Monday, May 28, 2007

Can Moms Afford Not to Work? part 2

As many of you know, I write a column for Catholic Exchange. A few weeks ago, I had submitted my article on "Can Moms Afford Not to Work?" My editor asked me to do additional research and do a rewrite. I took advantage of this long weekend to read Leslie Bennetts' book "The Feminine Mistake." The premise of her book is that women who opt-out of the workforce to raise their children are making a huge error. It was painful to read this book. Even though she raises some valid concerns, she was so incredibly insulting to stay-at-home mothers. I'm not even kidding - at one point she described us as "parasites." She just couldn't understand why young intelligent women would ever want to take care of their children. Her whole attitude is one of "What a waste!" The only concept of equal marriage she accepts is one in which both partners contribute greatly to the family coffers, confer on all financial decisions, and share parenting duties. While that may certainly work for some couples, it is not the only model of a successful marriage. She also argues that many women take the "easy way out" when they have children because they couldn't hack it in the workplace.

While it was hard for me to leave my job, it is not a decision I ever regretted. I didn't leave because I couldn't hack it. I left because leaving David with my parents or Bernie wasn't working. They were both getting frustrated with the situation. For the case of family harmony on all fronts, I felt it was important for me to be the one responsible for his care on a full-time basis. I did have an identity crisis after leaving paid employment. I was forced to discover who I was as a mom and as a women. I was forced to discover my worth as a human being outside of a paycheck. It also opened up new avenues for me. I wouldn't have become a professional writer if I hadn't been compelled to pursue new avenues for my life. I probably never would have made use of my master's degree. Going into business (a small business though it may be) for myself forced me to learn about entrepreneurship. Motherhood has made me a more multi-dimensional person, not less of one. Most importantly, I have had the opportunity to really get to know and educate my children in a way that just wouldn't be possible if I saw them only a couple hours a day and on weekends.

So here is the updated version of my article:

Can Moms Afford Not to Work?
by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

I generally stay out of the whole stay-at-home mom vs. working-mom debate. I believe nearly every mother gets up in the morning and tries to do the best she can for her family with whatever working arrangement she has. Motherhood is hard enough without attacking those, or fending off attacks from those, who make different choices.

There is a new book, however, that raises some issues that are definitely worth responding to. In “The Feminine Mistake,” Leslie Bennetts argues that younger women, such as myself, who have opted out of the workforce to raise our families are making a colossal error in judgment. Her argument is based purely on economics. Her overwhelming position is that “a man is not a financial plan.” As her many anecdotes relate, men have a way of leaving through either divorce or death, leaving women to fend for themselves when they are ill-equipped to do so.

The vast majority of women that Bennetts profiles are wealthy suburbanites. They are highly educated. Many have professional career experience, but they have given it up to raise their children and support their husbands in their own six-figure careers. Bennetts maintains that becoming a stay-at-home mom is “an economic choice with potentially dire consequences”, arguing that “even taking three years off will cause a 37% cut in earnings compared to women who remain.” She asks, “Are you a better mother if you stayed at home but suddenly can’t provide for your family?” in the event of a divorce.

I will concede this is a valid concern and an unfortunate statement on where motherhood ranks on the list of “valued professions” in our capitalistic economy. If there isn’t a dollar value associated to what you are doing, then what you are doing doesn’t matter. According to a study released in May 2006, a full-time, stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 a year if paid for all her work (, but the reality is that most people look down on stay-at-home moms, thinking that their talents could be better utilized doing something else.

“The 7 Myths of Working Mothers” by Suzanne Venker presents the completely opposite viewpoint of Bennetts’ book. Both are extremists at the opposite ends of the “mommy war,” no matter how much they protest that they are not attempting to add fuel to it. Venker does make some interesting points. The reality is that you either raise your children yourselves, or you pay someone to do it for you. The children may turn out fine either way and there still may be a very strong mother-child bond. However, isn’t it ironic that people value child care if you are caring for someone else’s children? Interestingly enough, Bennetts holds her own babysitter, Norma, in extremely high esteem, describing her as “a competent surrogate with impeccable judgment, someone I trusted completely to handle any situation as well as I would have.” No one would tell a day care worker or nanny that what she (or he) is doing isn’t work, but care for your own children and you have been relegated to the unimportant. Venker also makes note of the fact that many moms work part-time (this is what the vast majority of my own circle of stay-at-home moms do, myself included), and that the distinction between a stay-at-home mom and a “working mom” is that stay-at-home moms plan their work around their children while working moms try to fit in parenting around their work schedule.

