What We Really Mean When We Talk About The 'Motherhood Penalty'

by Elizabeth Collins

Ladies, sit down. Brace yourselves. I have news that will shock you: Becoming a mother affects your career.

Excuse my sarcasm, but I’m a little frustrated by the recent flurry of articles in my Facebook feed, explaining a supposedly stunning revelation about the gender pay gap: Motherhood is to blame. Excuse me, fancy Ph.D. researchers, but this is not news. It’s my life. It’s all of our lives.

Take this piece in Vox: A stunning chart shoes the true cause of the gender wage gap: The gender wage gap is really a child care penalty. It details how women’s wages and men’s are roughly equal – until a woman has her first child. The author sounds shocked that in this day and age, even in the most egalitarian Scandinavian societies, the majority of child care falls on mothers. This, in turn, hurts their careers.

I’ll pause here for women across America to roll their eyes and say, “No shit. Tell us something we don’t know.”

“There are two possible explanations,” the author and her expert posit, “not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is an environmental explanation, where social norms make it harder for mothers to stay in the workforce. Under this explanation, moms may find that they aren’t offered certain opportunities – a job that requires significant travel or long hours, for example – because of the perception that they are the primary caregiver to a child.”

Then, there’s “a biological explanation: that women may have a stronger preference for spending more time in activities related to child care.”

I wouldn’t call it a preference, exactly – nobody enjoys changing diapers or trying to soothe a colicky baby – but your priorities do change when you give birth. When my husband and I first decided to have a child, we both knew my career would be the one to take a backseat. I may have had a shiny, new master’s degree, but he was our primary breadwinner, and someone would need to be the on-call parent.

After I held my son in my arms, however, our economic decision became an emotional one. My wrinkled, bawling infant was suddenly the most important person in the world, and nothing and no one would ever come before him – certainly not my job. I seriously considered quitting, but we did need the half-salary I would have left after paying for day care.

My heart broke the first day I left my baby at 10 weeks. To make myself feel better, I swore that he would never be the last one to be picked up, that I would make it to every party, every important event.

It’s a promise I’ve kept. I know I’m fortunate. I have a stable, family-friendly job, one with a lot of leave and good benefits. I can afford day care. I have a spouse who handles drop-offs and is as involved as he can be. It’s still a juggling act. Every day. I spend a lot of money on take-out. I pay a cleaning lady to keep us from living in filth. My son probably watches way too much TV, and I spoil him out of guilt.

He always seems to know when I have a deadline that’s set in stone – that’s when he gets sick. I’ve worked on entire assignments, start to finish, at home during naptime and at night. I’ve taken work calls in our pediatrician’s parking lot and while making dinner. And my inability to travel or undertake a long commute severely limits my employment prospects.

I remember, when my son was about six or seven months old, sobbing because a potential promotion had opened up. I wanted it and there’s a good chance that I would have gotten it, but I didn’t even put in for it. It required way too much travel. Sure, I could have spent quadruple the amount of the raise to hire a nanny, but I couldn’t stomach it. I physically could not be away from my baby that much. I was his world, and he was mine. Day care was bad enough, but I was still home every night, every weekend. I didn’t go through nine months of a difficult pregnancy for another woman to raise my child.

It was a painful decision, but it was easy, and I’ve never regretted it.

The right promotion did come along a couple of years later. It’s a job I love, one that offers me even more flexibility than I had before. It’s a good thing, too, because I’m “stuck” for a while again. Someone senior at work recently told me about several positions that are about to become available, and suggested that I apply. I can’t. I’m pregnant with son number two now.

I practically break out into a cold sweat whenever I think about how wild life will be next fall, with my older son starting preschool and this baby starting day care. Two drop-offs. Two pick-ups. More sleepless months. Double the sick days. Oy. I would gratefully take six months of unpaid maternity leave. I would happily come back to work on a part-time schedule. Frankly, the last thing I need or want is a promotion, not with the added responsibility and stress that would come with it.

So that’s my child care penalty. But I hate that term. Saying “penalty” feels somehow condescending. Penalty implies that there’s something punitive about being Mommy, something I should be embarrassed about or resent or regret. I regret that there aren’t more flexible options. I regret the lack of paid maternity leave in our country. I regret the outrageous cost of quality day care. I deeply regret the fact that many women don’t have the options I do.

But I don’t regret choosing my kids. And that’s exactly what it is: a choice. It’s a choice made out of love. My most important job isn’t the one I get paid for. It’s giving hugs and making chicken nuggets and reading stories and wiping noses and going to doctors’ appointments. It’s raising two little boys to become decent, hardworking men, men who contribute to society and treat women with respect.

That’s motherhood. That’s everything to me.