Current Affairs

A Convenient Way To Promote Happiness

Every Parent Deserves a Nanny State

There needs to be a public commitment to easing the burdens of parenthood…

Now that my mother is deep in that phase of her life where every one of our meetings concludes with an inquiry regarding my womb’s reproductive intentions, I often think of the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Contemplating the possibility of future children, I consider the fact my mother had already had me by the time she was my age. I also consider the fact that I quite like children: their sense of wonder, their earnest hopefulness, their sharp-tongued wit, their obliviousness to Twitter. But then I recall the stark reality: that growing wealth and income inequality has turned the “village”—now a network of low-waged (or sometimes unpaid) nannies, au-pairs, tutors, chauffeurs, and other “help”—into an unrecognizable, privatized luxury for the rich. If I were to have a child today, I would find myself in the shoes of most parents in America, for whom there is no village. Just a nuclear family, if you can hold it together, and an unfair economy in the backdrop.

The richest 10% of people have spent the last forty years hoarding 75% of gains in the U.S. economy. For the rest of us, the apex of American capitalism has mostly taken the form of losses: stagnant wages, predatory financialization, eroded labor power and job guarantees, burst housing bubbles, too-damn-high rents, and a hollowed safety net. Even though our economy benefits from population growth, the state continues to confine the costs of care to nuclear families and the private sector. This toxic dynamic is straining our society’s ability to rear its children. To borrow the words of Nancy Fraser, the democratic-socialist and feminist philosopher, our society is facing a crisis of care. And it is making American parents absolutely miserable.

This is not a hyperbole. As the New York Times enjoys reporting with regularity, a trifecta of anxiety, financial, and emotional drain have led to a “happiness gap” between American parents and non-parents, as well as between American and European parents. As a recent study out of the University of Texas makes clear, these significant differences between the U.S. and Europe are not explained by something inherent in our soil’s composition (notwithstanding our occasional water poisoning crises). Instead, the greatest predictor of parental happiness is the existence of policies that make it “less stressful and less costly to combine childrearing with paid work.” Simply put: European governments help their folks, while the United States hangs its own out to dry.

Today, most American parents work. Specifically, nearly half of two-parent families include both parents working full-time, and only a quarter are supported by a stay-at-home mother. In cisgender, heterosexual couples, both parents acutely feel the pressures of balancing work and family. But mothers consistently report bearing the brunt of domestic and caregiving duties. Mothers also report greater rates of feeling rushed; of finding parenting stressful; of feeling the impact on their careers; of finding work-life balancing difficult. One can only imagine how much more intense these burdens can be on single-parent households, or where one of two parents has a severe handicap. A true village, a socialized one, could go a long way towards closing the Happiness Gap—not only between parents and non-parents, but also between co-parents.

Despite the fact that it is 2017, neither parental leave nor universal childcare is a given in the United States. This is baffling, considering that both family policies enjoy wide support from the American public. In most places, hardworking families must renounce income during the critical weeks following and sometimes preceding a new child’s arrival. The federal government, also the single largest employer in the nation, leads the way by depriving its two-million employees of paid parental leave. The private sector, including behemoths like Wal-Mart, follow suit in its treatment of its lower-wage workforce. Even in the handful of progressive enclaves in the U.S. where the Left has registered wins, the outlook is sobering. Compared to the 45 weeks of leave available to Norwegian mothers, for instance, New York’s “progressive” 12 weeks feel paltry.

In the struggle for free universal childcare, we’ve actually regressed since World War II. For a brief three years, Congress funded an expansive childcare program through a 1940s wartime law called the Lanham Act. With large segments of the male population drafted away, the state tapped women to sustain production at home. In exchange, it offered affordable relief from caregiving duties if the mothers could meet the low eligibility bar: working in a community contributing to the war effort, and paying of a small flat fee under 75 cents per day. The school formats and hours varied by locality but, in some places, ran 24/7 to accommodate round-the-clock work schedules. The scheme worked. For the first time in the country’s history, married women even surpassed single women in the labor force. By the time the war wound down, the program had become so popular that protests broke out around the country when Congress began closing facilities.

Since then, the federal government has failed to offer any childcare programs anywhere near as generous as those created by the Lanham Act. Through the Head Start program launched in the 1960s, the federal government has tried to improve access to childcare. But with a limited number of slots available and eligibility to participate restricted by income, the program is even further removed from a universal ideal. Nor have the 50 states sought to create any better childcare options. Jurisdictions that provide universal free preschool remain the exception; meanwhile, daycare expenses continue to devour family budgets in large metropolitan areas. In San Francisco, New York City, and Boston, childcare costs easily rival already-exorbitant housing costs. For households of modest means, this often means no assistance in figuring out what to do with their children during the day. Given all of this, frankly, it’s a wonder American parents do not report even higher rates of dissatisfaction.

Then there’s the issue of after-school and evenings. As made clear by parents’ exhausted reports from the “second shift,” caring for children is no easier after work. We rarely think to extend our demands for childcare assistance beyond the workday, but there are very sound reasons for doing so. First, the idea that extended after-school care can only be performed by parents is undercut by reality. The majority of households already trust the state and private sector to attend to their children’s needs on their behalf when they send their children to school every day. Though there’s a pervasive social assumption that 100% “DIY parenting” is inherently more virtuous, the truth is that parents, as a class, are not innately better-suited than experienced caregivers when it comes to performing emotionally rewarding, but ultimately mundane childcare-related tasks like homework, cooking dinner, and tucking children in. One Percent families have no qualms enlisting the private village to help their children with Common Core-style math and building science projects. In fact, rich parents are the few people in the U.S. who are able to take advantage of the ultimate outsourcing village: the boarding school.

