The States with the Most Childcare Sanity Will Surprise You

A book review and conversation with Motherland’s Author Leah Ruppanner

Covid has forced Mothers everywhere to reevaluate work/life tradeoffs. And without access to childcare or school, millions have left their jobs, despite the global recession. Because trying to work and care for kids full-time does not set anyone up to thrive. And like all living things, we need the right conditions to flourish. Leah Ruppanner, Author and Co-Director of the Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne, went in search of the ‘Motherlands’ for her new book. Those idyllic places with childcare sanity where Motherhood and work can coexist. What she found was surprising.

Mothers Are Opting Out in Record Numbers

Pre-Covid, life fit around the work calendar. And caregiving often fell into the hours before and after. Kind of. Work hours in most careers have increased in the past decade. Which makes finding space to care for our kids, parents or selves, a constant source of conflict.

Leah explained, “People believe, ‘I personally failed because I couldn’t make work and family work. And everyone else seems to be doing this great job’ but the truth of the matter is, that it’s a structural issue. If a woman working in Massachusetts or California, where childcare is $4,000 a month, was told the state’s going to cover that cost now, she would make totally different decisions. She wouldn’t worry about having to figure out patchwork childcare. That kind of stress and strain would disappear. And her marriage would probably have less pressure.” Indeed, huge for working parents.

In Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, Leah’s examines how infrastructure hurts or helps Mothers careers. Which led her to the places with the best policies and access to affordable childcare. And, they’re not where most Americans would expect.

We Should be a Little Bit More Like Nebraska

The friendliest countries for working parents are often celebrated. Leah, an American who now lives in Australia, became fascinated with where those conditions existed within the US. She explained, “When I started, I thought I’d find that progressive states like California and Massachusetts would be like the Swedens of the world. But Massachusetts is not the leader in childcare. Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota are the leaders. So maybe we should be a little bit more like Nebraska and see what they’re doing well because it cuts through that partisan divide.” Leah added, “Childcare is seen as integral to children’s future success. It’s framed around the children and never around the Mothers.” Her research found that subtle distinction has led to the states with strong support for working families. Will Omaha be the next Manhattan as the pandemic leads more people to remote work?

Most Mothers Don’t Have Choice

Leah said, “We often frame these issues of childcare around choice. Like parents decide they want to stay home with their children or that it’s too expensive for both to work. But saying ‘I’m going to stay home because 100% of my salary is going to go to childcare,’ is not a choice. That’s a constrained choice.” Exactly. She added, “We have this absence of any federal policy and states are starting to step into the federal void. We see that quite clearly under COVID-19.”

As people flee coastal cities, taking their tax dollars and salaries with them, the economic landscape for states could change. Leah said, “If everyone stays in California, Oregon or Washington, that money stays in that local community. But if you could put that money into the states with childcare sanity, it could be a great way to strengthen the system.” She described what works in Nebraska. “There’s high investment, and a strong public/private partnership, between the Buffett foundation and some of the childcare centers. They’re really talking about education as opposed to care.” Unfortunately, in the pandemic, the childcare industry is anemic at best.

You Are Not Failing Even Though It Feels That Way

Leah shared the impacts of Covid-19 from a recent study she co-authored, “Mothers employment time is down. They have higher rates of unemployment and they’re dropping out. They’re basically reducing their employment in all the ways they can. And Fathers time seems pretty much intact.” Mothers mass exodus from paid work is understandable. But many studies have shown, it’s hard for women who exit to return when they’re ready. Leah understands the emotional dilemma, “We found that Mothers are taking the hit, particularly if they have younger kids. If you feel like you’re failing at work, family and home life, then it makes sense to want to cut one of the ties. Because what a terrible experience to always feel like a failure or fragmented. That constant churn of ‘I’m not giving 100% or doing my best job at, fill in the blank, my marriage, family or work.” Sigh. Leah has also had to adjust to working from home while balancing her daughter’s education and needs. She admits, “I would love to cut a stressor. And it would probably feel good for the next year. But the problem is when the kids go back to school and all of a sudden there’s time, it’s hard to get back in. So, I say, forgive yourself in this moment in time.”

Don’t Drop Out! Tread Water at Work

Leah said, “So, right now Mothers are getting snowed in. My recommendation would be, don’t drop out, this is the moment to tread water. And don’t feel bad about not giving 100% to your employer at this moment in time, it’s impossible. But keep doing the best you can to tread water because the economy is going to contract and it’s going to be very hard to get back in.” Wise but difficult when for many, treading feels like drowning. She cited Pamela Stone’s Opting Out and more recent research validating the difficulty women face returning to the workforce. The underlying systems we live with set the norms for how caregiving is valued. And by extension, influences what we tell ourselves we deserve. In the US, we accept that 12 weeks is ‘enough time’ to recover from childbirth because if we have paid leave, that’s the duration. Leah said, “The US is on par with Papa New Guinea for being one of the only countries in the world with literally no paid parental leave. We treat having a baby like a disability and then you just don’t get fired for taking it.” Sad but true.

Can the Broken System Usher in The Future of Work?

All the weak systems are breaking in the pandemic. And Leah explained how critical diverse leadership is to solving these new problems, “It’s been interesting to see the policies that are coming out under Covid. When people don’t have the experience of what it is like to be a working mother, they just can’t translate that into policy. They don’t see the urgency of it because it’s not part of their day-to-day life and that’s so problematic.” Exactly. But big challenges can force major changes. Leah said, “This is an opening point for some serious change in employment and policy. We’ve shown that people are carrying these huge domestic and childcare loads and how do we actually accommodate that? We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist anymore. especially if remote work becomes the future. So, let’s think about that strategically.” Yes! Leah wisely notes this is the time to exercise self-compassion, “There needs to be a little bit of forgiving ourselves. It’s not going to be perfect, but it will probably be fine.”

Thank you to the talented Leah Ruppanner!

To learn more about this amazing research, check out her new book that launched this weekend, Motherlands. How States Push Mothers Out of Employment. And follow Leah’s great adventure on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Leah Ruppanner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Codirector of the Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne. She is also a Fellow at the ARC Centre for Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course and an international collaborator in the Social Policy and Family Dynamics of Europe program at Stockholm University.

 

 

 

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