Stop Ignoring The Motherhood Penalty

Early feminists fought for the right to control their own fertility. Twenty-first century feminists are getting tired of having to control it for so long, says Samantha Eyler.

I became an instant feminist the moment a nurse told me I was pregnant.

Peeing on a pregnancy test for the second time just to be sure, I stared blindly at a poster for prenatal vitamins across from the toilet and a hysterical voice in my head shrieked, “I am too young for this! My life is over!” And then, “Dear God, I have to start taking folic acid immediately.”

I was 20. I’d come to a local sexual health clinic for something entirely unrelated and taken a routine pregnancy test whose result, the nurse announced to my indescribable dismay, was positive. “But that can’t be! I’m on the Pill!” I cried, and demanded to take a second test, and then a third.

And I was right. The nurse had mixed up my results with someone else’s.

But the legacy of that moment of sheer terror proved durable: A couple weeks later, I got a 10-year IUD, and promised myself I would never let an unplanned pregnancy keep this Kentucky farm girl, daughter of a housewife, from traveling the world and building the big, satisfying career I’d always wanted.

The motherhood penalty is real. When social scientists talk about this, they are referring to labor market discrimination of various forms against women who are or might become mothers. But I mean something broader: The motherhood penalty involves several types of vulnerability—financial, social, romantic—that women face when deciding to have children. In fact, I would argue that it is the defining force in women’s lives and choices.

This penalty is particularly acute for single moms, when the consequences of motherhood can be extreme: In 2009, 38.5% of American households headed by single mothers lived below the poverty line. The same study pegged the median annual household income for single fathers at about $15,000 higher than that of single mothers. Even women with committed partners face severe financial penalties after having a child—one study found that 10 years after giving birth, high-skilled women, married or not, face a cumulative wage reduction of 24%, and will lose an estimated $230,000 in wages over their lifetimes.

This is because labor and marriage laws and persistent social norms push couples to specialize in either breadwinning or caregiving on basis of gender. Women who remain in full-time employment often find themselves working the dreaded “second shift” in the home (women spend an average of 32 hours per week on housework and childcare, their husbands only 17). Exhausted, many women reduce their hours or drop out of the workforce entirely for a few years, taking a hit to their cumulative work experience, their human capital—and thus, their earning power.

The mother is usually the only parent given parental leave after a child is born, and in many cases the choice of whether a woman goes back to work after giving birth is whether her wages, not her partner’s, will offset the cost of childcare. When both parents remain in work, many expect the mother, not the father, to compromise for the sake of family when necessary—to reject a promotion that would require transferring to another state, for example, or to choose a flexible but worse paid job to be more available for the children. Employers often believe that mothers will be less committed employees and pay accordingly—and sadly, these employers are sometimes correct, as very little legal or employer support exists to increase fathers’ flexibility to be present for their kids, leaving mothers to shoulder the burden of care. Forty-six percent of fathers now say they spend too little time with their children.

Many women only realize what this motherhood penalty entails once they experience it—women like my own mother, who found herself knocked up at 18, decided to forgo a career to become a stay-at-home mother, and then, lacking financial independence and a sense of her own worth in the labor market, endured abuse from my father for a quarter-century until we children left home.

Others, those women who discover the motherhood penalty before it happens to them, use various methods to buffer themselves against its effects. Some decide not to have children at all; these tend to be the ones who lean into their careers and break through the glass ceiling, à la Sheryl Sandberg—one study found that 49% of high-earning American women are childless. But, to many, this decision would represent a heart-wrenching loss. Women continue to want children, to love them, to believe that their families add substance and value to their lives.

Rather than swearing off childbirth, women are increasingly using delay tactics, trying to fortify themselves against the motherhood penalty’s shocks by waiting longer than ever to have children. In 2009, birth rates among American women aged 30–34 surpassed that of women in the 20–24 cohort for the first time in the country’s history. In Britain, the average woman now waits until age 28 to have her first child; British women with professionals as husbands delay childbirth, on average, until they are almost 33. Having a child seems to have become, for many educated women, the ultimate luxury good, the cherry on top of a successful life.

Besides the gamble with potential fertility problems, this delay tactic poses several problems. The first is that it doesn’t work—delaying childbirth does not eliminate the motherhood penalty. Spending years building a high-powered career in fact increases how severely it affects women: High-skilled women lose nearly five times more in lifetime earnings than women in lower-skills jobs, making the cost of motherhood ever more stark the more value a woman adds to her career.

Delaying childbirth also cannot protect women from the vulnerability associated with unreliable or absent partners, or having no partner at all, or having a partner (there are, sadly, still many men in this genre) who simply doesn’t see “women’s work” as his responsibility. Only the highest-achieving women can independently afford enough quality childcare and house help to be able to reasonably expect that raising a child alone will not put severe constraints on their careers and finances.

But women who must lean heavily on less-than-supportive partners find themselves in a very weak position to engage in their relationships as equals, and the lopsided power dynamic in itself often creates resentment and breaks couples apart. Millions of other unhappy couples stay together for the children, despite the festering illness in their partnership. For these, the severe vulnerability, or even poverty, posed by the prospect of parenting alone makes leaving an abusive or unsupportive relationship too terrifying to contemplate.

And finally, the pressure on women to delay having children “until they can afford it” increasingly makes parenthood seem a legitimate choice only for the well off, a confirmation that one has socially arrived. The logical converse of this—the notion that women who have children young, or who live on a shoestring but still decide to have children, are behaving less than prudently—has disturbing moral implications. In this line of thinking, having children creates a societal burden of care that has been privatized to mothers. Mothers who cannot cope with that burden on their own (and, as mentioned above, only the financially best-off are truly able to afford solo parenting, and these tend to be the women who decide not to have kids at all) are perceived as creating a social cost, a public responsibility, that policymakers would rather not have to address.

Thus society and employers and policymakers divert the societal pressure created by the motherhood penalty by pushing women to delay having children ever longer—effectively telling women, “If you really want gender equality, don’t get knocked up until you’re 40.” Or they portray motherhood as a “consumption choice” whose consequences women themselves are responsible for bearing—akin to getting a puppy or indulging a penchant for expensive restaurants. In doing so, they dodge the thorny ethical question of what we, as a country, should do to simultaneously ensure resilient gender equality and provide opportunities to the children who will create our future.

Fortunately, we know now how to bust the motherhood penalty. We have to eliminate the gendered laws and social norms that force women to specialize in caregiving and undervalue their breadwinning, and keep men from being present in their homes in the way they wish to be. Use-it-or-lose-it paid paternity leave, the right to request flexible work arrangements for both parents, affordable public daycare centers, childcare subsidies or vouchers for single parents, increased funding for Head Start programs, and high-quality breakfast clubs and after-school programs—we have known for many years that policies like these could unlock the full potential of men as caregivers, of women as breadwinners, and of children who grow up seeing their parents upend ideas about gender roles to create lasting growth and true equality.

I truly don’t understand what we’re waiting for.

Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Bogotá, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.

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