Mothers in the Middle



strong mother

My recent column about the employment situations of married mothers spurred a lively conversation when it was cross-posted on BlogHer.  It’s a topic which draws some passionate responses.  I’m grateful for the thoughtful and lengthy comments, and I’d like to go a little deeper into the issue now.

Women’s work force attachment is a big deal.  It has major consequences for the particular woman’s:

  • financial security;
  • household income;
  • well-being of her children and other family members;
  • economy (on both the productivity and consumption sides).

On top of all that, bear in mind that women are now the better educated gender, thus raising their income potential above men’s and the potential dollar value of their contributions to the workplace, our global competitiveness, and national security.  The options mothers have and the decisions we make matter and have far reaching implications.

Many different reactions to the mothering/working dilemma appeared in the comments.  The big issue of child care expense is an obstacle for many mothers including the one who left the following comment:

“I stay home with [my daughter] because I didn’t make enough money in the workforce to provide a significant amount of income after paying for daycare, gas, and maintenance on the car.” 

There’s plenty of data showing that child care is right behind rent or the mortgage payment in the monthly family budget.  College tuition at state universities is less than annual day care fees in many parts of the US.  The birth of a child can and does push families towards economic insecurity, because in addition to the needs of the baby, it often pulls one parent out of the workforce, or compels them into part-time and/or lower paid work.  The net effect of how we’ve structured work and family care in this country makes motherhood a major factor in women’s poverty.  It’s very much worth noting that men’s poverty is not correlated to fatherhood.

Maintaining employment is what many mothers do if there is no spouse or partner, or if the other parent’s income is insufficient.  This can protect the family financially, but without paid sick days, or flexible schedules, or a culture which accepts employed caregiving fathers, mothers still find themselves in a bind. On mother gave the following response in relation to this topic:

“I miss more work than a non-mother would, and because of that I’m limited in my career and income levels”

Family responsibility discrimination is all too real, as the research shows working mothers earn less than childless women or men with or without children.  They are also hired less often, and when a job offer is made, mothers typically are offered thousands of dollars less in starting salaries.

In spite of it all, most mothers are now employed outside the home, even when their children are very young.  Some are happy to be so, some not.

“Yes I work, no… I don’t want to. It pains me to think about all the time I could spend with my daughter instead of sitting behind a desk.”

Of course, some women with children want to work for the satisfaction it provides beyond necessary income.   Here is a revealing reaction:

“I left the workforce right before having my first baby because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Then, 8 years and 2 kids later I returned because I was losing my mind as a stay at home mom.” 

The messages we receive about what we are “supposed” to do, what it means to be “a good mother”, hurt as much as they help women as they negotiate their lives.   Women will feel pressure whether they devote themselves to motherhood full-time and surrender a career, or continue on with work rather than staying home full time.  The simple truth is there are too many variable factors – inclination of mother and father, size of household income, access to affordable child care, needs and ages of children, availability of flexible work, to name but a few – and what’s best for any particular woman or family will de different, and will likely change as the children grow.

Not that getting them grown and out of the house is the end of the story – whether you left the workforce for family care for any period of time can impact your economic security decades later, as you shift into retirement age and look to savings, pensions, and Social Security benefits.  In the words of one writer:

“Not making “enough” money after day care et al. is not a good enough reason to quit.  You need to think longer-term, e.g., contributing enough to Social Security and retirement and not losing steam career-wise.”

She then mentioned some very real considerations.  Divorce is always a possibility, and can be financially devastating for mothers for many years especially if they’ve not protected their ability to generate income.  While death and the disability of a spouse or partner are not as likely, they do happen.  The safety net in the US is stretched pretty thin, and it most cases, whatever provisions are available under Social Security (which does have benefits for disabled workers, their dependents, and the survivors of a working spouse or father) only provide a very minimum of financial protection.

Of course, parents the world over, and mothers far and wide are confronted with the simultaneous needs of caring for children and providing for them as well.  But what is different in this country is how we’ve chosen to approach the issue.  To date, the family care vs. family income issue has been left to each family to determine on its own.  A few states offer a small benefit for a few weeks to some workers.  In contrast, some states have made it illegal even to introduce legislation pertaining to paid sick days or paid maternity or paternity leave.

Our “hands off” approach creates financial stress and insecurity, makes women particularly vulnerable to economic dependence, and restrains the more educated gender from participating fully in the marketplace and leveraging their education and income potential.   Not only do we fail to lay the ground work for the success of the next generation by access to high quality child care, we limit the employment options of their parents who can’t find affordable child care in order to go to work and provide for their families.  In our own peculiar way, we’ve made it more difficult to work if you have children, AND more difficult NOT to work if you have children.

Perhaps that’s what is meant by “American exceptionalism”?

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington