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Class matters review by Margaret Foley

page two

Social class and networks of care

Of course, raising children does not merely involve organizing their extracurricular activities. American mythology portrays the typical family as nuclear and self-sufficient, but this is far from reality. Not all families are nuclear, and no family raises children alone. Studies estimate that even with programs such as before and after school care, families still face a weekly childcare gap of up to 25 hours a week.

How families of varying economic, social, and familial resources cover this gap is the subject of Karen Hansen's Not-So-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender, and Networks of Care. She studies four families (working class, middle-class, professional middle-class, and upper class) living in Northern California to determine how the tangibles of income and employment mix with intangibles such as the proximity of friends and family to solve childcare conundrums. In order to survive, each family must establish a network of care, a web of people who can help close the childcare gap. "Raising children, an enterprise largely cast as an individual or nuclear family endeavor in postindustrial, postmodern U.S. culture, retains important collaborative dimensions."

Despite the differences in the studied families, Hansen notes that, structurally, each family creates its network in a similar way. There is one person, usually the mother, who takes on the role of anchor. The anchor is the person at the "center of each child-rearing project," who mobilizes his or her network of family, acquaintances, and friends, to help care for children. Being the anchor of a care network involves a great deal of work. The anchor must know what skills people have, when they are available, and what their resources are. Without this type of arrangement, it would be impossible for parents to work and raise their children:

The labor force of nuclear families, which consists of one or two working parents is insufficient to cover the care needs of the family as a whole. Parents need help and they wisely turn to others for it. Because they largely manage to care for their children, despite many mishaps and occasional tragedies the current situation is seen by the general public as working.

Hansen begins her book with the Cranes, a working-class family. Patricia Crane is the single mother of a six-year-old boy, Robbie. The boy's father, acknowledged by all family members to be very involved in his son's upbringing, lives two hours away. So, the daily arrangements for Robbie's care fall to Patricia.

The network she has developed consists largely of friends and relatives. Because of their economic status, the Crane family has developed a web that is wealthy in people, not money. Patricia Crane, her brother, and her mother all live within minutes of each other, and at one time, all lived in the same apartment building. This arrangement makes it easier to respond to each other's needs. In addition, Patricia's best friend, as well as the manager of her apartment complex, are also available to help out. These relationships are often reciprocal. The members of the network may provide assistance in taking care of Robbie, but Patricia helps them in other ways, by cooking meals, lending money, and doing errands.

However, because her network is so tightly based on a small number of people, her network is especially vulnerable when it comes to the health of its members. Most of them work in jobs that provide no benefits. In fact, Patricia and her family members will not take jobs that interfere with their commitments to each other. Patricia, over the course of her working life, has left several jobs because their demands were incompatible with her family commitments. If someone were to fall ill, it would be difficult not only to take care of that person, but also to replace him or her in the care network:

Consequently, the Crane network is especially vulnerable to attacks on the health of its members. All lack access to adequate health care and no one is financially secure enough to meet the expense of a problem that cannot be alleviated by over-the-counter medicine. Each member seems profoundly aware that her or his relative good fortune could disappear without warning.

The Aldrich family occupies the opposite economic spectrum. As a wealthy family, the Aldriches mobilize a different set of resources to care for their two children. Susan Aldrich and her husband Alex Brolin are recently separated and share joint custody of their two children.

Susan is the anchor for the family's childcare strategy, and the linchpin of the system is a full-time nanny, who has been employed by the family for several years. Not only does the nanny chauffeur the children between school, home, and extracurricular activities, she also manages the children's transitions between their mother's home and their father's home. The rest of the network consists of family members, friends, and a part-time babysitter. Because both Susan and Alex work full-time, it is important to know exactly who needs to be where at what time. "In the Aldrich household, 'the book' sits in a sacred space on the kitchen counter. "'The book' details the master schedule for the household…While some leeway exists, between two different school schedules, lessons, games, evening meetings, and shifting back and forth between two households, a slipup in the schedule can spell disaster for someone."

However, despite their wealth, the family's system operates with some disadvantages. Many of the members of their network also lead busy lives, making it necessary to strictly delineate who is available to do what and when. Their class status also creates isolation that can be difficult to overcome. In the wealthy community in which they live, they do not interact with their neighbors and their children do not attend the same schools, meaning that the ability to call upon neighbors for emergencies is limited.

The Duvall-Brennans and the extensive Becker network represent two different forms of middle-class coping.

Maggie Duvall and Jack Brennan belong to the professional middle class. They are lawyers with demanding schedules, have two small children, and jointly anchor their childcare network. Their main strategy for childcare is institutional care, and their children routinely spend ten to eleven hours a day in school and day-care centers. Their network, which consists of eight people is "well situated to care about the children, but ill prepared to care for them." Many of its members do not live nearby, and as a result, it is difficult to call on them if childcare is unexpectedly needed.

When the Duvall-Brennans moved from an urban to a suburban setting, it decreased the number of people who were available to physically care for their children. In the city, they had neighbors they could ask for assistance. In their suburban neighborhood, they have not yet made strong enough connections with neighbors that would allow them to feel comfortable asking for childcare. Because of their career and neighborhood choices, the Duvall-Brennans have a network that "is well off financially, but stretched extremely thin in terms of time and people."

As a result, the Duvall-Brennans have a network that provides emotional support, but may not always be able to provide material support. A crisis, such as being stuck in traffic or a sick child is threatens the structure they have created. Daycare centers have strict pickup times and cannot accommodate late meetings or traffic jams. In fact, when their daughter is too ill for day care, their only recourse is to hire an emergency caretaker who will come to their house.

The Beckers illustrate a different approach to solving the competing needs of family and work. Their strategy is anchored by Dina Becker, a freelance photographer. Her husband Mark Walde is a middle school teacher, and they have two children. In contrast to the Duvall-Brennans, their struggle is not with childcare, but with the desire to "maintain their place on the economic ladder; rather than experiencing middle-class comfort, they experience middle-class insecurity."

To manage their combined work and family responsibilities, Mark and Dina work split shifts. In theory, this would seem to solve the problem of gaps in the care of school-age children, but school holidays, a sick parent or child, a sudden change in work schedule can throw off this system. Their solution is to turn to Dina's large family, who lives in the same town and within a few minutes of each other. Their network is a extensive kin group in which it is rare that someone is not available to help.

However, this system also has its drawbacks. Although the split-shift strategy combined with the family network mostly eliminates the need for paid childcare, it has other costs. Dina and Mark have "traded time with each other for time with the children and time to work. The multiple demands of employment and parenting mean that they see little of each other as a couple, and they have no time to devote to nurturing their relationship and their marriage."

By focusing on class divisions, Lareau and Hansen highlight the inequalities of a society that pays lip service to the needs of families and children, but provides many of the resources necessary to raise children not as a matter of social policy, but as a product that must be purchased. There is a huge difference in the life prospects of someone who was born on third base and someone who needs to learn the skills necessary to hit the triple. Until providing for children's futures is seen as necessary social goal that is supported by a wide range of policies such as universal healthcare, affordable housing, and living wages -- something that is not likely to happen in today's political climate -- the class inequities inherent in the United States will only become more pronounced.

mmo books : october 2005

Margaret Foley is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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