Originally published in The Women’s Quarterly, Summer 2001
A front-page article in the New York Times recently bore this headline: “Women Are Close to Being Majority of Law Students.”
Yet, instead of focusing on the good news that women made up 49.4 percent of students entering American law schools in the fall of 2000, the Times concentrated on “obstacles to a woman’s achieving parity in the legal profession after graduation.”
The relatively low number of female judges and partners in major law firms furnished the primary evidence of barriers to women’s progress. (Women now make up about 20 percent of the federal bench and around 14 percent of partners in New York law firms.) The Times attributed the disproportionately low number of women in these positions, in part, to the burdens of motherhood.
Many women lawyers, of course, enjoy successful careers as in-house corporate counsel, legal policy analysts, law professors, or as attorneys for the government or public interest groups. Such jobs may pay less (and arguably carry less status) than partnerships at large metropolitan firms, but they also require a shorter work week, and usually allow for flexible or reduced-time schedules. Nevertheless, the Times portrayed the success of women in these sectors not as cause for celebration, but as cause for concern.
Ann Crittenden, a former Times reporter and author of a new book that attempts to quantify the costs of child-rearing, shares this concern. In The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, Crittenden argues that the decision to become a mother is not only a career-buster, but also the worst possible economic choice for a woman.
Crittenden maintains that mothers, particularly well-educated women with high earning capacities, pay a “Mommy Tax” in the form of slowed career advancement and lost earnings. According to Crittenden’s calculations, the typical female college graduate forfeits $1 million in lifetime earnings if she has a child.
Exhibit A is Crittenden herself. Before the birth of her son in 1982, Crittenden “lived the unencumbered life of a journalist [and was] one of the boys in a gender-neutral environment that represented enormous progress for women.”
All that changed when, in her early forties, Crittenden became a mother. After taking maternity leave, she resigned her job at the Times to work part-time from home as a free-lance journalist. Crittenden estimates that this decision cost her more than $700,000 in lifetime earnings, not to mention the loss of a pension. This, she writes, “seems a high price to pay for doing the right thing.”
Reading this section of The Price of Motherhood, I could not help but think that Crittenden is a woman who sees her glass as half empty, rather than as half full.
Since leaving the Times, she has not only raised a son, but has authored numerous articles and written several books. Still, Crittenden feels cheated. She worries that her former colleagues don’t respect her anymore. (Several years after leaving the Times, she ran into an acquaintance who jokingly asked, “Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?”) And, of course, she is not earning the salary she would have earned had she continued to work at the Times.
Apparently, the joys of being a mother and having the professional independence of an author and freelance writer don’t compensate for these losses.
Crittenden is correct, of course, that all parents-those who work at home taking care of their families as well as those who are part of the paid labor market-pay a financial price for parenthood. But they also reap extraordinary rewards that are impossible to quantify.
This is not to say that our public policy should ignore the needs of families and working parents. To the contrary, Crittenden is right that government should provide the proper incentives for families to flourish. She is also on target when she argues that working mothers should band together to demand more flexible arrangements from employers. But the current state of affairs is not as bleak as Crittenden would have us believe.
Although Crittenden complains that most workplaces are inflexible and unfriendly to mothers, more and more employers are allowing parents to work part-time or to job-share with another part-time employee.
And employers have some very real market-based incentives to accommodate motherhood. Women now make up a majority of college graduates. And, as the Times article on law students makes clear, women are earning an ever-greater share of professional degrees. Employers who want to attract and retain the best and the brightest will find it to their own advantage to offer schedules and benefits that appeal to women.
Technology is also on our side.
A decade ago telecommuting was virtually unheard of, but today we live in a world of fax machines, cell phones, and high speed modems-the advent of which has made it more difficult for employers to deny parents the choice of working from home.
In the twenty-first century, the options (at least for college-educated women) seem limitless. Most can choose to work full-time, part-time, or not at all after they have children. And it should be noted that, for all the talk of “stay-at-home Dads” and “Mr. Mom,” very few fathers believe that they have as many options as those available to their wives.
While Ann Crittenden and the New York Times grieve the dearth of female partners at major law firms, most of the male attorneys I know would give their eye-teeth to escape the drudgery of law firm life in favor of part-time government service or public interest work. But, alas, somebody has to pay the mortgage, payoff the law school loans, and put the kids through college.
Crittenden’s problem is that, like the newspaper for which she once toiled, she starts from the premise that money and prestige outweigh personal fulfillment and time.
