BY LOUISE BUTLER
Now that the warm and fuzzy sentimentality of Mother’s Day is behind us, let’s take a look at the real cost of being a mother. I’m not talking about what it costs to raise a child in the United States, which is $233,610 excluding college. No, I am talking about what having a child costs the mother — only the mother.
Let’s start with the basics. Women have babies. And no matter how evolved both parents may be, it is, by definition, the woman who will have her time on the job directly impacted by gestation, birth and primary child care.
What is more, when we enter the job market, our employers know that we have the babies. They know that no matter how well qualified, skilled, educated, talented and motivated we are, that if a baby is going to be made, we will be the one having it, not the male employee applying for the same position. It is not that employers are hateful, misogynistic Neanderthals, they are people who have the responsibility — and are judged on their ability to — watch, guard and handle the bottom line. They know that the best woman for the job carries with her a unique possibility for complication in the form of pregnancy. That isn’t discrimination, it is discernment.
We cannot insist on benefits related to maternity and then say it is not a factor in employment. Nor can we pretend that having a child is not a choice. It most certainly is. But it comes with a cost. Having a baby costs women money from their paychecks, fringe benefits and their retirement.
If you are a woman in a highly skilled profession and have your first child by age 20, your lifetime earnings will be 33 percent less than the woman who never has a child. If you delay that first child until age 30 your loss drops to 21 percent of the childless woman. That amounts to a lifetime loss any where from one-third to one-fifth of the overall earnings of women who forego child bearing. On average, that is $230,000.
The woman with a middle-level job will lose earnings equal to 24 percent of lifetime income for having their first child by age 20, dropping to 17 percent for a first child at age 30. Low-level occupation loses, which amount more to time clocked than loss of promotion, are almost flat at about 12 percent of women with no children.
No matter what level of income, women lose money by having a child.
Like it or not, the baby “penalty” exists. It applies only to women. There is no corresponding penalty for men who are fathers. In fact, fathers tend to benefit from higher salaries. So in working on solutions to this problem, education trumps ignorance and pragmatism works better than zealotry. Here’s how:
>> Young women need to know the reality of how much a baby will cost them. Then they can make their choice with eyes wide open.
>> Employers need to recognize that the baby “penalty” exists and decide how they want to deal with it in a way that still attracts qualified women.
>> Legislators need to look at what they can do that will guard women, families and employers. We, as a society, have a vested interest in all three.
Mothers have always known what their decision to have a child has cost them, in every possible way. They have born that burden just as they bore the children, with love and grace and fierce determination. Maybe we can find a way to give them a little help.