Is It Time for Parents to Unionize?

Rebecca Stoner July 5, 2018

Parents need to stop blaming themselves and start blaming capitalism. (Getty Images)

Think of Alis­sa Quart’s new book, Squeezed: Why Our Fam­i­lies Can’t Afford Amer­i­ca, as What to Expect When You’re Expect­ing Under Late Cap­i­tal­ism.” Of the more than 50,000 books list­ed on Ama­zon under Par­ent­ing,” few engage as deeply with the eco­nom­ic pres­sures today’s par­ents must nav­i­gate: pre­car­i­ous work, a short­age of high-qual­i­ty, afford­able day­care and ris­ing costs of liv­ing com­bined with stag­nant wages. 

Quart, the exec­u­tive edi­tor of the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project, also pro­files efforts to improve the lives of par­ents and care work­ers –  – and offers sug­ges­tions about what’s still to be done. She spoke with In These Times about the chal­lenges of orga­niz­ing par­ents, why we’re so attached to the fan­ta­sy of mid­dle-class life and why she con­sid­ers her book rad­i­cal self-help.”

ITT: I’m inter­est­ed in the theme of self-blame that runs through Squeezed. You write that after your daugh­ter was born, and it became clear that you and your husband’s free­lance earn­ings weren’t going to be enough to raise her, you began to blame your­self. Why did you have that reaction?

AQ: I think we have a ten­den­cy to blame our­selves, or we blame oth­ers. It’s bina­ry. You can see that ten­den­cy in the way some dis­en­fran­chised groups now blame immi­grants, say, and then on the oth­er side, there’s a lot of rhetoric of self-pun­ish­ment in Amer­i­can cul­ture that you’re respon­si­ble for your own suc­cess and if you don’t make it then there’s some­thing wrong with you.

The self-blame and guilt dis­course comes from con­ser­v­a­tives but it also emanates off of a cer­tain kind of boot­strap self-help, like Lean In. Why aren’t you ask­ing for a raise, why aren’t you earn­ing more mon­ey, why aren’t you doing more for your child?” There’s a per­fec­tion­ism that places a lot of pres­sure on parents.

ITT: What role do employ­ers and the wel­fare state, such as it is, play in rein­forc­ing par­ents’ ten­den­cy towards self-blame?

AQ: We don’t have the poli­cies in place that make par­ent­hood eas­i­er. You look at parental leave in all these oth­er coun­tries –  – in Scan­di­navia, but even in a place like Cana­da. In Que­bec, mater­ni­ty leave insur­ance cov­ers 18 weeks of paid leave, plus five weeks for the father, at 70 per­cent of the parent’s income. Day­care after that is $7 to $20 a day. You don’t have to go to Scan­di­navia, there are lots of exam­ples. In South Africa, women pay less for a vagi­nal birth than they do in the Unit­ed States.

As for employ­ers, there’s still a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion against preg­nant women. The rate at which preg­nan­cy dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es are filed has increased. There are all kinds of ways in which employ­ers make the expe­ri­ence of preg­nan­cy and moth­er­hood hard­er, like when women are not per­mit­ted to pump in a clean and pri­vate place at their place of work. They’re penal­iz­ing par­ents who are try­ing to do every­thing right and play by the rules.

ITT: And do you think these par­ents who try to do every­thing right and play by the rules are politi­cized by their experiences?

AQ: I would like that to be the case, but I feel like peo­ple turn it inward. As we’ve talked about, there’s a strong ten­den­cy to blame them­selves. And there’s a well-behaved­ness among lib­er­al, mid­dle-class par­ents. These aren’t peo­ple who are nec­es­sar­i­ly accus­tomed to see­ing them­selves as pre­car­i­ous. Also, among moth­ers in par­tic­u­lar, there can be a dis­com­fort around advo­cat­ing for them­selves and mak­ing complaints.

They also have a ten­den­cy to rel­a­tivize suf­fer­ing, to say, Well, think of all the peo­ple who have it worse than me.” But the mid­dle class’s earn­ings, expen­di­tures, and dis­com­forts make it not what it once was, and make it a much more pre­car­i­ous place to be.

ITT: In the book, you focus on the strug­gles of mid­dle-class par­ents. Why did you choose to frame the book that way, rather than focus­ing on par­ents who are mem­bers of the work­ing poor?

AQ: To be fair, I include some mem­bers of the low­er mid­dle class or the work­ing class. Some of them are aspir­ing to be mid­dle class. Some are also in a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship with mid­dle-class par­ents, like day­care own­ers or care­givers. I want­ed to get at the way in which we are in our class posi­tions like matryosh­ka dolls. There’s sort of a nest­ing doll effect. In terms of paid care­givers, for instance, the new anx­i­ety and depri­va­tion of the par­ents who use their ser­vices and their care work is affect­ing them directly.

In oth­er words, I didn’t want the book to be just anoth­er one of those mid­dle-class mums books that don’t look at, say, the care work­ers who are prop­ping up the mid­dle-class parents.

