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The Citizen

OPINION: Parenting is an act of heroism

By Amelie de Montchalin

When I acknowledged that I was admitted to attend the Harvard Kennedy School two-year MPA Program six months ago, I felt first extremely lucky – and somewhat anxious. Indeed, moving to Cambridge would necessarily imply numerous changes for my husband and our little 15-month girl Bertille. To make these changes livable, we spent very long hours searching (from France) for a home in Cambridge and a childcare center with available spots and decent prices; having my husband successfully transferred to the Boston office of his company; organizing our move and preparing ourselves to live in a country we had more clichés in mind about than real ideas.

The first two months we spent here showed us that we were right to have made these efforts: classes, students and professors at HKS are amazing to both chat with and to learn from. Nevertheless I realized, as did all the other HKS student parents, the flipside of this coin is that I often feel squeezed between my different priorities. For example, I long to have more time to enjoy the social life and seminars instead of finishing my “student day” at 6 p.m. when the daycare closes. By the way, it’s not easy to be writing memos while listening to lullabies so your baby can fall asleep.

But, let’s be honest, I feel this is not more difficult than the pressure and constraints I was experiencing while having a newborn at home and working 11 hours per day as an economist in France. Being a working (or studying) parent everywhere requires one to be organized, pragmatic and reasonable in their expectations.

The real challenge for me here in the United States as a studying parent is not time management, personal balance or organization – it is the way people look at me and the square box of a role they put me in (as a parent). In France, it is actually the norm for women to have children (women have 2.1 children on average) and to work (as 84 percent of the women do between the ages of 25 and 49).

This scenario is certainly not paradise, but families are supported: daycare is sponsored and ends up being two to three times cheaper than in the US, schools close between 5 and 6 p.m., good-quality education is quasi-free from ages 3 to 25, health is made affordable, the tax system is built to massively favor families and many women receive a full wage for a 35-hour work week. Unlike in the US, working mums there are not heroes.

I was therefore surprised to discover that young American women are extremely afraid of having to become wonderwomen or feel deeply guilty to continue working and have children. In their shoes, I would probably feel the same. But why then does America scrimp on the idea of providing supporting infrastructures and policies to its families? Why do American women not complain more on having to make such excruciating choices?

For me, advocating for a more efficient family policy is not a concession to “European socialism”. This is a pragmatic choice. Economic research shows that higher female participation in the labor market is positive for the GDP growth. At the same time, childrearing is key in fostering future growth prospects.

In my view, action to be taken in the US is two-pronged.  First, local and federal public expenditures should increase to make daycare and preschool affordable (versus the  $2,600/month per toddler which exists in Cambridge). This means explicit redistribution in favor of families with young children. The political narrative could be focused on the need to also invest in children, while public expenditures are growingly focusing on the elder generations.

Second action involves a change in the social mindset and requires local role-models to become more vocal. There is nothing morally wrong in leaving children some hours per day in places where they feel happy and where activities suit their age. It is then socially highly valuable to see parents having jobs where they can deploy their skills, knowledge and energy. We can start this right here at HKS by realizing that student parents want to be “heroes” outside their families and cannot be reduced to their parenthood: they also want, and can, make a difference to the world they live in.