Taxing Motherhood

The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, by Ann Crittenden. Metropolitan Books, 323 pages, $25.00.

The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, by Nancy Folbre. The New Press, 267 pages, $24.95.

In The Price of Motherhood, economics journalist Ann Crittenden draws on interviews, social science research, and her own experience to make the case that mothers in the United States are hit with a steep "mommy tax." First, there are opportunity costs: what a mother would have earned if she had stayed in the labor force, worked longer hours, or pretended to be "family-free." There is also what Columbia University Professor Jane Waldfogel calls the "family wage gap." On average, employed women who are mothers earn less than employed women who do not have children. While no one factor explains this discrepancy, breaks in employment owing to maternity leaves, the lower wages paid to part-time employees for equivalent work, differential promotions based on the assumption that mothers are less committed to the workplace, and direct discrimination all play a part. The government also imposes its share of the mommy tax through a Social Security system that penalizes women who are not employed full-time.

Crittenden recalls that before she became a mother, she "lived the unencumbered life of a journalist [and was] one of the boys in a gender-neutral environment that represented enormous progress for women... . My husband and I ate out almost every night, had a maid to clean our apartment, and packed our bags on short notice. We weren't even home enough to keep a cat." After 20 years in the labor force, she gave birth to a son in 1982 and six months later resigned from her position at The New York Times. Her full-time, available-at-the-drop-of-a-hat work life did not accommodate motherhood. She estimates that leaving the Times to work as a part-time free-lance journalist "in order to have more time to be a mother" cost her about $700,000 in lifetime earnings plus the loss of a pension that, if invested when the stock market was inflating, would have given her roughly $60,000 a year after retirement. She concludes that "this seems a high price to pay for doing the right thing."

Crittenden's position is framed in the language of moral choice and individual economic costs, but it incorporates an implicit rejection of what Washington University legal scholar Joan Williams, in her book Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It, has labeled the "full-commodification model." Williams explains that early second-wave feminism--centered as it was in white, middle-class, college-educated perspectives--addressed the problem of discrimination against women in the labor force by extolling the benefits of full-time employment for women along with market-based or state-provided child care. Before becoming a mother, Crittenden shared that perspective: "It never occurred to me that women might be at home because there were children there; that housewives might become extinct, but mothers and fathers never would." She and Williams both eschew a full-commodification model but also reject a system that marginalizes women in the labor force and further disadvantages them by relying on their unsupported, individual, unpaid caregiving labor at home.

This is crucial. In my study of women hospital workers, Weaving Work and Motherhood, I found that employed women with children were not simply looking for ways to delegate child care, although available quality child care was a key issue for them. They were also looking for work structures that would enable them to be employed and still continue to do much of what they considered to be central to the culturally symbolic and personally important work of mothering: staying home with a sick child, serving as the "field-trip mom," being reachable by the school. Crittenden argues that women should be able to do all of this without paying such a high price for caring.

Unfortunately, she relies almost solely on examples of women who are highly educated elite professionals--physicians, lawyers, scientists, and engineers--to illustrate the costs of motherhood in general. Although Crittenden cites some research on lower-middle-class and working-class families, she focuses on the stories of women whose pre-motherhood salaries were several times the median income for women, many of whom she describes as earning "six figures." Their experiences seem ill matched with the realities of most employed mothers' lives. In 1995, 52 percent of employed women held nonsupervisory positions in sales, service, and secretarial work. Only 0.3 percent were physicians, 0.4 percent were lawyers, and 0.7 percent were college professors. Today, the most common occupation of employed women is still "secretary."

Do all working mothers face discrimination? Absolutely. Do they all pay a price for motherhood? Yes. Are all their situations comparable? I don't think so. Voluntary part-time employment is simply not an available or financially feasible option for most employed mothers. The mommy tax may be monetarily higher for well-educated and very highly paid women, but qualitatively it is not as likely to affect their ability to provide adequate food, clothing, housing, education, and medical care for themselves and their children.

Ending her book with policy recommendations, Crittenden echoes the call of Arlie Hochschild in The Time Bind for a shorter-hours movement, of Joan Williams for changes in workplace norms and in family entitlement laws, and of economist Nancy Folbre for reforms in tax laws and social support to parents. She proposes redesigning employment--implementing paid leave, shorter workweeks, and equal pay scales and benefits for part-time work--to enable parents to care adequately for their children. She advocates increasing government supports for caregiving by reforming the Social Security and tax laws and providing universal preschool, a child allowance, health care for children and their primary caretakers, and social insurance for both paid workers and unpaid caregivers.

