How Much Does Motherhood Really Cost Women?

We're not saying the intangible benefits of having kids don't make it worth the cost; but on the financial side, non-moms do have the advantage.

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Happy smiling mother and her baby
Alamy
My birth was meticulously planned. My mother, a teacher, and my father, a businessman, strategized their baby-making agenda around my mother's schedule. I would be born at the end of May, giving her the summer for her maternity leave, during which she wouldn't lose any wages or use any of her sick or personal days, before returning to work. I arrived promptly in the latter part of May and then screwed everything else up.

My mother, a fiercely strong and independent woman, made what was, for her, a surprising choice to become a stay-at-home mom to raise me (and the younger sister who showed up later). In another previously unpredicted turn, our family moved overseas, making it even harder for my mother to return to the workforce later. For nearly 21 years, my mother sacrificed her career and her earning potential to raise two daughters.

Now, in my mid-20s, I've watched my peers struggle with the question of whether or not to have children. Those who decide to pursue the path to dirty diapers, sleepless nights and unconditional love seem to fall into two groups: those who blindly hope they'll be able to make ends meet; and those who begin crafting idyllic budgets around their fictional child.

What Price Motherhood?

The decision to have children or not is incredibly personal. While one choice provides a host of obvious emotional and intangible rewards (and the possibility of having someone other than paid staff to care for you in your twilight years), the other has distinct financial advantages.

Those financial disadvantages for mothers involve more than just the costs of raising a child -- both parents take those on. But women in particular need to consider the income, retirement savings and Social Security benefits they sacrifice by electing to walk away from the workforce. Even mothers who return to work relatively rapidly tend to suffer financial setbacks often referred to as the "motherhood penalty*."

Maternity Leave

The monetary losses start from the moment the labor contractions set in.

Bringing new life into the world warrants legally mandated paid leave in most developed nations -- except the United States, where employers aren't required to provide it. How much compensation women are entitled to while out on maternity leave varies by country: It could be as little as 50 percent of their normal wages. But that's far more than the disturbing zero required of American companies.

"Only about half of all first-time moms in the United States are able to take any paid leave after childbirth; and just a fifth of working women with young children receive leave with full pay," according to WorkingMother.com's evaluation of National Partnership for Women & Families' Census data.

Salary

Over the years, studies have shown mothers earning less, facing more workplace discrimination and receiving fewer opportunities than women without children. In fact, this issue may be more pressing than that of the general pay gap between men and women.

Women who leave the workforce entirely sacrifice their salaries for a job that pays in cuddles, kisses, temper tantrums and heart-melting moments. But you can't pay the bills in a child's laughter, your daughter's first steps or when your teenage son says, "I love you" for no reason. Even though motherly tasks require dedication, multitasking, high-level communication skills, the ability to prioritize and handle expenses, employers still don't see the work as proof of ability.

The role of a mother (working or stay-at-home) demands an incredible amount of effort; it's every bit as much of a job as any 9-to-5 occupation, but employers still discriminate against mothers. "Employed mothers are hit with a 5 percent wage penalty per child, on average," according to a study conducted by Cornell University sociologists and published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Social Security Benefits

It isn't just salary that women walk away from when they leave the workforce to raise children. