Education as care labour: expanding our lens on the work-life balance problem

Update on 4 March 2021: I have written a commentary on this subject for AcademiaSG.

Contemporary Singapore appears to be a great place to raise children—safe, clean, with good care infrastructure and a world-class education system. Singaporean adults also appear to be exactly the right people to have kids—healthy, educated, employed, and by global standards, wealthy. How is it, then, that fertility rates have remained below replacement rate over the past four decades? 

Attempts to answer this question have tended to focus on surveying young people who do not have children, to find out their plans with regards to marriage and childbearing. Efforts to link fertility patterns to social policy have mostly focused on policies targeted at new parents and babies—parental leave, baby bonuses, childcare center subsidies. While obviously important, two things are missing in these approaches: first, a deeper consideration of the social context of parenting, in which young people make decisions; second, attention to parenting labor beyond the physical care of young children, and therefore policy areas beyond those affecting early childhood. 

“Be decent mother, go through PSLE”: when children’s education becomes parental care labor

On 13 November, I gave a talk at the Centre for Family and Population Research at NUS, drawing on interviews with parents in Singapore.

The challenges of combining wage work and care responsibilities have been documented in various societal contexts. National variations reveal that public policy and care infrastructure have major effects in shaping gendered patterns in who does what in households, fertility decisions, as well as overall wellbeing of parents. An area of social life and public policy that has not been integrated into this body of work has been that of education. While schools are accounted for as spaces that allow parents to be at work, inadequate attention has been paid to how education systems shape the parameters for parenting and therefore how they affect work and care experiences. In this paper, I draw on interviews with parents in Singapore to illustrate how the education system’s demands are a major component of contemporary care labor. Attending to policy effects in the area of education and integrating it into discussions of work-life balance will pave way for a more complete picture of the challenges parents face.