The Price of Motherhood: An Interview with Ann Crittenden

by: Katy Abel
Moms must face bitter choices and pay high cost for staying home with kids.
Table of contents

The Price of Motherhood: An Interview with Ann Crittenden

Moms Pay High Cost for Caring
In a new book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, author and former New York Times economics reporter Ann Crittenden looks at how a lack of social supports for American moms forces them to make bitter choices, while women in other industrialized societies enjoy a year's worth of paid leave after birth and other benefits that women in the U.S. can't begin to imagine.

Crittenden's research shows that despite the overall advancement of women, mothers' work remains unappreciated in an economic sense, even though moms are cultivating "human capital." Raising productive citizens, the author argues, directly contributes to the overall health of the economy and wealth of the society.

We spoke with Crittenden about how our society undervalues moms and what we should do about it.

Moms Are Major Wealth Producers You say moms are "the major wealth producers of our economy." Why should we look beyond the nurturing aspects of motherhood?

Ann Crittenden: There's a certain lack of respect or regard for mothers' work as highly skilled, incredibly valuable labor. At the heart of it is a failure to understand that this is really the central work of the modern economy, which is based on highly skilled, creative, entrepreneurial people. Economists used to consider land, labor, and capital to be the three main inputs into economic wealth. Now they are saying that two-thirds of national wealth is actually created by "human capital," which are the skills, abilities, and creative entrepreneurship of people.

If the child development research is true, then human development begins on day one. And the most important person forming these skills and capabilities is the person raising this child directly, most often the mother. We have completely ignored this central role that mothers play. So it's not a stretch to say that mothers are the most important producers in the economy. And if so, we need to put much more respect and real value on the work. It's the only job I know of where you have to pay to do it, you don't get paid to do it. You pay a price economically to create an enormous amount of economic value, and I think that's wrong.

The "Mommy Tax" You write about something called "The Mommy Tax." What's that?

Ann Crittenden: When you've been home raising children, you are looked at (by employers) as if your brain has been on ice, so you take a hit in your income, in the kind of wages you can command. I put a name on it: The Mommy Tax. In other words, what is your lifetime loss of income if you have a kid, in terms of lowered income for the rest of your life? There's a lot of variation, but you can say, in general, that if a college-educated woman has one child, she will lose about a million dollars in lifetime earnings. I didn't have my child until I was over 40, and I already had a number of years working. But my Mommy Tax is close to a million.

People do not think about this. When they think about what a child costs, they think about diapers, school tuition. The biggest single cost is the loss of income to the parent who takes his or her time to be with the child. And yet - wouldn't mothers themselves be the first to rise up and say -- "I'm willing to pay that price, whatever it is?"

Ann Crittenden: Yes, and they should. That's what motherhood is about. It's selfless service to another, to a vulnerable child who needs you. But my point is, when we put these penalties on mothers, they not only make women more vulnerable, they penalize children. You can't separate the wellbeing of the child from the wellbeing of the caregiver. If you make her vulnerable, you make the child vulnerable as well. Are you saying that the traditional model -- Dad as breadwinner, Mom as homemaker -- is harmful to women? There's nostalgia for that kind of family.

Ann Crittenden: I'm not telling people how to raise children. I am saying that anyone who chooses to stay home and raise children - power to them. And I'm arguing that they deserve more respect and recognition, and that will be better for kids. In the traditional model, the woman is 100 percent financially dependent on the man. And we live in a society where divorce hits 50 percent of families. What happens to a woman who has never been in the labor force? We have unbelievable laws that do not give women any credit for the income loss they may have suffered, credit for the work they're doing in the family, zero. If we don't have recognition of this work in family law, then the stay-at-home mom is just extremely vulnerable to poverty.

Caregiving in Other Countries What happens in other countries?

Ann Crittenden: In countries where they put greater value on caregiving, married mothers tend to stay home more with their children than they do in this country. Mothers in France and Scandinavia spend more time with their kids. In Sweden, you have a year's paid maternity leave, 85 percent of your salary, up to a certain ceiling. The man has a one-month paternity leave, plus one month's vacation. When mothers get back to work they have a statutory right to a six-hour day. The law says an 80 percent workweek. They bargain with their employer with the law on their side.

We are one of the great holdouts in the world on paid leave. Business is dead set against it. I don't like the idea of infants in long day care, but we force it on mothers. Its barbaric, and it really proves to me that women don't have much power because women want to be with their children and they want or have to work. And we're just not permitting those two things to go together very well. Why is it so different here?

Ann Crittenden: I'm assuming because we haven't really understood how important good caregiving is to the rest of the country. We all know a well-raised child is an asset. But how much do we think about the fact that a well-raised child is going to grow up, pay a lot of taxes, and support us in our old age? Everybody else's children are going to support each of us, so it's in the interest of people who don't have children to support mothers who are doing important work.