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This Is Why Modern Parenting Is So Damn Hard

Parents are working harder for less and have fewer and fewer support systems. What can be done?

Modern parenting is hard. Very hard. Parents are asked to invest more in their kids but are guaranteed less by employers and the government. According to the most recent estimates, the cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 is about $250,000 in the United States. But this doesn’t include the costs of higher education, which can, on average, add another $35,000 a year in tuition. Consider, also, the fact that government programs continue to be slashed and it’s no surprise why moms and dads are struggling. Parents are working harder for less and have fewer support systems. 

Dr. Jennifer Glass knows this. The Centennial Commission Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Sociology and Research Associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas Austin, Glass studies gender in the workforce, work life balance, mother’s employment, and family issues and has published more than 50 articles on the state of parenthood today. She’s also the Executive Director of the Council on Contemporary Families, the former Vice-President of the American Sociological Association, and a three-time semi finalist in the Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family Research. She spends her days looking at the big picture and understands the stress of modern parenthood and also why it’s so difficult to fix the system. Fatherly spoke to Glass about the state of modern parenthood, why parenting is only easy for those who can afford it, how government policies are crippling parents, what our country can do to make things better. 

Being a parent today is hard. Very hard. Much of your research confirms this. 

It’s very hard today. Your circumstances, certainly, determine how bad it is. If you are a single parent, if you’re in a low-wage job, if you don’t have extended family members around you to help support you and provide care, then you’re going to be in much worse shape than if you’re middle or upper income and you have a great job with an employer who provides you with at least some workplace supports and a decent wage and benefits. There are dimensions of severity at play here.

But I would say that even the most advantaged parents still have to deal with systemic barriers that affect everybody, including middle class parents. And only the affluent are really allowed to buy out of the structural conditions that make parenting hard in the United States. That’s especially true for things like child care. So even middle class parents have a difficult time finding high quality child care that they can afford, for example.

So it’s only easy to parent if you can afford it.

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Exactly. The majority of births in the United States right now are non-marital births, meaning the parents are not co-residing or they are cohabiting but not married. We have a lot of moms who begin their sojourn in motherhood alone or without adequate support. Right now, colleagues and I are trying to go through data systematically to find out how just how large a swath of American mothers will someday be expected to support their children financially — so they’ll be the primary breadwinners in the household. Some of our preliminary estimates are frighteningly, shockingly high, especially for black women but also for women without a high school degree. Even mothers with a college degree. It’s clear that the majority of women in the United States who become mothers are, at some point, going to have to financially support their households.

That seems to make what we know about the parenthood penalty, all the research that shows that women make less money than their male counterparts during their childbearing age — whether they do or don’t have kids — even more frightening.

Exactly. At the same time, mothers are being asked more than ever before to support their children financially. It’s like a squeeze on both ends. In fact, my essential argument, from the scholarship that I’ve done, is that we’ve seen a retreat from the costs of children as children become more expensive.

So, who is involved in the retreat? Fathers, number one. Some of that is willful and some of it is not. Male wages have stagnated or even declined for those without a college degree. So they don’t have the same capacity to help that they used to. But it’s also clear that they’re not in the living arrangements that would be conducive to both financial health but also practical assistance. If you’re not co-residing with your children, it’s a lot harder for you to help parent your children.

We’ve also seen a retreat from employers. Employers are less willing to provide benefits, including health insurance. They are very reluctant to provide paid leave, and in fact, the rates of paid leave for paternity leave and paid parental leave have actually gone down since the recession. So, employers are complicit in this.

So is the government.

Yes. We’ve decided that bearing and raising children is no longer an honorable occupation, that women who do this have to be prepared to financially support those children as well. We’ve decimated our welfare state supports, we promised things like child care assistance and housing assistance that never really materialized. So, the government, men, employers.

Who is left holding the bags? Moms. Moms are left holding the bags. This makes a lot of sense. We can look at things like higher education — we’ve seen state governments slowly but surely chip away at the amount of money they are willing to provide for students to keep higher education affordable. We’ve seen massive increases in tuition. You just see it across the board.

Parents, particularly mothers, are expected to shoulder more of the now larger costs of raising children through adulthood. And making them competent citizens, workers, and quite honestly, consumers. Because businesses need people, right? They need workers and they need consumers. As I frequently joke, full-fledged citizens don’t emerge fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus like the goddess Athena did. They actually come out of women’s vaginas and require a very long time — upwards of 18 years — to turn into productive citizens that we all want.

