The Mother of All Issues

Generation X has grown up. Its members and their personalities consumed our nation's attention in the 1980s, when it seemed this generation would go down in history as a group of spoiled slackers. Then in the late 1990s, the generation written off as a bunch of yahoos became the generation behind Yahoo. Now age 26 to 40, the generation that once was the subject of so much self-righteous finger-wagging is the core of America's young families.

The average age a woman in this country has her first child is 25; and two out of three children younger than five are raised by parents younger than 34. While deep-seated ideological obstacles to making America more family-friendly remain, there's a new generation of parents who bear little resemblance to their baby boomer predecessors, and they should be brought into the conversation.

These Gen Xers are negotiating their domestic and professional demands in their own ways. According to surveys conducted by the Work and Family Institute, the majority of Gen X men reject the "traditional" family model of a male breadwinner and a female housekeeper and caregiver. In comparison to dads of previous generations, Gen X fathers spend considerably more time with their children and do more around the house (although housekeeping parity remains a ways off). College-educated Gen X (as well as Gen Y) mothers seem to be rejecting the all-consuming work-centric philosophy of their own mothers, expressing less desire to move into jobs with wider responsibility. College-educated men, too, are not as hungry for more professional responsibility and the trade-offs in family time it would demand.

Of course, expressing a desire to put family first isn't the same as achieving that goal. In their quest for a more gender-equal, less frantic work/family life, today's young parents have hit a few brick walls. They need help, and public policy advocates have an opportunity to draw this generation into the movement for progressive family policy. With its rejection of traditional gender roles, this generation could provide a fresh perspective on balancing the responsibilities of parenting and working.

Nonetheless, stubborn obstacles to making America more family friendly remain. To begin with, underlying even the most sincere desire to figure out how to raise a family in which mom and dad both work and can both spend quality time with their young children is the deep-rooted belief that it's up to each and every set of parents to figure it out for themselves. In America, child rearing is a private responsibility, not a social one, which still means that the buck stops with mom. There is no "village" to provide a helping hand in raising children, and it's not at all clear that parents think there should be. Most polls show that parents are more supportive of better regulation of child-care providers than they are of a government-funded universal system.

Another reason we haven't embraced the universal child care and paid family leave that young parents in every other industrialized nation take for granted is that upper-middle- and upper-income families don't have a child-care problem. Why is this an obstacle? Because even the most well-off parents in America often think of themselves as part of the middle class, so their ability to secure child care keeps them from fully understanding that the real middle class is desperate for help. This well-off, well-educated minority exerts inordinate influence in our democracy, from the voting booth to the beltway. This socioeconomic distortion was brought home in a conversation I had with a senator's senior staffer. As I was describing how the cost of child care was a major factor in the squeeze on the middle class, she nodded her head in acknowledgement and shared what she thought was her similar struggle: "I know, my husband and I can barely afford the $35,000 a year for our nanny." Deluded into thinking she's middle class, she clearly doesn't understand the reality facing ordinary parents and likely doesn't put affordable child care on the top of her reform list or the senator's.

The last obstacle to mobilizing a strong constituency for family-friendly policies is probably the toughest nut to crack: We simply don't value mothers' work. Yes, Americans are clearly in favor of mothers working when it comes to subsidized care in the context of welfare. Most Americans unequivocally believe poor moms should be at work -- to send a message to their children that work is important -- and think the government should help make sure child care is available. But that's only when no father is present. Add a working dad to the mix, and the value of a working mom -- to herself, to her kids, and to society -- isn't part of the conversation. In a 2000 poll of registered voters, 52 percent strongly agreed and 28 percent somewhat agreed that while "it may be necessary for mothers to work because the family needs money, it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children."

This enduring ambivalence among the American people about who should be providing child care doesn't come only from old white guys who feel uneasy about the government supporting the ability for women with small children to work. Leaving your child in someone else's care isn't exactly viewed as the worthy thing to do in America. Many still believe the omnipresent mom is the best model for child rearing. And if that's the ideal, then why should we spend money creating a system that's an affront to our values?

So mothers continue to take it on the chin when it comes to the epochal decision about earning and mommying. Many moms feel deep guilt about wanting to be both mothers and professionals, about the quality of child care, about what other people will think of their choices. Then there are the majority of moms who aren't on the career track and have too few choices: They need child care because they need their paycheck. And yet the substance of our debate takes place around the polarized margins -- it vacillates from the need to provide child care for welfare recipients to whether career-track moms are better off at home or in the workplace. Given the narrowness of the public debate, it's really no surprise that paid family leave and universal child care haven't made it to the top of the domestic agenda.

Unless progressives can build a broader coalition, it's likely the United States will remain exceptional for not giving families the supports they need. And one of the best sources of support for that coalition would be young adults. While researching my book, Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead, I spoke to dozens of young parents about their experiences trying to navigate the mess that qualifies as child care in this country, a light bulb went off: Figuring out how to keep the paychecks coming in and how to take good care of their children is one of the most frustrating and financially challenging tasks for young adults in the 21st century.

If activist groups were reaching out to younger families, their pulse would come not from the professional class, but from the juggling class. They would reach the young women who are balancing child rearing, low-wage jobs, and community college classes -- a group for whom the anger, frustration, and hopelessness of trying to be a good parent in this go-it-alone society certainly might rise as they scramble to finish their history assignments in the dead of night.

Political outreach also could touch the new generation of fathers who want to spend more time with their families. When I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, the sight of a man pushing a stroller, let alone changing a diaper, was rare. Today, it's not uncommon to see a dad strolling the malls with a Babybjörn strapped to his chest, or to see him sharing stroller duty. Where is Dads Rising?

The generational vacuum on work-family issues is part of the larger lack of recognition about the major economic challenges confronting this new generation. There is no AARP advocating on behalf of 20- and 30-somethings who lack health insurance at rates higher than any other age group, who are drowning in debt from skyrocketing housing costs and student debt; and who are earning less than their parents did at this age. While young voter groups have demonstrated their effectiveness in getting the under-30 crowd to the polls, much of their advocacy takes place on college campuses, where issues like tuition costs and the environment seem to be more important. In addition, the women's organizations that have been at the forefront of the work/family battle have lost some resonance among the post–second-wave feminist generation.

A new generation of parents already embraces a healthier balance between men and women as earners and caregivers. Now they are seeking a saner division in their roles as workers and parents. If more effective political leadership made the cause more mainstream, Generation X would readily embrace a larger social outlay for child care as well as paid family leave that could reduce the conflict in their roles as workers and parents. If leadership from politicians is not forthcoming, Generations X and Y need their own movement for a family-friendly America.

Tamara Draut is director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos.

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