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Parents Shouldn’t Be Expected to "Go It Alone" When It Comes to Raising Kids

It's time for a society that finally, truly places families at the center.

parents shouldn't have to go it alone
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As a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon, I spend my days surrounded by beautiful, curious babies and their loving, hopeful parents. There is no greater joy than snuggling my little patients as I walk them to the operating room — something I take extra delight in now that my own children, all eight of them, tower over me.

Through tragedy and great fortune, my second husband and I are raising a blended family of four daughters and four sons, ages 16 to 22. The potential for a gaggle of grandchildren for me to snuggle one day seems imminently promising.

My husband, John, is a behavioral economist. My biological children’s father, who drowned while rescuing two boys in Lake Michigan, was a fellow surgeon. When John and I combined our families, we set out to teach our children to set big goals, work to achieve them, and leave the world a better place than they found it.

But goals and hard work can’t obscure the fact that we live in a society that leaves parents largely on their own to navigate and meet their children’s needs. As I watch our children search for colleges, jobs and soul mates, I sometimes wonder when, or whether, children will fit into their lives. I wonder if society is doing enough to help young parents give their children the time, attention and resources they so richly deserve.

Parents are the captains of their families’ ships, manning the helm, and every captain needs a crew. When young people look around today, though, they don’t see a crew.

My oldest daughter started her first post-college job last year. The career advice she receives most often isn’t about advanced degrees or collaboration. It’s about kids: Put them off or don’t have them at all. Female medical students that I mentor tell me they hear the same. To be clear, choosing to remain child-free is every bit as valid as choosing to become a parent. But those decisions should be based on a person’s own desires, not a frustrating calculation of potential happiness, opportunity or income loss that leads to too many dreams deferred.

Women have been socialized to believe we can — and should — shoulder it all. Time use surveys reveal women in heterosexual relationships, across income brackets, take on far more domestic labor than their male partners, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this disparity. When COVID-19 forced the closure of schools and child-care centers, it was women who left the labor force in droves to care for and educate their children at home. When an elderly parent or other family member falls ill, women take on the lion’s share of that caretaking as well.

Meanwhile, many fathers fear workplace stigma if they prioritize (or even balance) childcare responsibilities with professional responsibilities, according to a 2020 survey, even though research shows the majority of fathers wish they could spend more time with their young children.

dr dana suskind, author of parent nation, and her combined family of 10
Dr. Dana Suskind and her combined family of 10.
Courtesy of Dr. Dana Suskind

It all takes a toll. Studies consistently reveal that parents are, on average, less happy than non-parents. And American parents are among the least happy. When researchers looked at the happiness differential in close to two dozen countries, they found the United States has the biggest happiness gap. University of Texas sociology professor Jennifer Glass, who led the research, found the gap was largely caused by America’s lack of family-friendly social policies. American moms also feel more guilt about not living up to cultural ideals of the “good mother” than their counterparts in other nations.

It’s no wonder U.S. birth rates have hit a record low. We can’t be surprised when young adults look around at the level of support they’ll receive and decide to forgo parenthood altogether. (And tell their female colleagues to do the same.)

But we can’t simply accept the status quo, either. It’s time to elevate our expectations for society, and for society to step up to meet them.

In my new book, Parent Nation, I offer a path forward, informed by the science of child development, for a society that finally, truly, places parents and families at the center. And we can all play a role!

Parents are the captains of their families’ ships, manning the helm, and every captain needs a crew.

Science tells us that learning begins not on the first day of school, but on the first day of life. The brain’s incredible ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections is at its peak between birth and age 3 — precisely the years we leave parents with little to no formal support from society.

Science also shows us environments matter tremendously. Stable, calm environments foster social-emotional skills and executive function, while disruptive environments impede them. Parents need support and protection, including fair wages, paid time off and a social safety net, that will allow them to provide secure environments for their young children.

I would love to see parents across backgrounds and political leanings forge a collective identity to push for more support. Whether it’s talking to parents in your community about their experiences and bringing their concerns and ideas to local elected officials, or conducting a survey of parents in your workplace to find out what supports would most benefit them, there are countless ways to foster community among parents and fight for change together. When elections come around, I’d love to see voters research policies and candidates with an eye toward what’s best for parents and children. Some organizations that help with that research include Zero To Three, Moms Rising National At-Home Dad Network and First Five Years Fund.

For more information on building your own Parent Village, including how to foster a community, forge a collective identity, elevate expectations for society and fight for change, visit parentnation.org.

But the path forward cannot just be paved by parents. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, educators — anyone who has loved a child — can build a parent nation by honoring, valuing and making space for the love and labor that go into raising children. And we can invite business leaders, community leaders and policymakers to do the same. Indeed, every adult stands to benefit when the next generation is given the opportunity to thrive. Today’s children will be the employees, doctors, public servants and caregivers of tomorrow.

Together we can push for families to get the support they need and deserve. Being a parent — and hopefully, a grandparent — can bring us to our knees. But it must also rouse us to our feet.

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