Work-Family Policies and Working Mothers

Throughout the industrialized west, working mothers face common struggles to balance the demands of caring for their children with their pursuit of successful careers. However, nations vary widely in their support for these women. This study compares the work-family policies in four countries that exemplify each of the western welfare regimes: Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. Using 135 in-depth interviews, Collins examines how these policies play out in the daily lives of middle income working mothers in each country. Drawing on theories of gendered governance, I show how policies intended to help women balance work and family reflect distinctive cultural ideals of motherhood, employment, and gender equality.

In countries with policies rooted in strong maternalist traditions, like areas of western Germany and Italy, working mothers experienced stigma for pursuing careers and substantial work-family conflict. In the former East Germany, with its history of mandated full employment, mothers did not face stigma for working, but tended to curtail their career ambitions. Working mothers in Sweden – renowned for its extensive, gender-equal support system – seemed the most contented with their work-family balance. American working mothers received the least policy support and experienced the most guilt and strain in my sample.

However, in all cases, working mothers felt that they were held to unrealistic standards at home and/or at work, suggesting that even the most progressive social policies are not enough. Lessening the work-family conflict faced by working mothers will require both cultural changes in the definition of motherhood and the structural reorganization of work and family.

A book manuscript based on this project, Impossible Ideals: How Women Work and Care in Europe and America, is under contract with Princeton University Press.

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