Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Price of Motherhood

Slate recently profiled an extremely interesting new study on the financial sacrifices women make related to childbearing. The gist of the study is that for every year a woman in her 20s delays having a child, her lifetime earnings will increase by 10%. Slate explains (emphasis mine):

Part of that is because she'll earn higher wages—about 3 percent higher—for the rest of her life; the rest is because she'll work longer hours. For college-educated women, the effects are even bigger. For professional women, the effects are bigger yet—for these women, the wage hike is not 3 percent, but 4.7 percent.

So, if you have your first child at 24 instead of 25, you're giving up 10 percent of your lifetime earnings. The wage hit comes in two pieces. There's an immediate drop, followed by a slower rate of growth—right up to the day you retire. So, a 34-year-old woman with a 10-year-old child will (again on average) get smaller percentage raises on a smaller base salary than an otherwise identical woman with a 9-year-old. Each year of delayed childbirth compounds these benefits, at least for women in their 20s. Once you're in your 30s, there's far less reward for continued delay. Surprisingly, it appears that none of these effects are mitigated by the passage of family-leave laws.

Well, I, for one, am not at all surprised that family leave laws don't affect the outcomes - that's surely because we have piss-poor family leave laws, for one thing (insofar as they only guarantee unpaid leave), and also because it ain't the amount of leave that's the problem! The problem has to do with how we conceptualize motherhood - and for that matter parenting in general, though mothers are extraordinarily more affected - as a non-professional, non-public, non-productive activity. Yes, non-productive: not because most people wouldn't agree that mothering is enormously important work for a variety of reasons, but because socially and culturally, we don't see mothering/parenting as productive of capital or material goods. So, while I'm in the professional workforce, I'm seen as contributing something concrete and worthwhile to society, I get financially rewarded for that work, I spend my financial rewards on various public and private goods (housing, entertainment, health care, etc.) and the wheel spins 'round. Motherhood, on the other hand, for all that it's hailed as the cornerstone of the family unit, is simply not seen as a capital-producing enterprise. In this sense, mother-work is not envisioned as contributing to society the way that a 9-5 desk job is, is not remunerated accordingly, and leaves mothers, qua mothers, right out of the whole capitalist cycle of earning and spending. This, of course, has no relationship whatsoever to the actual sociocultural value of mothering vs. a dayjob; it makes no difference that I will, I am sure, be contributing FAR more to society while engaged in raising my future child than I have ever done at my crappy, crappy day job. What matters is that the work I do as a mother has already been categorized as non-productive (again, in a capitalist sense), and so I will be penalized for it in the capitalist workforce.

The reason this matters more for mothers than fathers is because mothers are, still, disproportionately the ones who take time "off" of their careers when they have children, or who make other career sacrifices (working shorter hours, not driving for that big promotion, etc.) that affect their lifetime earnings. It will be interesting to see, 25-50 years down the road, what happens as more and more fathers choose to become the stay-at-home parent. I think my generation of parents is one of the first where that's an option widely seen as viable (though of course the viability varies from region to region and class to class), and it may be that this will be some kind of turning point. Perhaps the financial losses will simply be more evenly distributed, so it will be less a gender problem than a general social problem, or maybe there will be more widespread support for sweeping changes in social policies around parenting (giving parents returning to the workforce a raise so their salary keeps pace with their non-parenting coworkers, for example). Or, shit, maybe the fathers' earning potential won't be affected in the same way and we'll be stuck with the status quo.

Anyway, take a look at the article and the study and let me know what you think.