot of work into the research!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cristine Mermaid

    This book was fantastic. It was about how motherhood/working look in other countries. The author went to Sweden, Germany, and Italy to compare to the United States and it was incredibly enlightening. While of course, everyone has a different experience based on their unique circumstances, there were generalities across a specific society. Sweden (along with other Nordic countries) is held up as the gold standard. Of course there are problems there also as no where is perfect but working mothers This book was fantastic. It was about how motherhood/working look in other countries. The author went to Sweden, Germany, and Italy to compare to the United States and it was incredibly enlightening. While of course, everyone has a different experience based on their unique circumstances, there were generalities across a specific society. Sweden (along with other Nordic countries) is held up as the gold standard. Of course there are problems there also as no where is perfect but working mothers don't have the life balance issues they have here. They are also the closest to being egalitarian with the fathers participating in their children's lives and doing their share of the domestic labor. They also have the most progressive government policies for supporting families. Italy and Germany had different issues but what was interesting was that they still had more than we do here in the USA. Italian families have a lot more help with extended family, paid domestic help, and maternity benefits. The men there are considered lazy and selfish by many but the women tend to blame the social culture for that rather than the men themselves. Germany has many policies (some helpful, some restrictive although they were meant to be helpful) to help families but there are conflicts between the East/West Germany cultures. However, they offer part time careers in a way that America doesn't. They also have comprehensive, high quality subsidized child care (in most places) and maternity/paternity benefits. They also have problems, of course, but they blame their government for not being more supportive, they don't blame themselves. This leads us to the United States. Our work/family balance was the worst here by far. The stress and pressures on mothers (this book focused on working mothers so that's why that is what I keep saying) was the worst by far. The government policies in place not only didn't help but they tend to hurt. There isn't a system of health care to cover all, there isn't subsidized high quality child care, there isn't maternity/paternity leave (some companies do have it but most people do not have this benefit) , and most companies still operate under the assumption that the employee has a stay at home spouse devoted to taking care of everything related to the children, the household, and the business of life so that employee is free to devote themselves completely to their job. The pressures on mothers here and the expectations they are held to are unrealistic and only serve to make mothers feel guilty. I, personally, do not experience this mom guilt, and I wonder if it's because I can see that it's not me that's the problem, it's our societal culture. It simply isn't possible to do what we're being told we are expected to do and especially without any help. Unlike other countries, women here blame themselves. They believe that if they were just more organized, worked faster and harder, gave up more of themselves, that it would all work out. They can't, of course, because it's not realistic and then blame themselves and feel like failures. (of course all of this is general so the "this isnt' my life" personal anecdotes are just that, personal anecdotes and reflect an individual and not our culture at large) American individualism has a lot to do with the problem, this idea that we should be able to do it all alone. The idea of government policies being involved is considered come kind of cop-out to those who think we should be able to magically overcome the obstacles and lack of time, energy, resources, ability to only be in one place at a time, and somehow accomplish all that's required. That simply isn't realistic and to me, that's obvious, which is why I'm so vocal about it. It also talked about this idea of the fumbling man-child and I also think that is ridiculous. Men are not stupid creatures who can't handle doing things like taking care of their own children, household chores, making appointments, etc. They are more than capable and it's not funny or cute when they don't do their share and rolling of the eyes and excusing it as "men are just dumb" is an insult Overall, enlightening read and her conclusions resonated strongly with me.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar

    Everyone should read this! Although the focus of the book is on the struggles of working mothers in five case study countries/regions (Sweden, East Germany, West Germany, Italy, and USA), she contextualizes all five cases within the lack of respect for caregiving roles in all of these countries. This book is pretty depressing at times: spoiler alert, no mother has it easy, ever, in any context. But her comparison of work/family policies across her study regions made me think critically about wha Everyone should read this! Although the focus of the book is on the struggles of working mothers in five case study countries/regions (Sweden, East Germany, West Germany, Italy, and USA), she contextualizes all five cases within the lack of respect for caregiving roles in all of these countries. This book is pretty depressing at times: spoiler alert, no mother has it easy, ever, in any context. But her comparison of work/family policies across her study regions made me think critically about what policies would and wouldn't support my family and the families of my friends. I feel like I have a more holistic understanding of how policy supports might ease the burden of parenting for all parents, not just working mothers, and I feel more empowered to advocate for policy change and to evaluate politicians on this point.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Lavelle

    This book was researched and written pre-pandemic, but it provides a lot of good resources and ways to think about how we think of childcare as a policy issue as opposed to a personal issue. Prof. Collins demonstrates through in-depth interviews and analysis ways that we can rethink ways as a country how to provide structures that support parents and children. It is well written and thoughtfully researched. I think that this is essential reading to our nationwide conversation about how to addres This book was researched and written pre-pandemic, but it provides a lot of good resources and ways to think about how we think of childcare as a policy issue as opposed to a personal issue. Prof. Collins demonstrates through in-depth interviews and analysis ways that we can rethink ways as a country how to provide structures that support parents and children. It is well written and thoughtfully researched. I think that this is essential reading to our nationwide conversation about how to address our lack of attention to childcare and support for parents.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Luis

    Great comparative analysis Collins provides a well crafted comparative analysis on how different welfare states interact with societal norms to produce different types of life-work circumstances to which women have to adapt in order to fulfil the role of mothers and workers. Qualitative in nature, a quantitative study of similar scope is urgently needed

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    Good insight into differences in expectations and provisions of mothers and for mothers. A bit depressing as an American but also thought-provoking. Reinforces the need for policy support for more egalitarian parental options as well as the different approaches and views to motherhood/livelihood.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    A book that asks women around the world how the different policies affect them as mothers. The US needs to do better (as we all know) and it was interesting to see how women around the world view motherhood.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bethany Joy

    Fascinating, thought provoking, and timely. Definitely the appropriate rebuttal to a lean in model of working motherhood... More people need to be talking about work family justice instead of "balance"

  11. 5 out of 5

    Palendula

    a great and important book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Carly

    An interesting look at motherhood in four countries (and a deep dive into the difference between East and West Germany). I'll say I'm ready to move to Sweden. If only Jesse were down!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jose

    The book is based on dozens of interviews with mothers in four different countries including the USA. What was most valuable to me was having it starkly laid out how American mothers attitude to work and family life are much more stressful and overwhelming than other countries. An indictment on the failures of American policy after women entered the workforce en masse.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Cobb

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bookwomb

  16. 5 out of 5

    Madison Harris

  17. 4 out of 5

    Anastasia

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shane

  19. 4 out of 5

    Emily Smith

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

  21. 4 out of 5

    Irena

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alix Adams

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

  24. 4 out of 5

    Just Me

  25. 5 out of 5

    Juliet

  26. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  27. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elisabeth Gerrwa

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  30. 5 out of 5

    Karen Meade

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