But do they? And are these trade-offs any different for women from what they are for men?
A neighbor of mine, a father of two, works as a trader at Fidelity. He knows that he could make more money working as a fund manager, but he prefers the certainty of knowing that when the market closes at 4:00 p.m. he can head home to his family with peace of mind. Is he paying a “Daddy Tax” for his choices? Sure. Does he feel cheated? Of course not. The pleasure of eating dinner with his family is worth more than any company could ever pay him.
Anticipating this critique, Crittenden devotes an entire chapter to debunking the “myth” that women’s lives are a product of free choice.
“Mothers’ choices,” Crittenden writes, “are not made in a vacuum. They are made in a world that women never made, according to rules they didn’t write.”
It is here that Crittenden’s conspiracy theory emerges: Women lack free will, the patriarchy has rigged the game against us, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be suffering from false consciousness.
Nevertheless, if you can get beyond Crittenden’s paranoia and misplaced whining about the lost earnings of yuppie lawyers and journalists, her book makes some worthwhile points. What makes her thesis different from, and more interesting than, that of other writers who have lamented the social and economic cost of parenting, is that she does not believe that women should delegate more of their parenting responsibilities in order to get ahead professionally.
To the contrary, Crittenden believes that, for the good of the children and of society, parents should spend more time with their kids and less time working. Crittenden believes that we should accord more prestige to the unpaid labor of caregivers and that society should reward stay-at-home parents for taking care of their families.
Her objectives are praiseworthy. She wants to help mothers both to reduce the number of hours they spend in the paid labor market and to keep more of the money that they earn there. And she wants to prevent mothers who sacrifice economic achievement in order to raise children from being left destitute because of divorce, the death of a spouse, or old age.
Some of Crittenden’s specific suggestions for achieving these worthy goals make sense. For example, eliminating the marriage penalty and allowing working women to deduct a significant portion of their child care bills as business expenses are long overdue tax reforms. Providing incentives for businesses to create more part-time jobs and job-sharing arrangements is also a sensible idea that would expand the options available to mothers. (It is unclear, however, whether Crittenden would stop here, as she often waxes poetic about the usual socialist European countries that mandate pan-time arrangements by government fiat.)
More controversial, but worthy of serious discussion, are Crittenden’s proposals to allow stay-at-home parents to claim Social Security credits for time spent raising children and her idea that the government should create job preferences for parents re-entering the paid workforce after a prolonged absence for child-rearing, much in the way that the GI bill created preferences for veterans after World War II.
But several of Crittenden’s ideas-including one that stay-at-home parents be allowed to tap into the workers’ compensation system every time they are injured “on the job” – are downright silly.
Years after President Clinton supposedly “ended welfare as we know it,” Crittenden would bring back many of the social ills that accompanied it by requiring that the government pay every primary caregiver of young children a stipend (or a “salary,” as she calls it). This proposal has many obvious flaws, not the least of which are the perverse incentives it creates and the effect it would have on the teenage pregnancy rate.
Likewise, Crittenden’s suggestion that the government require employers to provide all parents with paid leave for an entire year is undermined by the experience of many women, including Crittenden herself, who take their employer’s money only to quit at the end of their leave.
As important as the proposals that Crittenden endorses are those that she fails to discuss.
Thus, while she is indignant that wealthy socialites are not automatically entitled to 50 percent of their husband’s income upon divorce (even when the woman caused the marriage to break up), Crittenden makes no mention of the movement to reform the no-fault divorce laws which have contributed significantly to the rate of poverty among divorced women.
Moreover, Crittenden neglects to mention congressional proposals to modify the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to allow employees to select time off (or “comp time”) instead of additional pay for overtime work.
And she virtually ignores the concepts of maternity IRAs and additional tax breaks for home businesses, both of which would benefit many mothers without unduly burdening business.
As these examples illustrate, Crittenden routinely endorses big government solutions while failing to consider more market-oriented reforms. At times, Crittenden is so utopian that she literally lapses into a familiar “why can’t America be more like Sweden” mantra that trivializes many of the significant issues she identifies.
Yet, despite its shortcomings, The Price of Motherhood is a valuable contribution to the debate about family values and the role of women in society.
If nothing else, it is refreshing to see a feminist fellow-traveler acknowledge that there is, indeed, an innate value in motherhood. And Crittenden’s central premise, that we should work to restore respect for motherhood and increase the range of choices available to all parents, is one with which most Americans should agree.
Now all we need to do is sort out the details.