You listed off most of what you would consider the structural conditions that make parenthood expensive and untenable. The rising costs of childcare, lack of support for housing, decimating the welfare state, the pay gap. Is there anything I’m really missing here?

We’ve simply made the bill for child-bearing and -rearing too high. It’s not just the direct forms of assistance that are lacking. It’s also what we call the indirect opportunity cost of parenthood, but especially motherhood. If you take time out of the workforce, that’s time you can never get back. If you take more than a year out, it’s going to punish you for upwards of 20 years, according to the most recent economic research. Then we have some of the proposed plans, for example, to deal with a lack of paid leave.

What plans are being proposed?

My favorite is the one floating around now that would require people to work longer: they’re going to borrow from their social security accounts. I can’t think of a better way to punish parents than say: “Because you had the audacity to have a child and need to have some time off, we’re now going to make you work longer, or not give you as much Social Security in your old age.”

If anything, it should be flipped. You should get higher social security payments if you successfully bore and raise children to adulthood to become productive citizens. I think that’s surely as valuable a service as sending someone to the military, for which we grant all kinds of accolades.

What are policy suggestions that you actually think are valuable and that could seriously help parents?

I think that what other nations have done is to expand, rather than contract, their social security systems, so that they provide more “cradle to grave” security, instead of just being old-age security. We’re one of the few industrialized nations that has a major social security program that only benefits, really, the elderly, and people who are widowed, or dependents of those who die young.

In particular, we leave out any supports for parents that include things like universal health insurance, and paid family medical leave. That could include things like subsidized child care and early childhood education. I think that the way that other countries have structured their social security systems is to ask everybody to pay in and everybody gets something back.

We certainly don’t do that.

What we do is we just keep heaping obligations on employees. I actually have some sympathy for employers. Why should an employer pay for a parental leave? That just discourages them from hiring women of childbearing age, or for that matter, men, if they are going to start taking parental leave. We don’t want to just say: “Employers, this is you responsibility.” This is everybody’s responsibility.

There a system in California system in which everybody contributes to what is essentially an increased Social Security tax. Everybody pays in and has the opportunity to take out if they have children.

It’s an insurance program. Everybody contributes. If you need it, you take it; if you don’t, you don’t. We need to stop talking about these as welfare benefits and start stalking about them as social insurance. When you buy car insurance, you’re not saying, “Oh, if I don’t get into a car accident, I’ve been ripped off.” You say, “I pay my car insurance so that I have the peace of mind knowing that if I do get hit or if I hit somebody else, I’m not financially devastated.”

If I need it, if I decide to have a child, if I have a parent who gets ill, if I have a spouse or child who gets ill, then, my wages are covered. It’s insurance, in case something happens that’s going to make my income stream less steady.

If we had universal health care, do you think employers would pay a lot less money to hire people full-time?

Absolutely. It just raises the cost of workers. So, what do we see? Employers hiring a bunch of people for 20 to 25 hours a week so they don’t have to provide them health insurance.

Employers will game the system to lower the cost, as well they should, because they’re trying to compete globally. To have a level playing field, we have to quit pretending that this is something that businesses should pay for. This is something that everybody should pay for. This is something that, if you force businesses to pay for, they’ll just increase prices and then consumers will pay for it anyway. So, let’s just get real about this and call it for what it is: this is a series of social insurance benefits that everybody needs. Employers shouldn’t be punished for hiring more workers. They should be lauded, again, that they are providing employment for people. Not punished.

I’m thinking of Elizabeth Warren’s loan forgiveness plan, and how much being free of student loan debt would supercharge the economy by giving young people spending power. I can’t imagine how much more money businesses would have to hire parents if they didn’t have to pay for health insurance or paid leave.

We’re starting to get evidence that a lot of foregone home purchases are augmented by foregone marriages and children. It’s just the purchase of material things that’s been delayed by student loans ballooning, but it’s also been things like forming stable, committed relationships and having children. Those are things that become very difficult when you have partners that are saddled with large amounts of student loan debt.

Have you seen any 2020 candidates whose policies regarding parenthood really excite you?

