I'm reading The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden, which strikes me as a fairly intelligent economic analysis of the costs of being a mother. I've often been dismissive of complaints about women who leave the workforce even temporarily to be mothers losing income for the rest of their life; I tend to think, "Geez, a person who doesn't work as many years shouldn't necessarily expect to make the same amount of money as someone who works steadily." But Crittendon draws an analogy between men who do military service and women who raise children. She points out that men who are veterans have a career gap much like that of women who spend their children's early years at home, and it affects future earnings (Vietnam veterans, for instance, were earning about 15% less than men of the same age who hadn't served, twenty years after the war ended). But she goes on to point out that through veterans' benefits, the costs are ameliorated for men with employment gaps. She suggests that if we really thought raising kids was important, the way we think military service is important, we'd do something as society to reduce the costs of motherhood. That's food for thought.
Her chapter on divorce is especially chilling, and I don't recommend reading it when you're pregnant with the second child of a man whose income is 5-6 times yours and you're approaching forty and never even really had a career that you could theoretically "go back to." She talks about the imbalance of power that happens when children are born and women give up income-producing work to care for them. Her example is of a couple who are young, childless, and earning comparable incomes. The wife says: "If I ever catch you with another woman, I'm outta here." The husband believes her. Three years later, she's the mother of a one-year-old and has no income of her own; what leverage does she have when she makes that threat again?
I admit, even ten years in with the best man on earth (hi, honey!), I sometimes have night sweats about what would happen if the relationship ended. David and I will have a bad week of crankiness, and I start thinking, "I couldn't get out of this if I wanted to!" My parents have a spare bedroom and enough disposable income to buy groceries for me and the kids; that's my safety net.
The first few chapters of the book talk about all the pressures that drive even women who thought they wanted to keep working to decide to stay home instead. They include subtle pressures like lack of paid maternity leave, which I'm facing next semester: my very nice boss, a mother of three herself, has been very cheerful and supportive but it appears that it is not possible for me to just take a couple of weeks off when the baby is born and have another teacher cover my classes. After a lot of soul-searching, I've decided not to give up a whole semester's pay just because I have a baby due three weeks before the term ends, but I cannot see how we are going manage those three weeks--or four, or five, depending on when the baby comes.
Women also leave paid work because they realize that by the time they pay for childcare, their effective income is not worth the strain having two working parents puts on the family, and Crittenden does a nifty rundown of how a woman's income is further reduced by our tax laws, which result in women who have lower income than their partners facing effective tax rates that are much higher than they would owe based on their own income.
And in a surprisingly common worst-case scenario, women are fired when they ask for accomodations, even when those accomodations are provided for in company policies.
So there are all these pressures that drive women into unpaid mothering, and then leave them vulnerable to the devastating effects of divorce. I had to stop reading the chapter on divorce because it was making me hyperventilate. I've seen David go through a breakup, when I first knew him, and he was thoughtful and fair. Among other things, he helped his ex make up some of the financial losses she suffered when she sold her house to move in with him. So I'm not afraid he would deliberately treat me badly; but I manage the money in our house, and I know there's no way we could afford to divide into two households and continue to support me in a way that would allow me to mother our children in the way we've agreed we want them mothered.
What is very scary is the extent to which the system does not protect women, so that in a divorce a woman is primarily dependent on her husband's goodwill--and Crittenden documents that even the woman's lawyer is likely to be primarily concerned with preserving the husband's standard of living, rather than ensuring hers and the children's, and to approach negotiating a settlement from the baseline of "what can he afford, without hurting too much?" rather than "what do she and children need?"
Sadly, it is abundantly clear that there is a shortage of men of goodwill out there, and perhaps they are especially under-represented among the ranks of the divorced. I'm lucky to have one, but how many women felt the same way until Mr. Good Guy announced he wanted a divorce?
I hope David is sensitive enough to realize that a nice e-mail reiterating his commitment to me and our family would be nice right about now.
My last issue of Brain, Child had an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir by Michelle Kennedy, who was homeless with her children after she left her marriage. I'll be interested to read the book when it comes out, because after years of blithely asserting that battered women, for instance, should leave no matter what their prospects because battering is simply unacceptable, I'm starting to understand that it's not that simple. Kennedy doesn't describe herself as abused, but what it must have taken her to leave a marriage when she had no parents'-spare-room safety net and not enough cash to get into an apartment--well, I'd like to read about it.
I can't remember why I decided to pick up The Price of Motherhood. I had been avoiding it, because I figured it would be a depressing polemic with an unstated but very clear bias against stay-at-home mothers in favor of making it possible for women to continue with "truly fulfilling" work outside the home. The book is depressing, but it's not a polemic, and Crittenden is staunchly pro-mother, across the board. She's worth reading--though maybe not if you're a vulnerable non-wage-earning pregnant woman approaching the age of un-hire-ability.Posted by Su Penn at November 13, 2003 04:09 PM | TrackBack