Maternity’s Grim Manifesto: Mommies of the World, Unite!

The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued , by Ann Crittenden. Metropolitan Books, 323 pages, $25.

I disappeared three mommies the other day. Bouncing up to a group of my friends, I announced cheerily, “I have a job for you.”

“Don’t look at me,” answered one friend, who besides raising two children works part-time for a government agency. “I have a job.”

“So do I,” said another, who also has two children and runs a consultancy from her home.

The third friend, once a high-powered saleswoman, substitute-teaches and cares for her three children; she, too, has a job.

“I mean ….” I said, embarrassed.

What did I mean? The job on offer was just a local writing gig–occasional reviews, things these women might be interested in doing–but by offering it, I had disappeared the real job each already had.

Each of these women was already working as a tutor, chauffeur, cook, housekeeper, nurse’s aide, advocate, scheduler, laundress, personal shopper and gofer, not to mention community volunteer. Each was keeping hours only an obsessed associate at a Wall Street law firm would be expected to keep, starting at 6 or 6:30 in the morning and usually finishing around midnight–and that includes Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. If that’s not a job, what is? All they lacked was a W-2.

After all the high-minded talk about the role of mothers in early child development, the emphasis on engaged and involved parenting, and the sanctity of mothers and the home, being a mommy is still the least valued occupation a woman can choose. Literally. In her compelling analysis of the economics of motherhood, Ann Crittenden, a former economics reporter for The New York Times and financial writer for Newsweek , compiles a spreadsheet of motherhood data. It’s not a pretty picture.

Despite all the rhetoric–particularly from conservatives–and all the pressure on women to stay home and care for their children (and take it from me, the pressure is enormous), the job of mothering is rewarded with little more than hugs and kisses. That’s no small thing, but it won’t pay the mortgage.

The economics of motherhood assign no monetary value to the work of mothers. (And frankly, as a society we seem to assign very little value to children as well. Consider the evidence: stingy school budgets, mediocre public schools, rundown school buildings, lack of quality child care, shortage of recreational space, mean-spirited welfare rules, horrible child-welfare systems.) Single, poor women and women of color are most affected by this injustice. But Ms. Crittenden makes the case that women with college degrees and high-flying–not to mention high-paying–careers are taking a big hit. Women like Ms. Crittenden herself, who left her Times job to raise her son.

A Harvard University study of 902 women who graduated from Harvard’s professional schools between 1971 and 1981 found that “fully 25 percent of the female Harvard M.B.A.’s of the 1970′s, some of the most expensively trained and highly motivated people in the country, had left the workplace entirely by the early 1990′s. Many said they had been forced out of the best jobs once they became mothers.” Asked their reaction to their status, many said they felt “blindsided.”

Here’s what women do: They abandon, forgo, cut back, give up. “It’s just too hard,” they say, “and the kids need me too much.” And they’re right. It is too hard. But walking away from your dreams is costly, too.

Ms. Crittenden lays out the economics of a horrendous “mommy tax,” a multiple whammy of financial disincentives that adds up to more than $1 million in penalties on college-educated women who have children. It’s a devastating formula: Start off with lower pay for equal work. Add in unpaid maternity leave (the United States is one of six Western industrial nations without a paid-leave policy), which forces many women to forgo months of pay to care for their infants. Factor in the high degree of loyalty most employers expect: “For most companies, the ideal worker is ‘unencumbered,’ that is, free of all ties other than those to his job,” Ms. Crittenden points out. Not a team player? Can’t get in early, stay late, devote weekends, travel, take that burdensome promotion? You lose. The result: “The pay gap between mothers and nonmothers under age 35 is now larger than the wage gap between young men and women.” In other words, young women are now competing against each other, not men.

Many women want a part-time arrangement, so they can pursue a career and care for their children. But such work, particularly in the white-collar world, is still an anomaly. So women lower their sights, taking jobs–and pay–beneath their skill level. Or they drop out completely.

According to Ms. Crittenden, “Among married mothers with children under age 18, 28.4 percent of all those in the prime working years of 25 to 54 are not in the labor force, meaning that the only employment of these 6.9 million women is their home and children.” Another survey estimates 20 percent of married mothers with children under age 18 are employed part-time. It would be fine if there was some financial recognition of the value of a mother’s investment in children, marriage, home. But there isn’t. “Because unpaid child care is not measured and counted as labor, caregivers earn zero Social Security credits for raising children at home. As a result, millions of American women forfeit billions of dollars a year in retirement income.” For the moment, the government gets women still another way, taxing married couples who file joint returns at a higher rate.

If a mother divorces, the results are even more dramatic: damned if they work (child support gets cut commensurately) and damned if they don’t (alimony is more and more rare). Men might pooh-pooh that analysis, convinced that divorced dads are–pardon the pun–getting screwed. But consider this: One third to one half of all divorced mothers go on welfare at some point. That includes educated, professional women who gave up careers to raise their children, only to see their marriage–and their financial security–dissolve.

Ms. Crittenden concludes: “For all the work they do, at the end of the day most mothers have to rely on the financial support of a spouse.” You’ve come a long way, baby, indeed.

So why do it? For the rewards–the hugs, kisses, the pride a mother feels in creating human capital that can’t be put in the bank. For the benefit to our children. Because someone must do it. Because our kids need us. And because most dads aren’t doing it.

Ms. Crittenden is neutral in her language, refraining from excitable rhetoric and attaching only the most general blame. Perhaps that’s because there’s plenty of blame to go around. Let’s start with the men. If we needed proof that the personal is political, here it is. The hypocrisy inherent in the system stems from this basic truth: Most men want their wives to stay home, take care of the children, attend to the family’s daily needs–just like their own mommies. In these complicated times, “a full-time ‘wife’ is often the only thing that makes family life possible,” Ms. Crittenden states. It’s also something that makes a successful man: One survey cited found that 64 percent of male executives with children under age 13 had non-working spouses. And men’s attitudes about mothers get institutionalized in the workplace, which they still run.

But feminists also deserve blame. As Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, puts it: “Women’s equality is not about equal access to education or equal job opportunities anymore–those things are done. The part that’s left is the part that has to do with family responsibilities.”

But how to solve that problem when women themselves are torn? Women want to work–and yet they attack any successful woman who appears to put her career ahead of her children. They attack anyone who skips a step, anyone who slides by on the back of a husband, anyone who avoids the dues-paying that professional women feel they’ve endured. When Zoë Baird, nominated by Bill Clinton to be his Attorney General, got into “nanny” trouble–and Ms. Crittenden’s account of this sad chapter in American public life should raise the blood pressure of even the most skeptical reader–it was women shouting, “Off with her head!” Why? Ms. Baird had the same problem every working mother has: finding good, affordable, legal child care. Shouldn’t that have engendered sympathy?

Reading Ms. Crittenden’s powerful treatise is a depressing experience. Her list of suggested remedies in the final chapter only makes things worse; given the political, economic and psychological climate of the nation, her every idea seems tired, wrong or inadequate. And yet The Price of Motherhood achieves what all the best revolutionary tracts aspire to: It raises consciousness. Ms. Crittenden lays out an argument for the next wave of feminism, and the message is clear: Mommies, grab your guns.

Mary Ann Giordano, managing editor of The Observer , has three children.