Working relationships: An ESRC Better Lives Essay

In this shortlisted essay from the ESRC Better Lives Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives, new mother Rosa Daiger von Gleichen describes the exertions required to both work and be a parent. The PhD candidate in social policy at the University of Oxford studies employer-based and public family policies, primarily in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, to understand how employers, families and individuals will manage both work and care in the future.

I had a baby last year. My first, a beautiful little boy named Johann. I was prepared for many of the changes, or at least as prepared as you can be for something you’ve never done before. The sleepless nights, the emotional roller coaster, renegotiating responsibilities with my husband. What I wasn’t prepared for were all the stories. Johann’s arrival was the occasion for my mother, father and grandmothers to tell me about their experiences being parents in the 20th century. And of course many of the stories were funny and beautiful. But the most memorable ones were not.

One grandmother would have loved to work, but that was considered socially inappropriate. Had she been working, it would have suggested that my grandfather wasn’t a good breadwinner. In the rigid society of the 1950s, my grandfather also struggled to show affection for his children. This emotional distance contributed to pain that is still felt in my family today. My other grandmother would have loved to stay home with her children, but on that side of the family it was simply unaffordable.

Rosa Daiger von Gleichen

For all my grandparents, having children and earning a living in a male breadwinning and female caregiving society produced painful regrets. But those didn’t stop with my grandparents’ generation. My parents too struggled to earn enough and do work they loved, while spending enough time with me. Of course the challenge was different for my mother than for my father. She would have needed more support with childcare, while he would have loved to work less and spend more time with me. While this meant that I got to spend a lot of time with my beloved grandmothers, I remember wishing I could have spent more time with my parents.

Behind the phrase ‘work-family conflict’ is a wealth of stories like those in my family – stories of regret, broken relationships, and unfulfilled potential. And while great progress has been made since my grandparents faced these issues, the problem is far from solved. Patterns of working and caring are still highly gendered and shaped by class. Many working parents still feel too constrained in their relationships with family members, particularly fathers, or their career prospects, particularly mothers.

Parents (and often therefore children’s) lives will be better if they can build the careers and families they imagine for themselves with fewer gender and class constraints. That’s why my research explores questions such as where support for working families comes from, why some policies – like child benefits, paid leave, or childcare – are preferred over others, and how these policies work together. I’m also studying how different policies help or hinder different families, such as single-parent households or low-income families, in their work-family balance.

In particular, my research focuses on employers’ support for working parents. So far social science has neglected the role of employers, and why they offer things like company day care or additional paid leave. I’m particularly interested in how much work-family policies of national governments influence the work-family measures of employers. This is also a relatively new area of social research where a better understanding would make it much easier to draft government policies that improve people’s lives.

You might think that the more work-family policies governments offer, the less employers will provide – but generally this does not seem to be the case. For many policies, it seems like the government creates an environment where work-family conflict is acknowledged. In that environment more employees feel

empowered to request support from their employers. But of course, this depends on the particular type of work-family policy, and the situation of the employee. As with many things work and family, the findings we have are inconclusive, which is why we need more research.

In many ways, being a working mum in 2018 is easier than it was in 1990 or 1960. My husband took six months of paternity leave through his employer when Johann was born, and as I write these lines, the sixteen-month-old is at public day care. But while things are unquestionably better today than they were for previous generations, balancing work and family remains much more difficult than it should be. Childcare for Johann is only available and affordable for a few hours a day, and my husband is back to working long hours, usually coming home long after Johann has gone to bed.

This is the norm for most working families, but I’m convinced that it doesn’t need to be this way. That’s why I’m researching how and why governments and employers support working parents. I believe this knowledge is crucial to crafting better work-family policies. And good work-family policies can help many millions, both parents and children, have stronger relationships, more fulfilling careers, and ultimately better lives.

Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:



  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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