Women bear penalties for choosing to bear children

April 22, 2001|By Susan Reimer

We were talking about reinventing ourselves when our motherhood terms expired, and a friend suggested I look in the want ads and circle any job I thought I could do.

That's how I found out how much I'm worth.

"House manager / childcare -- F / T Warm, healthy, active individual with extensive experience (10 + years managing a household). Housekeeping (large home), cooking, care for 2 school-age children & pet care. Minimum availability 40 hrs / wk. Flexible to work some evenings, weekends and overnights. Own reliable car. Agree to criminal background check. References required." Another ad offered the same job for $8 an hour.

I have always thought that my husband will have to bring a date to my funeral because he could never pay enough to replace me and what I do for free. But apparently, $8 an hour would get it done.

Ann Crittenden presents this and other dismaying economic facts in her new book: "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued."

According to the author, my husband and I have paid a staggering price for our decision to have children, and it has all come out of my pocket.

Crittenden reports that a couple who earn a combined $81,500 per year and who are equally capable will lose $1.35 million if they have a child. That's about where we were when my son was born in 1984. Both of us were earning about the same paycheck.

I took six months unpaid leave then, and again when my daughter was born two years later. With two children, I returned to work only part-time because of an unspoken agreement that I fully endorsed: I would have responsibility for the home and children while he traveled for his work.

All these years later, we still do similar jobs, but his salary is double mine and for 10 years, I had no benefits and added only minimally to any pension.

Crittenden, who left the New York Times to raise her son in 1982, uses these kinds of personal experiences and some brutal economic calculations to demonstrate that, while women may have equal access to education and to opportunity, a decision to have children devastates their work life and earnings far worse than the worst male chauvinism.

Far from narrowing, the earning gap between men and women doing the same job has stayed pretty much where God put it when he told Moses that women were worth 30 shekels while men were worth 50: Women earn about 60 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn.

Among young, unmarried, childless men and women -- described as "unencumbered" -- the pay gap has narrowed: she earns about 98 cents to his $1. It is the decision to have children which creates an economic gap that widens over time. A father, too, will earn less than his childless co-workers.

Crittenden reports that the longer a woman postpones child-bearing, the higher her lifetime earnings will be, and women have gotten the message. One survey reports that a quarter of college-educated baby-boom women will now almost certainly not have children, and many of them report that they regret it.

We have known for some time that there is not much status or respect in this country for those who raise children, and most of them are women. Crittenden, who makes a number of policy proposals that will never see the light of day in this country, demonstrates that there is also economic exploitation.

Parents receive enormous gratification in exchange for the devotion they lavish on their children. There are other people who feel passionate about their work, too, and who aren't in it for money. But they are not paid less because of that devotion.

Certainly the women, and men, who are raising children should not be.

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