University of Chicago pediatric surgeon Dana Suskind is best known for her first book, 2015’s Thirty Million Words, a guide to how early language exposure fortifies children’s brains. But before that, she made news on a more personal and tragic level when her husband, Dr. Donald Liu, drowned in Lake Michigan after saving two boys from rip tides in 2012. His devotion to their three children and the lessons Suskind learned about the importance of community support for families are themes in her new book, Parent Nation. The book goes beyond child-rearing advice to call for an overhaul of national priorities and family policy. Suskind, 54, founded what’s now the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, which focuses on helping low-income families. She directs the center with U. of C. economist John List, her husband since 2018.
The title, Parent Nation, signifies we’re all in this together. Personally, I avoid parenting books to avoid guilt for giving my kids so much screen time and for not speaking to them in Mandarin.
I do not want this to be one more thing that parents feel they need to do. It only happens in this country that parents blame themselves, especially mothers. We’ve internalized this notion, along with American individualism, that parenting is a solo activity. COVID has shown that none of us parent alone. In some ways, this book is a love letter to parents. I want them to give themselves grace — that society and their community can and should play a role in supporting them. I want them to elevate their expectations. I want parents to be able to find joy. Every parent loves their child, but the research is pretty clear: Parents are less happy than nonparents. Only in this country is the parent happiness gap so large. And it’s really related to the lack of societal supports.
How did COVID-19 influence that thinking?
COVID was like an earthquake showing just how poor our infrastructure of supports is — the childcare deserts that were there. The childcare system is basically imploding. And I was really surprised that nothing has passed to support children and families. We had the child [tax] credit that helped for a while, but then, poof, it’s gone. We can’t even seem to get paid family and medical leave passed.
You document how young children represent the most vulnerable cohort of Americans. You wrote that you were “stunned to learn that the presence of children is one of the strongest risk factors for eviction.” To show that change for this age group is possible, you discuss the dramatic impact of organizing another cohort of Americans: the elderly.
Yes, 50 years ago, 50 percent of them lived below the standards of decency. They had no protections. The AARP has totally changed what it means to be elderly in this country. There is no age group that’s better protected, that has more societal supports, and justifiably so.
As a liberal reading your book, I agreed with 100 percent of your public policy recommendations. But then I was thinking: What if you get a more conservative reader?
I spoke to parents of all different backgrounds: Republicans, Democrats, religious mothers who homeschool, mothers who worked, fathers who did the same. They all described the societal supports that we’re looking for: paid leave, high-quality childcare. These are all investments. The research is clear: There is a huge return on investment. Professor [James J.] Heckman, here at the University of Chicago, has shown that you get up to a 13 percent return on investment for every dollar you invest in early childhood. This makes good economic sense.
I was surprised to see in your book how bipartisan support for childcare has been in the past — and how close the Nixon administration came in 1971 to getting universal childcare passed, before it got spooked by allegations of communism.
Yes. Back in 1921 we had the Sheppard-Towner Act, which was about maternal and child health. That slashed child mortality, right? And yet we got rid of [the law]. So we talk a big game that we value children in this country, but we sure don’t invest like it. We always think about this issue as a “kid issue,” but this is a foundational issue for true gender equality and civil rights. How can you have true equality when you don’t have equality of opportunity from day one? How can you have true gender equality when you don’t have the infrastructure supports for families? It’s just an impossibility.
You write more personally in this book. How come?
I came from this not just as a physician wanting to do right by the families we work with, but also as someone who had gone through incredible uncertainty while raising children. After Don died, the scariest part was wondering, Were my kids going to be OK? I had this recurring dream that was so overwhelming, I can still see it. I was on the shoreline, looking out into this incredibly turbulent scary water, and it was dark. And by my side were my three children. And I knew I had to get them to the other side. In retrospect, that other side was adulthood. The truth is I was lucky in some ways. I had a horrible thing happen. My children had a horrible thing happen. But from the power of the community that I live in — in Hyde Park, in Chicago, at the University of Chicago — I was propped up during the hardest period of my life and my children’s lives. I didn’t parent alone. All parents deserve that. Parents that I talk to have gone through so much worse and have so little support that I want everyone to have that opportunity to be propped up, to be able to parent the way they want. Because it’s scary. Life is scary. But it’s much easier when we’re all together supporting each other.
How did being a cochlear implant surgeon lead you to the work on language?
I started the pediatric implant program here at the University of Chicago. Pretty early on, I started seeing huge differences in [children’s] outcomes after implantation, with some thriving, sometimes even doing better than their typically hearing peers, academically and from a language standpoint. And others, same time out after surgery, were barely being able to communicate. It was seeing these huge differences that pushed me out of the operating room into the world of social sciences. I took a class in child development here at the U. of C. and started understanding that the differences that I was seeing among my patients had less to do with their hearing loss than the early language environments that they were being exposed to. And that children who were hearing lots of language were making those important neural connections so they could develop speech and language, et cetera.
How did your work with families inspire the wider focus on economic obstacles to a stable environment, rooted in issues of class and race?
You would see, over and over again, these roadblocks put in front of parents. From the mundane of the gig economy — with the dad you read about, Randy, who had 30 minutes a day, if he was lucky, with his child — to Sabrina, with homelessness for two years because she had to take care of her ill husband. Or Michael, who was incarcerated for the first five years of his son’s life on false murder charges. So I was like, Maybe I have one more book inside of me that uses the same child development [theory] and neuroscience to imagine: What does a society look like that is aligned with this brain science? That truly puts children and families at the center? My publisher would have loved me to do a how-to book. We don’t need another how-to book.