For many years, research done by the Work, Families, and Children Research Group at Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) has provided policy makers, community leaders, and other scholars with data, commentary, and testimony concerning the effects on family members of many factors, including working conditions, poverty, the division of labor at home, and early care and education. Nancy Marshall, Ed.D., who joined WCW in 1985, now leads the group, which includes Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., and Joanne Roberts, Ph.D., senior research scientists at WCW.
Building on decades of research, the Work, Families, and Children Research Group has achieved a long view of women’s struggles to balance employment and parenting. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in this area?
On a superficial level, what’s changed in the last 30 years is that women’s “work/ life” has become a term that everyone’s familiar with! When I first came to WCW, working with Grace Baruch and Roz Barnett, it was a secondary topic that some people talked about; but now it’s in the women’s pages all the time. Though of course it’s not the “women’s pages” any more, it’s the “Life” section of the newspaper. But it’s still considered something that concerns only women, when, in fact, it is as much of an issue for men.
We’ve also seen dramatic changes over the past few decades in both employment and families.
In the work arena, the United States economy has really changed. We’ve been shifting from a manufacturing economy to a service and knowledge economy—for example, we now have a huge health care sector. Also, in many workplaces there’s been a significant increase in the pace of work. Meanwhile, globalization has become a much larger part of our economy—and globalization is a 24/7 operation, just as health care is a 24/7 kind of industry. Parents may be bringing work home with them, or working overnight or evening shifts. Professionals, business people, and executives may be on call all the time and often work far more than full-time hours. It used to be men who were expected to be married to their jobs; now it’s women and men. And it’s much harder to deal with work/family issues when you never leave work.
Low-wage workers are affected by these changes as well. For many of them, the increased pace in the workplace and the fact that their schedules and the shifts they work are at the whim of the employer have had a negative effect on the family. Less time in the home and less control of the time while at work make it harder to find a balance.
The other big change in the economy that I see—and this one has happened over the last 50 years—is the growing inequity in incomes between the top 10% of Americans and the rest of us. This inequity increases the differences in work/family issues facing people in different positions in the economy. In the managerial or professional class, where both parents may be working more than full time, couples face a particular set of work/family issues—and a particular set of resources for dealing with them. Low-income families face a different set of issues, which are driven by a lack of control over the pace and scheduling of their work and limited financial resources.
What about changes in the family?
At home, the two big differences I see are changes in women’s ability to demand and get more equity in terms of family labor, and men’s willingness to participate fully in the daily life of families—not just as economic providers, but in doing the nitty-gritty work of parenting, including changing diapers and driving kids to their activities. That’s particularly true in the younger generation. When both the woman and the man are working full time, women feel increasingly entitled to men’s involvement—and men want to be involved.
Another big change for families has been the growing availability of formal child care options. In the 1950s, there might have been a preschool program in town, but there was very little infant care. Now, child care is an industry. Particularly in urban areas, there are a lot of child care programs, both centers and licensed family child care in homes, and they are an important support to families combining work and family. But many families still struggle to find good care that fits with their work schedules. The literature in work/family balance shows that families with young children have the hardest time striking that balance, because the needs of young children can’t wait.
What are the chief causes of stress for working parents?
What’s really driving parental stress is, first, how demanding the job is—how much the parent has to work, and how long—and second, whether she or he has some control over the pace of the work or when it gets done. If you have a job that’s flexible, you can take work home, you can shift your hours, you can take an hour or two out if you have a parent-teacher conference or need to take the child to a doctor’s appointment. But many workplaces don’t offer that kind of minute-to-minute or day-to-day flexibility.
In terms of child care, how do parents choose among options?
Even though child care is much more available these days, in many non-urban areas there aren’t many options, and in all communities, what’s available may not be right for your child. How do you find what is available? Begin with your own informal networks. You can also turn to your state’s Resource and Referral agency, which lists the licensed child care facilities in your area.
Once you’ve found the care, you need to visit. You must visit. Child care around the nation, particularly in centers and in licensed family homes, where it’s been most studied, really varies a lot. There’s some excellent care out there, some mediocre care, and some really dreadful care. It can be a real challenge for parents to find providers they trust to do a good job with their children.
What should parents look for?
The two really important indicators are that the adults like the children they’re taking care of, and that they’re willing to talk with the parents about what they do and why they do it. You don’t need to have an advanced degree in early childhood education to say, “OK, I can trust these people with my child.”
Of course, you also want the setting to be safe; you want to see the adults helping kids “play well with others;” and there need to be the kinds of toys and activities and materials that allow children to grow and learn. But it’s really the adults there who will drive what your child’s experiences are like, so finding the right people is the most important criterion.
Nothing beats a visit. Because even if last year your best friend’s kid was there and it was great, there could be new teachers. You should always visit any place you’re considering.
That’s hard for many working mothers to do.
Men, too! Dad should be visiting, too. This is an important test of how you’re going to balance work and family. If it’s only Mom’s decision about child care, it becomes her responsibility to pick up the kid if he’s sick, to go to teacher/parent conferences—that’s not where you want to start. You want Dad involved in that whole process, too. And if we make space for men, they’ll be there. Especially if we insist that they come.
From an employer’s side, do we know how the availability of child care has influenced productivity or economic growth?
