The Working ‘Burbs

There were excellent questions raised by “The City is No Place to Raise a Child” post, so I’ve thought about it a bit more. If families rely on informal networks of individuals to help raise their children, shouldn’t it be easier to form and maintain networks in the suburbs, rather than in the city?

It seems to me that the question turns on whether there are more stay-at-home moms in the ‘burbs. According to Karen Hansen, the author of Not-So-Nuclear Families, networks are reciprocal relationships – she calls it the “reciprocity covenant”. “If you want to be helped by others, you must help them,” she writes. A key way to establish a network is to first help out the people you want to recruit to help you. So, if a mom is at home during the day, she’s probably better able to do favors for a neighbor, friend or family member,than is a mother who works full-time. And if there are more stay-at-home moms in the ‘burbs, networks should be easier to form and maintain, simply because there’s more time to spread around the neighborhood.

So are there more stay-at-home moms in the suburbs today? It turns out that the answer is no. Moms who live in the suburbs are actually just slightly more likely to work than women who live in central cities, according to Census 2000. (61% of women with children under the age of 6 who live inside the central city work, compared with 60% of women who live in the ‘burbs.) Also, suburban working parents are going further distances to their jobs, which further cuts back on their network building time.

It should be at least a little easier for an urban parent to build and maintain a network than it would be for a suburban parent. But there is a mitigating factor: racial diversity. Hansen finds that networks are most likely to form around people who share similar world views. While race isn’t a perfect proxy for world view, it would seem like a more diverse neighborhood would prove a challenge to establishing an effective network. More on this later.


2 thoughts on “The Working ‘Burbs

  1. OK, so admittedly I’m one of those friends who questioned raising a child in the city. Having now lived in rural America then suburbia then relatively city (outside of DC)and now something in between, I think that I had the question wrong (as Alison has pointed out). Its not about the city or suburbia on some level. Its about the structure you have for your family and the people who are around you.

    In thinking more about the kids thing over the past year or so. I did find myself personally wondering how we (Eric and I) could raise kids living so far (400 miles) from our families and our closest friends. I saw the struggles of others and thought it just wouldn’t be feasible for us at first. I later figured out it wasn’t that it wasn’t feasible – I’m still of the belief that you can do what you need to do when you need to. I found myself thinking I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted my family, at least, nearby. I wanted them to be a part of the lives of these fictious (so far) children.

    So, to add to this and the comments above and conversations Alison and I have been having in recent years. My hypothesis is that it is about that comfort zone for you and finding the niches that make it work for you as a person or as a family. It is less about the city environment or suburbia. I can see the advantages and disadvantages to both.

    I wonder, though, if alot of the advantages no matter the location have to do with money or status and are less about race. I agree that some fundamental problems don’t go away with finances, but I would think that not having the finances could seriously add to the dilemmas. I’m thinking first of simple child care. Having a safe, clean, nurturing, etc.. environment for a child is expensive if both parents are working. This is true in DC and here in upstate NY. Clearly this doesn’t mitigate the more emotional side to this – the connections and bonds people make to their children and for the child care providers, etc..

    OK now I’ve rambled to much and I need to wonder about the Sociology of Families in the 18th century for a bit and the role of women in society….

  2. Wendy raises an interesting issue with the question of money and status.

    Hansen studied families of different incomes and classes — working class, middle class, affluent. The problem with hiring in childcare, she found, is that it can be inflexible. So even when you’ve got a live-in nanny, the nanny isn’t always going to be able to work for you in the off-hours, or when emergency strikes, and so on. (In fact, in her study, the family that struggled the most was one where both parents were attorneys, making gobs of money.)Where grandma or best friend will drop everything to be with baby, hired help may not.

    The other interesting piece about money and class is the particular dilemma of the middle class. It turns on the way they’d answer this question: what would you do if your work kept getting in the way of your family obligations?

    Affluent people were more likely to kick the job to the curb –because they have a financial cushion. And interestingly enough, working class people are also likely to dump a job if it gets in the way of family priorities, not because they have a cushion, but because they are not careerists –they see their job as a way of earning money to live, and not as essential part of their identity. This also means that they’re more likely to see their job as easily interchangeable for another one. (This is much the way that employers view the workers: there’s always another unskilled worker if one worker quits; and so it is for the employee, there’s almost always a crappy minimum wage job without benefits available somewhere.)

    In the middle class though, the job is much more important, and often comes before family obligations. First, the jobs that are keeping them in the middle class aren’t so easy to find. Second, they are careerists –the job is an essential part of their identity.

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