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On this Mother’s Day, the crisis for working moms is hard to miss

Let’s make parenthood as rewarding for income-earning moms as it is for income-earning dads

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Timesaving disclaimer: This week’s piece is going to focus primarily on problems involving parents and opposite-sex couples. I’d also like to hear perspectives from child-free workers and same-sex couples at — Karla

For this Mother’s Day column, I’m going to turn some quantitative data into a question: Why aren’t there more mothers?

Despite widespread wink-wink-nudge-nudge predictions that the pandemic lockdown would boost the declining birthrate, the anticipated baby boom has been a bust. But it’s not just the coronavirus having a contraceptive effect among those who might have considered starting or expanding their family. This is part of a downward trend.

I’m no economist, but from conversations with fellow moms and child-free workers alike, I can guess some reasons. The combination of low wages and the high cost of living makes a baby look like a luxury item, while the growing gig economy cuts into the numbers of permanent full-time positions from which to make a decent living. The short- and long-term effects of childbearing on women’s health may be a deterrent, especially in the absence of reliable and accessible health care. And this past year brought into focus a problem that preceded the pandemic: For many women, becoming a mother means being put at a lifelong economic and career disadvantage.

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Women suffered major job losses this year — partly because majority-female industries were the hardest hit by the pandemic, but also because no human can sustain the dual full-time duties of caring for minor children and performing a full-time job. Even in dual-earner families where both parents were able to work from home, it was primarily moms who took the hit in paid hours to focus on children’s schooling and care. Plenty of articles covered this phenomenon, but nothing captured it for me quite like the New York Times photo of a mother on a work call helping her child go potty while, on the other side of the bathroom wall, the child’s father took his work call in a clean, quiet home office.

Granted, that’s only a snapshot. But it’s not hard to imagine potential mothers looking at that photo, calculating how much time and energy their current jobs demand, perhaps taking stock of the division of household labor in their homes after a year on lockdown, and thinking: “…nah.”

Even with a solid partnership and a stable job, the median annual income in the United States is not quite enough to cover a year’s worth of expenses for a family of four with one income-earning parent. And in dual-earner families, pre-K child care can consume a bigger part of the monthly budget than housing — bad news when housing is already the biggest of many families’ expenses.

And let’s look at moms’ choices. When women take time off to raise a family, their earning potential takes a hit. When they’re ready to relaunch their careers, their starting block has been moved back. And as many who opt out of the paid labor force have discovered, the “stay-at-home wife” gig doesn’t come with a guaranteed retirement package.

Women who work continuously through motherhood, even in “family-friendly” workplaces, may find their pay and promotion prospects lag behind those of male colleagues with children — the “motherhood penalty” and the “fatherhood bonus.”

Don’t get me wrong: For many, motherhood is emotionally rewarding. But it’s economically punitive. How can we make it just as rewarding to be an income-earning mom as it is to be an income-earning dad?

The Biden administration, under a child-care-as-infrastructure approach, has announced ambitious proposals to provide quality child care for all families, pay care providers a livable wage, and ease the cost burden for all parents. The plan is appealing but far from a sure thing.

Societally, it’s been hard to dispel the idea that women are just “naturally better” than men at raising children and managing households. But women have overcome similar gatekeeping to break into such lucrative fields as STEM and business management that men were deemed “naturally better” at, and because that work is valued by society, breaking in was worth the effort. Men who want to be true partners in parenting and domestic life can — and many have — overcome the expectations and assumptions working against them, especially when society assigns more value to that work.

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Workplaces can support that change by making work as flexible and accommodating for dads as for moms, with equal paid parental leave for moms and dads and paid leave for anyone with care-taking duties. Besides being more egalitarian, that approach would help alleviate what a Harvard Business Review blog refers to as the “working dad’s career trap,” when the pressures of work leave high-earning fathers no room for focusing on outside priorities. Finally, acknowledging and eliminating hiring bias against older parents relaunching their careers would make parenthood less of an all-or-nothing proposition.

The pandemic isn’t entirely to blame for declining birthrates, but it has magnified systemic problems that make motherhood in particular look like a bad deal. Some of the solutions we’ve been forced to adopt in response to the pandemic — subsidized care, paid leave, flexibility in hours and location — can not only equalize the burden on moms and dads, but also help model better work-life balance for everyone.