I haven’t heard candidates talk really specifically about anything that would really help working families, except for general promises to improve health care, general plans for student loan debt, or making private health insurance plans more affordable.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard a politician talk at all about our plummeting fertility rate. I don’t think I’ve heard that come out of anybody’s mouth. I would like to see at least somebody acknowledge that we have a fertility rate that seems to be in freefall and has been since the great recession. Every year it drops lower and lower and lower.

It seems that people have a tendency to explain it away in so many ways that have nothing to do with the economy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, every year, releases figures that give you the cost of raising a child in inflation adjusted dollars from today until the kid turns 18. And what we’ve seen over the past 30-40 years, is a 20 percent spike in cost. That’s just birth to 18. That does not include higher education.

So, in 1960, very few kids went on to college, and now virtually everybody gets some form of secondary education. You really cannot get a stable job with high wages and benefits without a college degree anymore, and sometimes, you need more than that. So those are not optional costs any longer. We’ve made parenthood unaffordable for many middle class parents. It’s always been unaffordable for people who are laboring at the minimum wage.

What about the state of work-life balance in the United States?

We haven’t seen any progress. I’m finishing a paper where we actually talk about the flatlining of telecommuting and paid leave. We think that there’s this story of upward progress going on, but there really isn’t a story of upward progress going on. Instead, there’s a story about the hollowing out of the middle class and the more and more people taking two or three jobs to make ends meet. People finding that the jobs that they can get are not paying the wages that they expected.

I’m not seeing any changes, really, in the accounts of people’s work-life balance except among those who are foregoing marriage and kids. It’s a lot easier to have a work-life balance when you don’t have any of those. I do think we are seeing an uptick of fathers complaints about a lack of balance. We’ve certainly seen a generational shift in what men want to do.

But we haven’t seen as much of a generational shift in what men are actually doing. They feel like they do not have the structural circumstances that allow them to be involved in their children’s lives and they want to be. That’s a real shame.

I spoke to Joan Williams, who headed the Center for Work Life Balance. She once told me, and I’m paraphrasing, that our economic models still exists on the assumption that one parent can work full time and that the other can stay home and take care of all of the household tasks and child-rearing and so on when that’s just not true anymore.

No. It’s not. There are very, very few households in which a mother or a father is home full time. Even if you find those households, you’ll find that that’s a very transient arrangement, where they can pull that off for a couple years at most before their income needs grow so much that they can’t afford to do that any longer.

Right. The other thing that makes me think of is the two-parent trap. For some parents, the cost of childcare is so expensive that it might not be worth working, or that they would lose money being a dual-income household.

Yeah. What they’re really complaining about is that childcare will take such a big chunk out of their paycheck that it hardly seems worth the effort. So if childcare is eating up 40 percent of your paycheck, and you’re paying taxes, and insurance, and transportation costs, and everything else out of the other 60 percent, you may be earning an effective wage of two to three dollars an hour. I don’t think people are losing money. But I do think that the cost benefit analysis can lead some women to conclude that they’d be better off at home.

Of course, all of this forgets what I’ve just described as the opportunity cost of leaving the labor force. So, mothers who leave the labor force can’t just say, “This is how much money I’m foregoing now.” They are also foregoing any kind of wages, any kind of promotions that you would have gotten, or any kind of wage increases that you would have gotten if you would have stayed in the labor force instead of leaving. Many women find that when they leave the labor force and try to re-enter it, they are going to re-enter it at a lower wage. They are going to see their promotional possibilities blunted because of that time out of the labor force. Some will never able to retain the position and wages they had before they left the labor force. It’s not just what you’re doing tomorrow; it’s what you’re doing to yourself 10 years from now.

Do you see hope on the horizon?

I see hope in the fact that we are talking about these issues, and that finally, it seems like a critical mass of mothers and a critical mass of progressive politicians are waking up to the fact that we’re not going back to the 1950s, and what we’re doing right now is aging our nation. And it’s going to punish our economy if we don’t start paying attention. So, the wellbeing of families and children, in some ways, tell you something about the future well being of that society.

We’re just not doing such a great job of insuring that we have high quality early childhood education, high quality schools, parents that can provide sufficient time and attention to monitor what their children are doing and provide healthy meals. We face all sorts of rising risks for our kids and I think we need to kind of look that square in the face and say “This needs to change. We need to pay more attention to American families.”