There’s a point in the process of most pregnancies where parents-to-be start doing some math. Whether it’s a first child or adding to a larger brood, they’re faced with the complicated question of childcare. In progressive two-parent households, the question might start with a pondering of will anyone stay home with the baby, but almost invariably it turns to whether the mother will stay home with the baby.
The focus on whether mom will stay home is a vestige of our traditional gender roles, sure, but it’s also the economic reality for most families with two working, opposite-sex parents. While the number of women who earn as much or more than their husbands has tripled in the last 50 years, it’s still only in about 16% of opposite-sex marriages where women are the bigger earners.
So it makes perfect sense, then, that when running the numbers, the mother’s job feels more expendable.
Or does it?
We tend to make two core mistakes when we consider if someone – and who – should quit to care for baby. The first is that we take too short-term a look at the financial implications.
When we look at the cost of childcare in a country that provides no widespread support for it, and we see that we will be barely outearning the cost of it – or even (*shudder*) paying to work, it can seem like a no-brainer to step out of paid employment. And when we have two parents and compare wages side by side, it also seems clear that the bigger current earner should remain working to provide for a family.
What we don’t see when we simply look our current paystubs to do this analysis is that the financial ripple effects of quitting extend far and wide. Economic and social research show that women who reduce their paid work for family responsibilities not only lose the wages of today, but are impacted significantly in loss of benefits, advancement opportunities, and potentially future earnings. Even taking just one year off to care for children results in earning less overtime than women who don’t.
Despite some valiant efforts, we are unfortunately far from a world in which a motherhood resume gap has no or even positive implications. Women who step away for caregiving are indeed penalized, whether consciously or unconsciously, in being considered for promotions, pay increases, and other career opportunities.
This hasn’t stopped many women from doing just that, with 43% of highly qualified women with children taking at least some time away from their careers to focus on them. The reality is that the women who do off-ramp tend to be in more economically secure situations. Not only that, but the penalty paid by mothers who leave the workforce is greater for those at the lower end of the income distribution. Less choice, more penalty.
From a financial perspective, those penalties can be incredibly substantial. With losses to wages and well as retirement contributions, the motherhood penalty can cost women, by some estimates, up to $600,000.
What’s more is that the impact is indeed a motherhood penalty, rather than just a “caregiving leave penalty.” Fathers who have left the workforce for a period of time don’t seem to face the same financial implications, in part because they regain work quickly. One Federal Reserve paper highlighted that “nearly all fathers” who disrupted work early in the pandemic returned to work quickly, “while mothers regained virtually none of their lost ground.”
Some of us might look at the long-term math and determine that the financial costs are worth avoiding the headache of being an employed parent or worth the joys of spending more time with our kids. And that’s a wonderfully valid decision.
But the second core mistake that we make in assessing this decision is that we look at the equation too narrowly. We try to fit what’s best for us – baby and family – into a box that’s built only around finances. We know as women we’ll lose wages if we quit. But what else do we lose?
There’s no way to definitively predict if leaving the workforce will make a woman happier. Some of us have dreamt of spending our days engaged in the messy moments of mothering, and we find true satisfaction in this space. For others, that feels confining or unsatisfying.
Not surprisingly, given the range of humans we are, research can’t give us a clear answer on what’s best for us as individuals. But it can, in fact, give us some interesting points to consider, particularly when it comes to our marital relationships and our mental health.
When we look at how working vs. not working impacts women’s lives, perhaps the most interesting point to make is that the effects have so much to do with expectation and choice. Specifically, women who imagined that they would be stay-at-home-parents and have more traditionally gendered values tend to be happier when they can do just that. Women who imagined they would be employed and have more liberal values are happier when they are working. It sounds obvious to make this point, but it’s worth repeating. We are happiest when we have choice and those choices align with our expectations and hopes for ourselves.
That said, the research shows that women doing paid work do tend to enjoy better quality of life than non-employed women. Working women also report greater self-differentiation, adjustment, intimacy, and marital satisfaction.
For those who are employed and reading that last sentence incredulously, keep in mind too that excessive work hours were associated with worse relationship health and personal health. Working seems to be good. Working too much is not.
In the midst of third-wave feminism, it can feel a little dicey to try to make the case that women should keep working. The goal, after all, should be for women to do what feels most values-aligned to them and for the world to support them while doing it.
Indeed, working inside or outside the home – or in one of the thousand other configurations that now exist – are all valid choices. But if we don’t have a full and comprehensive picture of the implications, those choices aren’t actually real choices.
In fact, I’m not sure American women today have a real choice at all. We’re making a decision about caregiving for our children in a system that’s set up to penalize us if we stay home, underpay us even if we stay, and offers no mandated leave or childcare provisions. The fact that average childcare costs are up to 50% of a single parent’s income is ludicrous, to be frank.
But within the system that exists today, women deserve to know how a career decision today impacts them financially, relationally, and emotionally.