Work/Life Balance

09.15.134:45 AM ET

Child Care At Mom's Expense

When women calculate the cost of child care against their salary alone, everybody loses out.

No one has captured the everyday moments of family life better than Norman Rockwell, whose iconic covers for the Saturday Evening Post are the subject of a wonderful exhibit that I attended on a recent trip to San Antonio to visit my in-laws. Looking closely at the August 30, 1947, cover of families piled into a car, with one girl blowing a huge bubble out the window, something else caught my eye. The title to one of the articles inside was "Should Husbands Be Baby Sitters? A Debate."

Today, no magazine would think to run such a debate, because the implication that fathers should be paid to care for their kids—or that caregiving is not inherent in what it means to be a father—would be offensive at worst, and unrealistic at best. As a study conducted by Families and Work Institute, The New Male Mystique, found: “Men today view the ‘ideal’ man as someone who is not only successful as a financial provider, but is also involved as a father/partner and son.” As one father said, in Beyond the Breadwinner: Professional Dads Speak Out on Work and Family, “On the one hand, I must win the bread—no mean feat for an architect during a severe economic recession, but on the other, I insist on being present in the daily life of my children.”

Fathers , it seems, want to provide both financially and emotionally ... until the child care bill comes due.

The cost of child care is still something that both mothers and fathers seem comfortable calculating against the mother's income alone. Even news stories seem to perpetuate this notion.

Last year, a widely-read CNNMoney story titled "Moms: 'I Can't Afford to Work'" reported that “after factoring in the rising cost of child care, the daily commute and other work-related expenses, a growing number of mothers are figuring out that having a job just doesn't pay.”

And just last month, an article in The New York Times titled "Crushed by the Cost of Child Care," stated: "While women without children are closer to pay equity with men, women with children are lagging behind because they find that working doesn’t always make sense after considering the cost of child care.”

Why, if we are no longer comfortable asking whether husbands can be babysitters, are we still comfortable asking whether wives make enough money to cover child care?

This stance seems particularly at odds with reality given the role of women as financial providers for their families. According to the Pew Research Center, women are the primary breadwinner in 40 percent of U.S. households, and the Families and Work Institute’s National Study of the Changing Workforce found that women’s earnings among dual-income couples made up an average of 44 percent of the annual family income.

Why is income not “family income” only when it comes to child care expenses?

It is tempting to say that the allocation of household expenses against the incomes of each financial provider is a private matter, but that would be to ignore the tremendous impact that outmoded thinking about who provides what in families is having on women, employers and families.

Let’s start with the impact on women themselves. As cited in the Times article and other reports,the high cost of child care is actually driving women’s decision to leave the workplace—at least while they children are young. This decision can have profound affects on women’s financial security for the rest of their lives. For starters, because women live longer than men, but haven’t contributed as much into Social Security because of career breaks and the like, they are more likely to end up in poverty in old age. The Center for Talent Innovation has found that women, even highly educated and experienced women, lose on average 18 percent of their earning potential when they leave the workforce, even for a short period of time. The impact on women is emotional as well—as evidenced by the stories in The New York Times Sunday magazine cover story, "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In". “I was this woman who made this great ‘choice,’ ” [one woman] said, sadly. It wasn’t the perfect fairy-tale ending.”

The choices women make not only affect them personally, they affect the organizations they work for. Over a decade of research has made it clear that having women in senior decision-making roles results in higher organizational performance. For example, McKinsey has calculated that those companies with the highest percentage of women in leadership outperform those with the lowest by 10 percent. But you can’t develop and advance women if they leave your company mid-career because they are calculating their child care costs against their income. This short-term thinking, in other words, is limiting both women and the companies they work for.

But, perhaps most importantly, the assumption that child care is the mother’s responsibility is undermining the financial security of families. Despite the fact that women’s families depend to an increasing degree on their incomes, they are still paid less than men for similar work. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in, "Progress at Work, But Mothers Still Pay a Price," an op-ed in The New York Times on June 9, 2013, “Motherhood ... is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States.” Stanford professor Shelley Correll has documented that mothers earn five percent less per hour, per child, than comparable childless women. When she and her colleagues submitted fake resumes identical in all respects except parental status to more than 600 job advertisements, the resumes of mothers’ received half as many callbacks as the resumes of those who purported to be childless. College students evaluating these same resumes offered mothers $11,000 less in starting salaries.

In other words, being a mother makes you more likely to have lower wages because everyone—your manager, your HR professionals, your colleagues, and even you—is assuming that you are responsible for child care. This assumption makes it harder for women to provide financially for their families, which in turn drives women who are calculating the cost of cost of child care against their income alone to stop working. This is the child-care Catch 22. Maternity bias—and the resulting Catch 22 - particularly affects Black and Hispanic women, who are more likely to have children than white and Asian women, and explains, in large part, why the wage gap is largest for Black and Hispanic women. (The fact that child-care workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are poorly paid is yet another reflection of how we as a society value what we see as traditionally “women’s work.”)

This is not to say that women don’t want to and shouldn’t provide care to their families. For many women, including myself, providing care has been as important as providing financial support. I made many choices in my career be able to provide both, including working at a small law firm with reasonable hours when I first graduated from Harvard Law School, to working part time, to working for companies like Deloitte that allowed me tremendous flexibility. The point here is that for me—and for millions of mothers and fathers in this country—the ideal is to provide both care and financial stability.

The 21st century provider is a mother or father who is providing both financially and emotionally for the family, and the sooner we all start thinking that way, the better for us all. So let’s start by addressing the child care Catch 22 and calculate the cost of child care the way we calculate the cost of food, or gas, or rent. Child care is not a mother’s expense, it’s a family expense.


Anne Weisberg, Senior Vice President at the Families and Work Institute, is a recognized thought leader and executive who has designed innovative practices to build effective, inclusive work environments, including co-authoring the best-selling Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace With Today’s Nontraditional Workforce (HBS, 2007).