When I first began staying at home with my kids, I noticed a change in the conversations I would have with new acquaintances. “I’m home taking care of the little ones right now,” I would answer when asked what I did.
“How nice. Must be so fun! Now what kind of law did you say you practiced?” my conversation companion would reply, turning away from me and back to my husband.
No longer do people engage me about my field of work, interests, or background. When I tell people I’m a stay-at-home mother, I'm met with pats on the back, and quickly brushed aside for not doing real, adult work.
The judgment I feel when people ask me if I work is anecdotal, and hopefully only in my imagination. But the reality is that we still don’t place much value on caregiving as a legitimate contribution to society, and our failure to do so hurts all women, both those at home and in the workplace.
The media has crafted the “mommy wars” narrative – pitting mothers who stay home against mothers who have a job outside the house. The reality is that women support their families, workplaces, and communities in a wide variety of ways – raising children, working part-time, volunteering, returning to work after time taking to care for children, homeschooling, telecommuting, running small businesses from home, etc. Society, however, values only one type of contribution – paid employment. Taking time to do anything other than hold a full-time, paying job levies a heavy price for American women.
The proof is in our workplace policies:
Daycare costs have been rising over the last 20 years, and are now more than 7% of the average family’s income, according to the Pew Research Center. For families that have more than one child in care, or for low income families, daycare costs can be more than a working mother is able to earn.
Despite rising costs, the federal government actually invests less now in childcare assistance than it did in 2002, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. And this issue goes beyond just helping moms – high quality preschools can help reduce the racial/ethnic and income achievement gap, according the National Institute for Early Education Research.
When a parent (usually the mother) leaves the workforce to take care of children – perhaps because they aren’t able to afford the rising daycare cost – they aren’t treated like other employees who are forced to leave.
Only 15 states allow women who leave the workforce due to compelling family circumstances to collect unemployment insurance, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The United States is one of only two advanced economies that does not guarantee paid leave for its workers.
Besides the obvious benefit of letting parents and children bond without worrying about lost incomes, there are other compelling reasons paid leave is beneficial. According to the Center for American Progress, it’s good for the child’s health, it helps employers keep their employees, and it improves lifetime earnings and retirement savings, especially for women.
Likewise, many working parents do not have access to paid sick leave, a solution that the American Medical Association says would help improve public health.
With guaranteed paid sick leave, parents would not be forced to work when they're sick in order to save their sick days in case of a sick child. Nor would they be forced to risk employment in order to care for a sick kid.
The “Motherhood Penalty” is real. Mothers earn 5% less than per child than childless women.
They also have a harder time getting hired and being promoted, concluded researchers at Stanford University. This is part of the reason that women only earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the U.S. Census.
When we do pay someone to take care of children, we don’t pay them very much. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that childcare workers earn nearly 25% less than workers in other similar occupations, and they're less likely to receive benefits.
We can’t have it both ways – telling women to dedicate themselves to raising kids, and then punishing them whenever they take time to do so. No matter how we slice it, someone’s got to be the caregiver.
For some families, it makes the most sense for the primary caregiver to be one of the parents, and other families operate better when both parents are working and the parents subcontract the childcare. Gone are the days when the father is the breadwinner, and the mother is meant to care for her children and the home.
So while our families have evolved, the workplace, and the social systems that support it, have not. Despite the tremendous strides we've made, we continue to place little value on parenting.
Devaluing caregiving does more than create awkward cocktail conversations for stay-at-home mothers like myself. It creates real financial, physical, and emotional problems for parents who work, or wish to return to work, by penalizing them for caring for their children.
While we may call motherhood “the most important job,” it’s obvious that we give it little actual weight, either socially or fiscally. And yet, the economic future of our country depends not just on the financial success of our businesses, but on the ability of mothers and fathers to do all of their jobs well.
Raising children is not a second class form of work, a workplace inconvenience, or simply a personal undertaking; it is an essential job with ramifications far beyond the home.
Editor's note: To hear more about the practical and emotional challenges many stay-at-home parents face when returning to work, check out our podcast, "Where Was I...?"