Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Working Mom Wednesday: The Money Paradox

Working Mom WednesdayA big question for working moms (or moms-to-be) who are considering the idea of quitting work to stay home with their kids is the obvious, "Can we afford it?"

Many households are dual income because they have to be--they literally could not pay the bills on one person's salary. Others may be on the cusp and just require some tinkering with the budget, sacrificing certain "extras" to make it work. (And, of course, there are the rare couples who already live off of one partner's income, and the other spouse doesn't really "have" to work, but may choose to anyway!)

Matt and I never even calculated this, because I knew I wanted to keep working, but if I wanted to be a SAHM, I estimate that--given our church-provided housing--we could make it happen, especially if we cut out cable TV, XM radio, Bookswim, etc. If we had a house payment, I doubt we could do it.

There are costs to working, too, of course: day care, dressy clothes, dry cleaning, maybe more gasoline, depending on your commute, etc., but I would think that for most families, these costs do not eat up an entire salary to the point that you "can't afford to work."

Apparently, I'm wrong, though, at least according to some research cited by marriage-and-family scholar Stephanie Coontz. This big question of "affording to stay home" has actually created a misperception of who stays at home and who works, she says in this article from 2007. Apparently, "the highest concentration of full-time homemakers in America is found among women married to low-earning men, while highly educated wives are increasingly likely to combine work and motherhood."

This fuels what Coontz calls "the opt-out myth." We tend to think that women whose families need the money work, and that more women who can afford to stay home are doing so. When really, 72% of the women who could more likely afford to stay home are choosing to work, while 52% of moms in families earning in the 25th percentile and could use a second income, were staying home.  And that puts some families in quite a tough spot, needing a second income but not being able to afford for a spouse to go out and get that second income. It's a sort of paradox (or even "doughnut hole," as they say in the Medicare debates) where some families can't completely afford for Mom not to work but can't quite afford for her to work either.

Coontz links these trends with the support the culture gives to working mothers--socially and practically/financially. In some countries, women are choosing to postpone motherhood rather than get stuck in this paradoxical spot, and the birth rates are plummeting. In America, working motherhood has been on the rise since the 1960s and there isn't a social stigma about working outside the home (though some still debate the issue!) but our laws, normative business practices, etc. do not financially empower moms to work the way countries with universal health care and longer guaranteed maternity leaves do.

In Coontz's words:
"Where employers and policy-makers refuse to accommodate women's desire to combine work and family, we see one of two outcomes: Either women stop having babies, as in Italy or Japan, or, as in the United States, many women who need to work can't afford to (because of expensive and uneven-quality child care) and many women who want to work feel guilty about the choices they are forced to make."
I wish I had some practical tips to share on affording to work or not work (as your preference might be) but I find this more sociological look at working motherhood fascinating as well. Perhaps some of you have firsthand experience with these financial pressures.Tell me, how did/will money affect your decision to work or stay home?

PS: I actually have not read Coontz' best-known book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, but after reading some of these articles on her website, I may have to do that! I have read her The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, which compares the 1950s stereotype to reality, and apparently she has a new book coming out in January, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. I found Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique just fascinating, so I may have to check that out too!


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Anonymous said...

Money did not affect my decision at all to stay home. The desire to teach, guide and nurture my child did. We have no TV, cars are paid for, no gym membership, live in a small home and rarely go out. These are the things we gave up so that one of us could raise our child.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking post, Jessica. It is a conundrum. Women who have skills to contribute and need a paycheck are being squeezed out of the workforce by the lack of good part-time work, flexible workplaces, reasonable maternity leaves, and quality affordable childcare/preschool.

Most Americans don't need two incomes to afford expensive luxuries. They need two paychecks to afford a home in a safe neighborhood with decent public schools (see Elizabeth Warren's book "The Two-Income Trap"). Parents who work outside the home are also "raising their children." Full-time at-home parenting is not the only way to responsibly bring up children, and contributing to the community in a vocation in a addition to parenting can be an important, positive investment of one's energies.

SpeasHill said...

I'm going back to work because we aren't making our monthly expenses without my income. We've tinkered all we can, and even though my husband has a master's degree and a good job, we're not making it. If left the workforce b/c of some extenuating circumstances (my daughter's special needs), but it's time to go back. If it weren't for the money, I'd prefer to work part-time and try to have the best of both worlds. But alas, we need full-time (mostly so we can stop paying $900/month for dependent health insurance coverage). Now, if I could just FIND a job... :)

SpeasHill said...

p.s. Also want to respond to one of the above comments - staying at home is not the only way "one of you could raise [your] children." It takes a village. Even though you don't wipe every diaper or dry every tear, you can still be raising your child. By your logic, the parent NOT staying home is not raising his/her child. Hmm...

Tracy Wells Miller said...

Thanks for this entry -- very fascinating. I especially appreciate the critique from Coontz on the American system not supporting working mothers as much as countries with universal healthy care and longer maternity leaves -- hello!!!

Mary @ The Writer's Block said...


Nice to have found your blog!

I like this post. Quite thought-provoking.

I think we were part of that "can't afford for Mom to work/can't afford not to work" category.

For us, having twins when first kid was 2 meant our expenses doubled. Putting 3 kids into day care would have meant I'd need to be earning at least $60K or so to see any take-home profit. That was not a reality in my chosen field and experience (publishing/non-profit/religious), especially since I'd lost several years' experience. For us it meant I did as much freelance work as possible to make ends meet.

Now that all the kids are in school, I'm able to work more and make more. We're still digging out from some debt accrued during those lean years.

Pretty as the Morning said...

This is a great post butI think Coontz is missing a critical piece. Several NYTimes articles recently have touched on the growning gap between men and women when it comes to education, with women out graduating men in education beyond high school. This is leading to a growning gap in income. Many families don't have the option to place the bread winner out of the job market.

At my church many of the women work for this reason. They have a advanced degree(s) and thier husband does not. They out earn thier husbands substantially and so don't ahve the luxury of considering staying at home.

I also really appreciate the thoughts of the second anonymous commenter about raising children in safe neighborhoods and in good schools. I will definitely look into that book.

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

Great point, PTAM! I steered clear of mentioning education because I didn't want to imply that SAHMs are less intelligent or less well educated, etc. Which is, of course, not necessarily true. But as you said, with women getting so many more advanced degrees, the assumption that men always work and women are the "extra" income is being called into question.


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