Crittenden also recommends parent education, before- and after-school programs for children, and community pediatric clinics as ways in which communities could be more supportive of parents. In addition, she envisions legal changes that would make "economic units" of domestic unions that include children: Parents' income would belong to the family unit rather than to the individual who earned it, even after a divorce, until the children reached a specific age. Postdivorce payments would be transferred through a federal agency that would send regular checks to the receiving parent and would collect from the noncustodial parent, as is done in Sweden. This arrangement would recognize mothers' unpaid caregiving during marriage and reduce the decline in the standard of living for women and children after divorce.

These suggestions aim to increase material support for caregiving within families and lower the price of motherhood, but for the most part they do not challenge the notion that each child's well-being rests on the individual fortunes of his or her parents. In The Invisible Heart, Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts economics professor and a MacArthur fellow, argues for an alternative perspective that recognizes a general social responsibility for every child. Folbre notes that a liberal feminism that has focused on greater individual rights for women has had more success in the United States than in Europe. While this approach has achieved some important positive results, she cautions that it can go too far in the direction of rights and not far enough in the direction of obligations. If the "invisible hand" of the marketplace is about competition and individual achievement, the "invisible heart" is about obligation, reciprocity, and caring for others. Folbre writes that "the hand and the heart are interdependent, but they are also in conflict," and she argues for a more balanced relationship between the two.

In Europe a more social feminism has focused on distributing familial and social responsibilities more fairly by demanding that men and society as a whole assume a share of both the cost and the provision of care. In France, for example, employed mothers may take a four-month leave with 84 percent pay and the option of taking further unpaid leave; single mothers receive cash payments until their children are three years old; prenatal and pediatric care is provided and expected; and preschool teachers are treated as professionals and paid on the same scale as elementary- and secondary-school teachers. These kinds of supports not only aid mothers but reduce child poverty rates, improve children's health, and increase the social health of a nation. In the United States, the fact that women pay a price for motherhood and that care work is devalued and poorly compensated cannot be understood--or adequately addressed--apart from the racial-ethnic and class system that categorizes some children as "our children" and others as "their children." Folbre suggests that the "unanimous pride" the French express for their maternal schools (preschools attended by almost all three- to five-year-olds in France) is perhaps "a product of their history, their experiences with two world wars, and their previous ethnic homogeneity... . åOur children,' they say, åare our greatest resource.'"

The Invisible Heart is written with clarity and simplicity of style and is a pleasure to read. Folbre shares stories from her own life in order to situate herself in the larger social and political context. She talks about growing up and attending an affluent public school in Texas; about her father's employment as the manager of the personal and business affairs of an extremely wealthy Texas family, and her perceptions of their family life and her own; about her feelings when solicited by her high school alma mater for funds to offset the money they said had been "taken from them" when Texas was forced to equalize spending for schools across districts.

Challenging the economic position that everyone is better off if each person pursues his or her narrow self-interest, Folbre provides straightforward examples and analogies that can be used to counter this tired economic argument without simply asserting altruism. She then presents a short history and analysis of U.S. social-welfare programs such as Social Security, public assistance, public schools, and the tax system, and argues that sharing social costs is good for everyone. Finally, Folbre considers the impact of international competition and the place of democratic institutions and practices in the process of globalization and the organization of the economy.

The Invisible Heart makes policy recommendations similar to many of those in The Price of Motherhood, but it also points us in the direction we should travel to better balance the invisible hand and the invisible heart. Folbre warns that while we must take care not to romanticize caregiving as it is currently constructed, we "need to be more careful about the ways we reward selfish behavior." To this end, she concludes not with specific recommendations but with five guidelines.

  • Reject claims that women should be more altruistic than men, either in the home or in society as a whole.

  • Defend family values against the corrosive effects of self-interest.

  • Confront the difficulties of establishing democratic governance in families, communities, countries, and the world as a whole.

  • Aim for a kinder and wiser form of economic development.

  • Develop and strengthen ways of rewarding the work of care.

    Thinking seriously about these guidelines and implementing them in adequately funded universal programs would help support both individual families and the social fabric in which they exist. The question of how we can best and most fairly care for the children in our own families is embedded in the broader question of how we can best and most fairly care for the future of our society--that is, for all our children.