The Deep Conflict Between Our Work and Parenting Ideals

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

American policy is uniquely hostile to families. Other wealthy countries guarantee paid parental leave and sick days and heavily subsidize early childhood care — to the tune of about $14,000 per year per child, on average. (The United States, by contrast, spends around $500 per child per year.) So it’s no wonder our birthrate has been in decline, with many people saying they’re having fewer children than they would like.

Yet if you look closer at those other wealthy countries, that story doesn’t entirely hold. Sweden, for example, has some of the most generous work-family policies in the world, and according to the most recent numbers from Our World in Data, from 2021, their fertility rate is 1.67 children per woman — virtually identical to ours.

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Caitlyn Collins is a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.” To understand how family policies affect the experience of child-rearing, she interviewed over a hundred middle-class mothers across four countries with different parenting cultures and levels of social support for families: the United States, Sweden, Italy and Germany. And what she finds is that policies can greatly relieve parents’ stress, but cultural norms like “intensive parenting” remain consistent.

In this conversation, we discuss how work-family policies in Sweden frame spending time with children as a right rather than a privilege, how these policies have transformed the gender norms around parenting, why family-friendly policies across the globe don’t increase birthrates, how cultural pressures in America to be both an ideal worker and an ideal parent often clash, why many American parents feel it’s impossible to have more than one or two children, how cultural discourse has led younger women to “dread” motherhood and more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio app, Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of this episode will be available within 24 hours of publication in the audio player above.)

Credit…Sean Garcia, Washington University in St. Louis

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Annie Galvin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld, with additional mixing from Efim Shapiro. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Sonia Herrero.

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