But why should boarding schools only be the purview of the wealthy? In Europe, this isn’t the case. When I was growing up in France, my mother took a job as a caregiver, in a home for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This was just a few years after my parents divorced, in the mid-’90s. The two of us decamped from a sleepy village outside the City of Lyon to a cheaper unit in the city. Our new home, in the projects of the Duchère neighborhood, was rougher. Concerned about my ability to adjust—I was, in her words, “an easily influenced child”—my mother enrolled me in the Internat Adolphe Favre, in the hilly Croix-Rousse quarter. Formerly a boarding school, the public institution (paid for by the city) now sent its attendees to the local elementary and high school. Like most parents who sent their children there, my mother paid an insignificant fee. From ages eight to ten, my mother dropped me off on Sunday nights and picked me up on Friday evenings. Our parents remained responsible for school-related meetings, and could call us during phone hours in the evenings if they wished. We were cared for by educators, fed by chefs at dinner, and at night, we were watched by guards we knew on a first-name basis. We slept in loft beds with our own very desks at the bottom. If we finished our homework early, we played soccer in the field outside, screamed at each other over foosball on the second floor, or hid out to read. We shared secrets and blanket forts and, occasionally, lice. Meanwhile, our parents had the space to get their shit together, knowing we were safe and happy. For my mother, this meant being able to work nights to support us, to sleep soundly when she got home, and even to have a hint of a social life as a single mother.

Pictured: Each year, parents come to the pier to return inconvenient children to the stork, who carries them to the nearest public boarding school to be raised in a friendly and supportive environment. Artwork by Vanessa A. Bee

Although boarding schools are rarer here than in Western Europe or even China, they have long been a part of this country’s fabric. Though they typically have a school attached to the property, these institutions can take different forms: dormitories or boarding houses, for example, accommodate children outside of school hours, with the children simply attending the local school (as was the case with the boarding school I attended). A small network of boarding schools cater to children with developmental or behavioral challenges. A handful of these specialized schools, along with magnet schools with competitive entry requirements, are funded by the states and sprinkled around the country. At the federal level, the Bureau of Indian Education funds boarding options, run by tribal agencies and reserved for Native American children. (These tribally-administrated boarding schools are a long way removed from the boarding schools into which the U.S. government once systematically crammed Native-American children, cruelly subjecting them to a curriculum of acculturation and assimilation that left many former students with related trauma well into adulthood.) But for the most part, the boarding school is still principally a tool of the rich. Some, like Exeter and Andover, boast having cared for former United States Presidents as children. Privately owned and operated, the five-figure annual price restricts attendance to the elite, save for a few scholarship-sponsored spots. The children who attend these schools are well cared-for by a team of educators, for extended periods of time away from their parents.

We should reclaim the concept of the childrearing village from the rich. Under the auspices of the WWII childcare program, the American state once proved its willingness to go to great lengths to support parents. Curbing the crisis of care, and producing happier families, is surely a worthy goal in and of itself, even outside the context of a war effort. Childcare programs could create thousands of public, caregiver positions nationwide, for competitive wages and employment benefits. In advocating for this option, it would be crucial for the Left to insist on the exclusion of the private sector, namely through charters, in order to preserve accountability and greater investment from the public. The increased availability of public caregiver positions formerly only available on the private side would improve the negotiation position of the low-wage worker army on the “private village” side. Public boarding schools could also encourage the state to support other generous family policies as a means of keeping enrollment in these public boarding schools at manageable levels. Of course, the boarding assistance should always be optional. Importantly, the government must never ever again be in the business of forcibly removing children from their homes, or divorcing them from their familial and cultural networks. Nor would parents have to fear being replaced by boarding school staff: just as in healthy relationships between school teachers and parents in a non-boarding context, all the caregivers in a child’s life have important, complementary roles to play. As with the WWII program, boarding assistance should be of such quality and comprehensiveness that parents would clamor for the opportunity to outsource their second shift duties.

For now, the marketing for boarding schools often reflects the hang-ups of American parenting culture, by exclusively emphasizing the benefits to the students. The prep schools vaunt their pipelines into well-ranked universities and the white-collar professions, while the special-needs schools may flaunt different improved outcomes for the student. The SEED network of charter boarding schools, for example, promotes its ability to keep its attendees out of jail and prison. Obviously, the advantages to students are laudable. But they also, if only subliminally, obscure the fact that boarding schools offer parents a real chance to better balance work and family. Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum would greatly benefit from public, well-funded boarding schools.

Naturally, individual personalities and circumstances will differ—and sometimes evolve even within the same family—which means that boarding school will not be the best fit for every parent and child. Nor should it be. Boarding schools should be about expanding options to parents and reimagining our childrearing culture. But carving out more time to care for children and for oneself can be achieved by additional means, too. Luckily for us, some of these means complement existing goals of the Left. For instance, shortening the work week to 36 or even 30 hours would grant parents who wish to spend more time at home the power to do so. In the Netherlands, which already works one of the shortest weeks in the European Union, the government actually encourages parents to take more time off during the week. For many, this day or half-day has become kinderdag, or kids’ day. Imagine a state where taking weekly family leave was not only possible, but encouraged—and where, depending on the family’s wealth, parents who opted to work a shorter week would be entitled to compensation to balance their reduced hours. A statutorily-reduced work week would also discourage employers from demanding longer hours from parents who would choose to place their children in boarding schools.

The argument for universal childcare is grounded in best outcomes for children, but also, just as importantly, in superior quality of life for their parents. Why should we concede the relevance of parents’ happiness, or their need to be supported by a state that benefits from their labor and social reproduction? The truth is that American parents across all economic classes deserve better help during the work day and outside working hours. A nanny state would go a long way towards giving us all a chance to be happier. 

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