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:
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:
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
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
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.
books : october 2005