Yes. We have done a few studies on that question. It’s pretty well established now that employers have a lot to gain by making work/family supports, including child care, available to their workers—men as well as women. We did a study that surveyed employers about the kinds of child care support and other work/family supports they offered to their workers. They uniformly reported that these supports resulted in increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, which translate into a better bottom line. We’ve also evaluated an on-site child care center located at an employer’s facility, comparing employees who used the center with those who used outside child care. Employees who used the center experienced higher productivity and lower absenteeism, because they could easily bring their children to work and check in on them there.
What does your research show about the effects of early child care on kids? For years parents, educators, and policy makers have debated the issue, and some parents remain conflicted about using early child care.
First, let me say this. We have a model from the 1950s that says only Mom and Dad know how to raise their kid. That ignores centuries of extended family involvement and other forms of shared parenting. I think we really need to change the way we look at our kids. Yes, it’s my kid, I take care of my kid, but I also rely very much on my “village.” It does take a village to raise a child. If we think about raising our children as a process of shared parenting, shared care, with formal and informal systems, the question becomes: “How can I find a child care arrangement that feels like a partnership with me, where my partners respect my role as parent and help me take care of my child? Can I rely on family and friends, the formal school system, a child care program?”
Then we can ask what kinds of child care arrangements do that well. We know a lot from research about what quality care looks like. It depends on providers who know a lot about children—and, in group settings for child care, providers who know a lot about children in groups. And of course it depends on having the kinds of toys and activities and materials that allow children to grow and learn.
Another issue is how many hours the child is spending there. We know from research that for some children longer hours of care—more than the work-day load—can be a stressor. Parents should always pay attention to their child. Is she frequently stressed when you pick her up from the care setting? Could she be there too many hours? If so, is there a way you can reduce those hours, maybe by flexing your work time, or by drawing on family or friends who could care for the child in your own home for part of your time away?
But for most children, day-long child care draws them out, engages them with other kids, gives them time to develop social skills—it’s a plus. You need to read your own kids to decide what’s the right package for them and for your family.
What if parents can’t afford good child care? What are the implications, for all parties concerned?
One of the big policy issues facing our country is that our child care system has been allowed to grow without much nurturance, and it’s subject primarily to market forces. If parents can’t pay for higher-quality care, too often they can’t get it. There are some policies that can help lower-income families pay for care—through the Head Start system, which provides affordable care for low-income families, and through child care subsidies. But it’s a patchwork system, with every locality and state needing to figure out how to make affordable quality care available to all families; and the market is still the primary driver of access. Low-income families for whom those supports aren’t available, and families in an income range that’s ineligible for the supports but not high enough to pay for high-quality care, often do not have access to quality care.
The lack of a coordinated policy guaranteeing quality care for all children is resulting in serious consequences. One is the achievement gap in this country. Children from families unable to provide a highly stimulating and nurturing environment, at home or in child care, start school already behind.The gap in readiness to learn that appears in first grade tends to continue.
Another consequence of poor-quality care is the stress it puts on parents, which in turn affects their employment. For example, poor quality care tends to break down. If your provider is sick, who watches the child? How do you go to work?
As I’ve said, high-quality care at parents’ workplaces that’s affordable because the employer subsidizes it helps workers to be more productive. But we don’t yet have a system that does that very often—and we need much more than that. We also need communitybased programs, preschools in the public schools, licensed family child care, government support for care by relatives—we need a very diverse system that is nationally coordinated and supported.
Besides possible help with child care, what are the other benefits working parents need from employers?
The obvious benefit that working families need is family leave. Currently, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides for unpaid leave for about half of the workforce. All workers need access to family and medical leave, and they need paid leave so they don’t need to choose between family and a paycheck. Other benefits important to working families include paid health insurance, paid sick leave—which not everybody has—and paid sick leave that can be used not just for yourself but for family members’ care. That should be a right of every worker, but it’s not. Additional benefits are paid vacation time and paid personal time, which families with young children use to manage work and family. These are the first line of defense.
Which kinds of employers have led the way in providing familyfriendly benefits?
Employers who have established the best practices around family-friendly benefits—particularly involving child care and family leave—include hospitals and other arenas where there are highly skilled women workers. Some law firms have taken the lead, and many Fortune 500 companies have set the standard for best practice. They want the best workers, and that includes women. In general, those employers who have hard-to-replace workers are more likely to be in the vanguard of family-friendly benefits.
What will be next for the Work, Families, and Children Research Group?
One research project involves the changing roles of men in the family. Back in the early 90s, we found a small group of families in a much larger sample where the men cared for their infants while their wives were at work. We’ll be following up 20 years later to see how they reflect on that experience.
Another project focuses on the development of practical teacher assessments for use in center-based pre-kindergarten programs. While it is a common belief that professional development is important to improving the quality of child care programs, one of the challenges in evaluating programs is actually measuring what professional development does, how it changes what teachers think and know about children. We want to discover better ways of assessing that and provide our results to policy-makers in support of an increase in available quality care.
I’m also preparing a chapter on women, employment, and health for a new book on women’s health. There is so much more to learn about work, families, and children, not only to understand better what families need, but also to inform policy makers, employers, and community leaders on ways to support families and build better communities for all.
This article was made possible through support from the Mary Joe Gaw Frug Fund.