November 12 2013
‘Tiger mom,” “French mom,” now comes the “Swedish mom” — except this book doesn’t really have much parenting advice.
Juggling full-time work and two young children, Katrina Alcorn started having panic attacks, then a nervous breakdown — even though she had a supportive husband, a nice boss and good child care.
So she started asking other mothers how they do it — and found, basically, that all of us moms are all just barely holding it together. Thus her book, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.”
And her solution is somewhere south of unique: Let’s be more like Sweden. You know, where the government mandates that women can get more than a year of paid maternity leave and men get financial incentives to take paternity leave. (She calls that last, in particular, a “bureaucratic stroke of genius.”)
Women are happier with Western European socialism, authors like Alcorn love to claim. But she’s ignoring some pretty big trade-offs, warns Laura Vanderkam, an expert on time management: “In Sweden, there are not many women in high positions in corporations.”
Though policymakers try to get around this by instituting quotas, she says, “taking 13 months off for each kid gives you huge work gaps.” And: “When it’s expected that women will take off, you undermine women who want to be full on in the work force.”
In fact, Alcorn’s prescription inadvertently pushes mothers into a one-size-fits-all kind of parenting. Maybe more women do want part-time work — but how will other women react when they find their bosses assume they’ll be taking off years in maternity leave and don’t promote them to positions of responsibility as a result?
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, suggests that these problems need to be addressed culturally, not via government policy. Women feeling too overwhelmed might think about cutting back on the things that aren’t necessary, like enrolling kids in extracurriculars four days a week.
“Everyone complains about it,” she says, “but no one ever says, ‘This doesn’t make sense for our family.’ ”
She says it may be time for families to “slow down the craziness and make some choices.”
Instead, some women simply do everything and then blame men for not holding up their end. Another new book, “Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All” (with foreward by Ms. Having It All, Sheryl Sandberg), offers tips on this strategy.
But is this really the problem?
While noting that “not all men are equally helpful,” Schaeffer points out that “more and more men are doing much, much more.”
She sees plenty of dads at the park, picking up kids from school. Looking at all the things her own husband does (rearranging car seats for three children under 7, for instance), she thinks that the “way we define housework needs to be broadened a little bit.”
Laura Vanderkam says time-diary studies of men and women tend to bear out Schaeffer’s observations. “If you look at how men spent their time in the early 1960s and now, there are a lot more hours on child care and housework.”
And in some ways we are already at “50/50,” she says. Add up the number of hours that men and women are “working” — that is, paid work plus time spent caring for children and on housework — and they match almost exactly.
On average, men are still doing more hours of paid work and women are still doing more hours of child care and housework, but few working parents are lounging around while their spouse is sweating.
Vanderkam, a mother of three young children, also points to our individual choices. Dad may think it’s OK for a kid to be bathed every other day and to have more chicken nuggets for dinner, while mom wants baths every night and home-cooked meals, too. As Vanderkam notes, the kids will be fine either way.
When women complain to her, she says, “You should have a conversation about what you both think is necessary, and then you can split that down the middle. Then if any individual party feels other things are good to have, he or she can take those on.”
Satisfying the demands of work and family can be exhausting, but there are times when we working mothers push ourselves to the brink.
So let’s skip the baths tonight, kids.