The Mommy Tax

Is motherhood a boon or a burden for women today?

Is motherhood a boon or a burden for women today?

A book that purports to offer a bold new vision of gender equity is taking the media by storm. The Price of Motherhood: Why Motherhood Is the Most Important -- And Least Valued -- Job in America, by Ann Crittenden, has been hailed as a "landmark" work that challenges liberal and conservative paradigms, a "revolutionary tract" that "lays out an argument for the next wave of feminism." The book is also prominently featured on the Web site of the National Organization for Women (now.org). But, far from charting a new course, The Price of Motherhood mostly serves the same old left-wing feminist wine in new pro-motherhood bottles.

Ironically, Crittenden readily concedes something that critics of feminism have long maintained: Today, gender disparities in pay and advancement are primarily due not to discrimination but to women's family roles. "Motherhood," she writes, "is now the single greatest obstacle left in the path to economic equality for women."

However, where some see freely made choices and trade-offs, Crittenden sees a cruel society that victimizes women, forcing them to choose from "a set of bad options" and exploiting their selfless service. She argues that all mothers -- whether they pursue an uninterrupted career, temporarily scale down their labor force involvement, or devote themselves entirely to child-rearing -- deserve far more social "support" than they are getting.

Her wish list includes a year's paid leave after the birth of each child, part-time work with full benefits, free universal preschool for children starting at age 3, Social Security credits for time spent caring for family members, and a stipend that can be used as a "salary" for full-time parenting or as a child care subsidy. Crittenden knows that this agenda will strike a lot of Americans as welfare statism, but she believes that American women should demand "a new social contract" guaranteeing true equality for mothers.

Crittenden's prime example of Mom as victim is Crittenden herself. After her son was born in 1982, she left her job as a financial reporter at The New York Times, giving up a $50,000 annual salary; since then, she has made about $15,000 a year from freelance writing. Crittenden makes it clear that she loved the time she spent with her child, and that her husband's income was quite sufficient for a comfortable life. Still, she gripes, "this seems a high price to pay for doing the right thing."

Yet surely Crittenden's financial losses were the result of her own priorities. She writes that she expected to take a relatively short time out, "assuming it would be easy to get back into journalism after a few years, or to earn a decent income from books and other projects." But she doesn't say whether her extended underemployment was caused by lack of opportunity or, as seems more likely, the desire to spend more time with her child.

Crittenden charges that the American workplace is inhospitable to people encumbered by family responsibilities. Yet she acknowledges that most professional women today do not leave the workforce when they have children. Rather, "They are not necessarily working at the careers for which they have been trained, or at the most challenging level of those careers, or at the salaries that their training would normally command." An academic drops off the tenure track to work part-time, a physician cuts back her practice, lawyers leave large firms for less-demanding work environments, corporate managers become home-based consultants.

Is there a problem here? Many of these women are apparently comfortable with the decisions they've made; they stubbornly refuse to believe that government or business owes it to them to pick up the tab, insisting that their children are their responsibility. A chagrined Crittenden approvingly quotes a NOW Legal Defense Fund lobbyist who compares this attitude to "the way women used to blame themselves for rape."

Undoubtedly, some employers see any sign of a life outside the office as evidence of inadequate commitment to the job. Some studies cited by Crittenden suggest that even short career interruptions in the corporate world are seriously penalized (though it's also possible that mothers who have taken time off don't work at the same level of intensity as other women and are less aggressive in seeking promotions). However, few would deny that in the past two decades, the marketplace has come a long way in adapting to the rise of the two-earner family.

These changes, from flexible schedules to on-site day care, have made it easier to combine work and parenting. Still, they have not made it possible to do so without sacrifices; the mommy (or daddy) track will only take you so far. And employer accommodations have their limits. In an inadvertently hilarious passage, Crittenden laments that "the most sympathetic employer can prove surprisingly resistant to the second baby." She's talking about a feminist economist who had arranged for a pregnant graduate student to get a year's extension on her schedule and time off with her newborn. The prof felt "betrayed" when the student got pregnant again just as she was due to come back.

Crittenden argues that as a result of their maternal devotion, women are still excluded from "full and equal participation in the economy and in society," and that the solution is European-style "compassionate capitalism." Predictably, Sweden looms large in her vision, as a utopia where the law guarantees mothers everything from paid leave to subsidized day care to a reduced work schedule.

What Crittenden does not say is that in some ways, workplace disparities between men and women are far more stark in this "almost mythical paradise" than in the inferno of America's "unrestrained turbo-capitalism." In the mid-1990s, according to government data, women held only 17 percent of managerial jobs in Sweden (and just 8 percent in the private sector). In the United States, the figure is 43 percent.

The Price of Motherhood does make some valid points about ways U.S. government policies hurt working wives and mothers. Their earnings often end up being taxed at exorbitant rates because their husband's income pushes them into a higher tax bracket. The present structure of Social Security often wipes out their contributions altogether: A retired woman can receive either benefits based on her husband's earnings or benefits based on her own. That means if the dependent benefits are higher, she collects the same amount as she would have if she had never earned anything at all. Yet Crittenden brusquely dismisses proposals for a privatized retirement system, on the rather bizarre assumption that stay-at-home mothers would not benefit at all from their husbands' retirement accounts.

Are American mothers victims of massive gender-based injustice? While Crittenden takes a swipe at our national value of "pursuit of happiness through the pursuit of money," the underlying assumption in The Price of Motherhood is that pay and career status are the only rewards that matter. Yet today's semi-traditional roles often afford women not only greater opportunities (compared to men) to be close to their children, but greater opportunities for more fulfilling if less lucrative work. In a recent online chat at the Washington Post Web site, Crittenden was asked if one couldn't argue that "men are the ones who are penalized because they are expected to go out and work 24/7." Her reply: "Men, they wrote these rules, and I have no doubt they suit men's preferences more than women's."

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