There is also the economic impact of working. Having both spouses working can actually result in greater expenses than having one spouse stay home. Once day care, transportation, clothing allowances, and other work-related expenses are taken into account, it can often cost more to work. Bennetts argues that the cost now doesn’t matter. Even if you are working just to pay for daycare it is still worth it because you keep your career intact. You won’t suffer the lifetime loss of earnings you will experience if you opt out for a time.

She also argues that opting back in is not as easy as women expect it will be, a fact that is no doubt true in high-powered careers such as medicine, law, and the upper-level corporate world. However, the vast majority of women have careers outside of those arenas, where opting back in may not be as much of an issue.

Insultingly, she also implies that stay-at-home moms are not people of interest. They have nothing to do with their time other than care for their children and their homes. As a result, when those jobs are phased out as their children age, they are left with an identity crisis and nothing to do with the rest of their lives.

Bennetts is correct that stay-at-home moms do face economic consequences. Our retirement accounts don’t get contributed to and our social security benefits depend on our husbands. Wouldn’t it be better if the government actually supported the work mothers do by awarding mothers social security credits or if there was a tax deduction for being a stay-at-home mom? There is a child-care credit. Why shouldn’t there be a credit for actually caring for your own children? There is actually a bill in Congress that would do just that. The Parents’ Tax Relief Act (HR 3080, S 1305) would extend the Dependent Child Care Credit to stay-at-home parents with small children. It would also allow up to ten years of Social Security benefits to stay-at-home parents with children under six years old.

So, then, what can women do to help protect themselves from economic disaster while at the same time staying home with their children?

1) Keep one foot in the working world. Keep your skills up to date, or take the time at home to pursue some continuing education. Work part-time, do freelance work, or volunteer in your field. That way, in the case of your husband’s death, disability, or divorce, you will have the skills and references necessary to re-enter the workforce on a full-time basis.

2) Be aware of your family finances. Some men attempt to shield their wives from any knowledge of the family income and expenses. This is not acceptable. Women need to be aware of assets and liabilities. They should also have some assets and liabilities in their own names, such as a checking account and a car loan payment. This will maintain a separate credit history.

3) Support legislation that supports women and families, such as the Parents’ Tax Relief Act.

The answer to whether moms can afford not to work should not be to push women into the workforce when they would rather take on the challenging and rewarding (albeit exhausting!) work of raising their children. It should be to revise our social system so that women aren’t economically penalized for being mothers.

1 comment:

Wing said...

Hi Patrice, I enjoyed reading your article and I think you provided a well-balanced viewpoint. Just thought I'll chime in for whatever it's worth...

My wife was a professional engineer until we decided to raise a family, and she now stays home to take care of our baby girl. If situations warranted, I would not have had a problem being a stay-home dad.

While Ms. Bennetts' book (at least your summary of it) raised some valid concerns, I think calling it a "The Feminine Mistake" is wrong in multiple ways.

How to raise a family successfully involves a lot of decision-making by both parents, and the question of whether to become a stay-at-home mom (or dad) must be answered with the support of both spouses. It is not a feminine-only decision.

A family's financial planning should always consider worst-case scenarios, such as how to provide for the family in case of death. When it comes to divorces, it is a question of willingness of either parents to support the child's upbringing that's crucial; whether or not mom had been staying home prior to the split is really secondary.

Every decisions we make in life have risks. The fact that the financial risk for staying home is high only means that it is not a decision to be taken lightly without serious planning. Investing is risky, buying a home is risky, even crossing the street is risky. What is the degree of risk and whether the risk is worth taking are two questions one must answer seperately. Taking a risk itself, regardless of how dangerous the risk is, is not a "mistake"; but taking a risk un-informed (or with biased information) is.

I think viewing the cost of staying at home to raise children in financial terms is very typical of our capitalistic society, where everything is broken down into dollars and cents. However, it is impossible to pin a dollar value to staying home for the kids. Aside from the monetary equivalence attributed to Mom's effort, how do one measure the benefits the children receive? After all, the decision to stay home is made for the benefit of the children, not for Mom or Dad's pocket book.

In many recent salary/job surveys, it had been shown that people are willing to trade in parts of their salary for higher job satisfaction. There aren't many jobs that give higher job satisfaction than to be there to help your children grow...

That's my 2 cents...

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