Since the Pew Research Center announced last month that women now make up 40 percent of breadwinners, I’ve watched the ensuing debate with glee. From Megyn Kelly’s take-no-prisoners segment to the Mississippi governor’s faux pas, I haven’t been able to get enough. It’s a feminist rallying point, but it’s also personal: growing up, my mom was one such breadwinner. I knew it from the time I was small, and I’ve always been proud.
Of these women who bring home the bacon, only 37 percent are married mothers. In other words, women only out-earn their husbands in 15 percent of married households with children. So our situation is far from the norm—and was even less so in 1990, the year I was born.
To be clear: my mother is a paralegal, and my father is a civil servant, so neither of them was taking home monster paychecks. The difference between their salaries was at most 20 percent. But it was enough that, even as a young child, I knew about it. They joked about it. Usually right before Mom asked Dad for a check to help pay the mortgage. Or when, during “tax season,” as we call the months leading up to April 15 when my mother worked very late, she reminded him not to feed me green, expired hot dogs for dinner. (Yes, he did that once. I was fine.)
In fact, I was better than fine, as many children of working mothers are. A 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years found that, in general, maternal employment is associated with higher achievement. Modesty aside, I’d say I turned out pretty okay, and I credit my mother’s employment. I learned to self-manage my homework at an early age. I became independent, finding solutions to problems like getting a ride home when my parents couldn’t help. Most of all, Mom instilled a strong work ethic in me, a positive effect that may have been magnified by our shared gender. The 2010 study pointed out that “maternal employment is expected to be more positive for daughters than sons, because girls may benefit from role modeling.”
A recent paper found that a pay discrepancy like my parents’ can cause tension in some marriages. If a wife out-earns her husband, it claims, the couple is 7 percent less likely to call their marriage “very happy,” 8 percent more likely to report marital troubles, and 6 percent more likely to discuss separation. But luckily for Mom, Dad was perfectly content to coast at work, take vacation days when I was off from school, and leave early whenever the school nurse called about a fever. Even now in their empty-nest phase, he continues to do all the laundry and cooking.
But his flexibility at work couldn’t solve the problem of where to send the kid every day when the school bell rang. Through the first few years of grade school, I would go to a casual kind of after-school day care, run by various mothers of kids in my grade out of their homes. It was fine, but expensive, and not particularly educational. My mom decided there had to be a better way.
Along with three other mothers at my elementary school, she founded an after-school program for kids with two working parents that would only cost about a hundred dollars per week, chock-full of activities like line-dancing and guests like clowns and animal wranglers—with the intention that we kids “didn’t feel like you were losing out because your parents were working.” It’s still flourishing today, and countless families depend on it, but it met with great opposition at first.
A sense of “us and them” pervaded between the stay-at-homes and the working moms. In a PTA meeting to approve funding for the program, a homemaker stood up and said it wasn’t the kind of thing they should support, because countless studies proved that children of working mothers didn’t turn out well. Mom was sitting with my best friend’s mother, also a working mom, who whispered in her ear, “Sally, stay calm,” clearly seeing the steam coming out of her ears. “Don’t overreact.” (It’s worth noting that her daughter graduated college in only three years and is now a student at a top medical school.) Mom kept her cool, and simply said, “I’d like you to show me those studies. Where is the proof?”
Years went by, Mom commuting three hours round trip per day and putting in time at the sewing machine when she got home to make costumes for school plays for me and my friends. Finally, around the time I left for college, my dad got his first major promotion in 20 years—and found himself out-earning Mom. More jokes were made in my presence, but this time with relief. With his added income now, plus the higher pension later—not to mention the Social Security he’s already collecting, as he nears age 70—Mom might actually be able to retire just a few years after Dad. Did I mention he’s 10 years her senior?
Mom recently had a conversation with her niece, a young mother with a master’s degree who quit her job to have kids and is now weighing the possibility of going back to work. My cousin said she was encouraged by the fact that I had turned out well. It made my mom proud, and she made sure to point out the best part of being a working mother: because her time with me was limited, it was all the more precious. She told me about it on the phone, weighing her own decision in hindsight. “Did I miss your first step? Yeah. But I saw the second one.” And, in a financial sense, “I didn’t really have a choice.”