Reason Magazine

REASON * June 2001

The Mommy Tax

Is motherhood a boon or a burden for women today?

By Cathy Young
Reason Magazine

A book that purports to offer a bold new vision of gender equity is taking the media by storm. The Price of Motherhood: Why Motherhood Is the Most Important -- And Least Valued -- Job in America, by Ann Crittenden, has been hailed as a "landmark" work that challenges liberal and conservative paradigms, a "revolutionary tract" that "lays out an argument for the next wave of feminism." The book is also prominently featured on the Web site of the National Organization for Women (now.org). But, far from charting a new course, The Price of Motherhood mostly serves the same old left-wing feminist wine in new pro-motherhood bottles.

Ironically, Crittenden readily concedes something that critics of feminism have long maintained: Today, gender disparities in pay and advancement are primarily due not to discrimination but to womenís family roles. "Motherhood," she writes, "is now the single greatest obstacle left in the path to economic equality for women."

However, where some see freely made choices and trade-offs, Crittenden sees a cruel society that victimizes women, forcing them to choose from "a set of bad options" and exploiting their selfless service. She argues that all mothers -- whether they pursue an uninterrupted career, temporarily scale down their labor force involvement, or devote themselves entirely to child-rearing -- deserve far more social "support" than they are getting.

Her wish list includes a yearís paid leave after the birth of each child, part-time work with full benefits, free universal preschool for children starting at age 3, Social Security credits for time spent caring for family members, and a stipend that can be used as a "salary" for full-time parenting or as a child care subsidy. Crittenden knows that this agenda will strike a lot of Americans as welfare statism, but she believes that American women should demand "a new social contract" guaranteeing true equality for mothers.

Crittendenís prime example of Mom as victim is Crittenden herself. After her son was born in 1982, she left her job as a financial reporter at The New York Times, giving up a $50,000 annual salary; since then, she has made about $15,000 a year from freelance writing. Crittenden makes it clear that she loved the time she spent with her child, and that her husbandís income was quite sufficient for a comfortable life. Still, she gripes, "this seems a high price to pay for doing the right thing."

Yet surely Crittendenís financial losses were the result of her own priorities. She writes that she expected to take a relatively short time out, "assuming it would be easy to get back into journalism after a few years, or to earn a decent income from books and other projects." But she doesnít say whether her extended underemployment was caused by lack of opportunity or, as seems more likely, the desire to spend more time with her child.

Crittenden charges that the American workplace is inhospitable to people encumbered by family responsibilities. Yet she acknowledges that most professional women today do not leave the workforce when they have children. Rather, "They are not necessarily working at the careers for which they have been trained, or at the most challenging level of those careers, or at the salaries that their training would normally command." An academic drops off the tenure track to work part-time, a physician cuts back her practice, lawyers leave large firms for less-demanding work environments, corporate managers become home-based consultants.

Is there a problem here? Many of these women are apparently comfortable with the decisions theyíve made; they stubbornly refuse to believe that government or business owes it to them to pick up the tab, insisting that their children are their responsibility. A chagrined Crittenden approvingly quotes a NOW Legal Defense Fund lobbyist who compares this attitude to "the way women used to blame themselves for rape."

Undoubtedly, some employers see any sign of a life outside the office as evidence of inadequate commitment to the job. Some studies cited by Crittenden suggest that even short career interruptions in the corporate world are seriously penalized (though itís also possible that mothers who have taken time off donít work at the same level of intensity as other women and are less aggressive in seeking promotions). However, few would deny that in the past two decades, the marketplace has come a long way in adapting to the rise of the two-earner family.

These changes, from flexible schedules to on-site day care, have made it easier to combine work and parenting. Still, they have not made it possible to do so without sacrifices; the mommy (or daddy) track will only take you so far. And employer accommodations have their limits. In an inadvertently hilarious passage, Crittenden laments that "the most sympathetic employer can prove surprisingly resistant to the second baby." Sheís talking about a feminist economist who had arranged for a pregnant graduate student to get a yearís extension on her schedule and time off with her newborn. The prof felt "betrayed" when the student got pregnant again just as she was due to come back.

Crittenden argues that as a result of their maternal devotion, women are still excluded from "full and equal participation in the economy and in society," and that the solution is European-style "compassionate capitalism." Predictably, Sweden looms large in her vision, as a utopia where the law guarantees mothers everything from paid leave to subsidized day care to a reduced work schedule.