But yes, I focused on the mid­dle class for the most part and the rea­son I did so was that it’s the class is always referred to polit­i­cal­ly as tum­bling down or on shaky ground but the coun­ters of that vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, what it looks like up close, isn’t explored gran­u­lar­ly. I want­ed to do a deep dive into those sto­ries. While the mid­dle class is used as col­lat­er­al in polit­i­cal cam­paigns, for instance, politi­cians aren’t real­ly respond­ing to their needs. After all, there’s so much chal­leng­ing mid­dle-class life, from the weak­en­ing of unions to the ris­ing cost of health­care and edu­ca­tion. There are so many sops thrown to cor­po­rate inter­ests –  – and that’s not just the Repub­li­cans, that’s both par­ties. The peo­ple who talk about the mid­dle class aren’t uphold­ing their inter­ests in the legislature.

ITT: Par­ents aren’t gen­er­al­ly union­ized or part of col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tions that are meant to advo­cate for them. What forms of col­lec­tive orga­niz­ing might be able to help parents?

I love that idea. The peo­ple in this book need that sort of thing. And there are plen­ty of exam­ples of white col­lar orga­niz­ing hap­pen­ing right now that I write about in Squeezed. One thing we’re doing with the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project, the non­prof­it I direct, is pro­vid­ing finan­cial sup­port to jour­nal­ists, who were for­mer­ly mid­dle-class. We have a Den­ver Post fund and a Gothamist fund set up to help employ­ees of those com­pa­nies, which have been destroyed by a hedge fund and a bil­lion­aire, Joe Ricketts.

There’s also a lot of orga­niz­ing around adjuncts, peo­ple with PhDs who are pre­car­i­ous­ly employed and may be earn­ing pover­ty wages that I include in my book. It’s the result of the ways that mid­dle-class peo­ple have become what I call the mid­dle pre­cari­at.” What it means to be part of the cat­e­go­ry of mid­dle class has real­ly changed. There’s been a shift in the imag­i­na­tion of what the mid­dle class is. We think of it as a fixed sign, as a way of con­tain­ing and sat­is­fy­ing aspi­ra­tion. But the pos­si­bil­i­ties of mid­dle-class life are dif­fer­ent now. We need to make that men­tal shift. I think these white col­lar work­ers who are orga­niz­ing, like adjuncts, made that shift because they had to.

ITT: Why do you think peo­ple are so attached to this vision of mid­dle-class exis­tence, which is his­tor­i­cal­ly very recent and was also always based upon the exclu­sion of many groups, includ­ing peo­ple of col­or and women?

I think it’s a fan­ta­sy space, in a weird way. It’s become syn­ony­mous with the Amer­i­can dream. Peo­ple see it as a rung of the lad­der at which a per­son is not over­reach­ing –  – you’re mak­ing it but in a pleas­ant way.

ITT: What are some of the chal­lenges of orga­niz­ing parents?

Some of it is time. You have lots of over­work, for instance, what I call the for­ev­er clock. It’s hap­pen­ing in low­er-mid­dle-class pro­fes­sions, like nurs­es’ aides and it has extend­ed to mid­dle class peo­ple who work in HR or IT or law. They’re work­ing much more than they once did, and char­ac­ters in the book have like two or three hours a week, not even, to be with their kids.

In oth­er words, how would par­ents have time to even meet with oth­er parents?

In addi­tion, among women and moth­ers espe­cial­ly, there’s a lot of shame asso­ci­at­ed with strug­gling as a par­ent. It’s sup­posed to be some­thing nat­ur­al, and you’re sup­posed to be able to do this your­self. But many of the strug­gles par­ents have are around mon­ey, and hav­ing wealth and income is not some fail­ure of nat­ur­al instinct.

Also, I think the com­pe­ti­tion for good edu­ca­tion pits peo­ple against one anoth­er. Good schools and good day­care are seen as a scarce resource you have to fight over. Indeed, the moments I found most mov­ing while doing research for the book were the oppo­site of that –  – peo­ple com­ing togeth­er and shar­ing resources. In the book, I talk about par­ents who are co-hous­ing and co-par­ent­ing. But I want to say, I don’t rec­om­mend these alone as a broad social solu­tion. After all, just tak­ing care of our­selves is qui­etist. In the end, we need soci­etal change.

ITT: Squeezed is a book about par­ents, and how they’re being threat­ened by stag­nant wages, automa­tion and all these oth­er things. But in that way, it’s actu­al­ly a book about all of us. What’s the rela­tion­ship between par­ents’ strug­gles and every­one else’s struggles?

I think that’s true. I used to teach at the Colum­bia jour­nal­ism school and I would tell my stu­dents that every book has to have a sen­tence that moti­vates it. I think mine has some­thing to do with what hap­pens when Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism hits fam­i­ly life, how it dis­torts it and how we over­come these distortions.

In the book, I’m real­ly con­cerned with that and how to make that expe­ri­ence bet­ter for par­ents and kids.

My hook for this book was that it would speak to par­ents in a dif­fer­ent way than most par­ent­ing books. It’s offer­ing them a labor-focused account of par­ent­hood. Most of the oth­er par­ent­ing books don’t talk about the pres­sures of cap­i­tal­ism that now accom­pa­nies parenthood.

I see my book as self-help to get peo­ple to stop blam­ing them­selves and start tak­ing sys­tem­at­ic action and to real­ize that the sys­tem is stacked against them in some ways.

Call it rad­i­cal self-help”.

Rebec­ca Ston­er is a writer in Chicago.
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