Being a Mother Just Doesn't Pay


Why the Most Important Job in the World

Is Still the Least Valued

By Ann Crittenden

Metropolitan Books -- 323pp -- $25

In Massachusetts, a furor has erupted over the news that the newly appointed governor, Jane Swift, is pregnant with twins. The unusual situation--she will be the first U.S. governor to give birth while in office--has sparked more than the old culture war over whether mothers should work. Even her supporters wonder how she will manage the burden.

No one, though, seems to be questioning the notion that Swift alone is responsible for the care of her children. Even though she has a stay-at-home husband, the debate in newspapers and on the airwaves is only on how Swift will handle child care and balance career and family. In effect, our society has decided that, since it was her choice to have kids, she must bear all the costs of raising them.

Welcome to America, the land where having a child is the worst economic decision a woman can make. This unpleasant truth, and its even more unpleasant consequences, are laid out in detail in The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. Author Ann Crittenden, a former economics reporter for The New York Times, has produced an important and well-argued study of the huge disparity between the value that mothers produce and the price they are forced to pay. "The truth is that unpaid female labor is the priceless, invisible heart of the economy," she writes. But while homemakers make up the largest single occupation in the U.S., they are also the most likely group to face poverty in old age.

The Price of Motherhood is not another feminist screed lamenting that men don't help with the kids or that women still don't get promotions at the office. Crittenden takes a far more compelling approach to the motherhood debate--an economic one. On the one hand, she notes, economists are in general agreement that human capital is a major determinant of a nation's prosperity. And yet our tax code, workplace policies, divorce laws, immigration laws, and welfare system all devalue the job of raising those humans.

Crittenden spent five years researching what she calls the "mommy tax," and her data make a convincing case. One study found that, by 1991, 30-year-old American women without children were earning 90% of men's wages. But comparable women with children were making only 70%, even when all other factors were equal. Another survey of 200 female MBAs found that those who had pulled out of the job market for an average of 8.8 months earned 17% less than those who had never had an employment gap. It's not just mothers that suffer, either. A survey of 348 male managers at the largest companies revealed that those who had both children and working wives--so presumably helped out more at home--earned almost 20% less than fathers with non-working wives.

Of course, champions of so-called family values argue that this is the price one pays for having children, and moms are more than compensated by the joy they derive from their kids. But you can't eat joy. A woman who works only as a homemaker does not accrue Social Security and is unlikely to have a pension or savings of her own unless her husband chooses to give her some of his. Crittenden goes into great detail about what she calls "the dark little secret of family life": Under family law, a breadwinner's income is legally his alone, and he can do whatever he wants with it. In the event of divorce, he must pay child support but little or no spousal support in most states, she says. Stay-at-home moms will then have to go back to work, usually for far lower wages than their former husbands make. It's no coincidence, she argues, that as many as one-half of divorced mothers, and their children, end up in poverty.

Crittenden clearly did her homework. She cites an impressive array of economic studies and takes an extensive look at divorce laws, welfare policies, workplace issues, and the lack of affordable child care. This is not just a dry recitation. She illustrates each point with chilling stories from the real world, based on extensive interviews.

She also describes an alternative. Crittenden heads off to Sweden, which she calls "an almost mythical paradise" where men do more housework and child care than anywhere else in the world. There she discovers a set of policies designed to keep mothers working and happy, ranging from a year's paid maternity leave to one month's paid father's leave (in addition to 10 days off at the child's birth), and subsidized, high-quality child care. As a result, the rates of participation of men and women in the Swedish labor force are the same. Crittenden also found in Sweden that the more economic power mothers have in the family, the more fathers help out at home. The income of the mother invariably correlates with the domestic participation of the father, even among immigrant populations from traditionally patriarchal nations.

Crittenden proposes a set of policy changes for the U.S. that would reconceptualize child care as work. Those who provide that care, paid or unpaid, would then be seen as productive citizens with the same social and economic rights as all other workers. After all, she says, "someone has to do the necessary work of raising children and sustaining families, and the reward for such vital work should not be professional marginalization, a loss of status, and an increased risk of poverty." It is hard to imagine any of her proposals being adopted. But this book at least attempts to change the parameters of the debate.

By Catherine Arnst

Arnst is a senior writer and a mother.

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