What Crittenden does not say is that in some ways, workplace disparities between men and women are far more stark in this "almost mythical paradise" than in the inferno of Americaís "unrestrained turbo-capitalism." In the mid-1990s, according to government data, women held only 17 percent of managerial jobs in Sweden (and just 8 percent in the private sector). In the United States, the figure is 43 percent.

The Price of Motherhood does make some valid points about ways U.S. government policies hurt working wives and mothers. Their earnings often end up being taxed at exorbitant rates because their husbandís income pushes them into a higher tax bracket. The present structure of Social Security often wipes out their contributions altogether: A retired woman can receive either benefits based on her husbandís earnings or benefits based on her own. That means if the dependent benefits are higher, she collects the same amount as she would have if she had never earned anything at all. Yet Crittenden brusquely dismisses proposals for a privatized retirement system, on the rather bizarre assumption that stay-at-home mothers would not benefit at all from their husbandsí retirement accounts.

Are American mothers victims of massive gender-based injustice? While Crittenden takes a swipe at our national value of "pursuit of happiness through the pursuit of money," the underlying assumption in The Price of Motherhood is that pay and career status are the only rewards that matter. Yet todayís semi-traditional roles often afford women not only greater opportunities (compared to men) to be close to their children, but greater opportunities for more fulfilling if less lucrative work. In a recent online chat at the Washington Post Web site, Crittenden was asked if one couldnít argue that "men are the ones who are penalized because they are expected to go out and work 24/7." Her reply: "Men, they wrote these rules, and I have no doubt they suit menís preferences more than womenís."

Thatís a glib dismissal of a complex issue. In one couple I know, the father had to drop out of a graduate program in music when he learned that a baby was on the way; he finds his current corporate job boring and exhausting and hates the long hours away from his son. The mother, who quit an office job she never much liked, seems to be enjoying her time at home. Whoís making the sacrifice?

Crittendenís blindness to menís disadvantages is especially glaring when it comes to divorce. Her discussion of this issue is based on the fallacy that itís nearly always men who desert their families -- in fact, two-thirds of divorces involving children are initiated by mothers -- and focuses on womenís economic losses while ignoring the emotional pain of fathers who lose their children. She also ignores recent studies claiming that taxes and other factors equalize the financial burdens of divorce on mothers and fathers.

Revealingly, Crittenden has much to say about shared income after divorce and nothing about shared parenting, even though it would lighten womenís bur-dens. Take one of her tales of maternal victimization: A lawyer who won a custody fight with her ex-husband ended up losing her job because, as "a single mother of two small children who could not afford to lose their mother as well as their father," she was no longer able to put in the hours at her law firm. It never occurs to Crit-tenden that it might have been better for everyone if the children didnít have to lose their father -- who had actually volunteered to raise them.

This anecdote illustrates a larger point. One way to reduce the "tremendous costs of caregiving" for women is for fathers to share more in child-rearing. Crittenden claims that "most men have dragged their heels" yet acknowledges only in passing that women often balk at surrendering the role of primary parent.

It is likely that womenís overall greater involvement in hands-on child care will persist due to innate sex differences (which means that, like it or not, so will menís overall higher level of achievement outside the home). Still, many fathers are able -- and, in a friendlier climate, would be willing -- to take over as caregivers, freeing mothers to advance in the marketplace. Even in more traditional arrangements, good fathers not only play an important role in raising children to be healthy adults but provide the financial support that allows mothers to spend more time with the family.

Crittenden pays lip service to equal parenting, but most of the time her attitude toward fathers ranges between dismissive and venomous. She explicitly suggests that men donít love their children as much as women do. While grudgingly admitting that "two parents are better than one," she also speculates that children may often be better off in female-headed families where "no man is able to challenge maternal priorities," since women are supposedly more inclined to spend resources on the children and not on their selfish needs. At best, a devoted father is treated as a minor supporting player in the story of the "conscientious mother."

True gender equality would mean recognizing that both parents are equally responsible for -- and equally important to -- their children, however they decide to divide their responsibilities. Instead, Crit-tenden believes that "society" should take responsibility for children so that women can have it all. What she proposes is entitlement masquerading as rights, female chauvinism posing as anti-sexism, and a vast expansion of government power under the guise of empowering women.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young (cathyyoung2@cs.com) is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Men and Women Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (The Free Press).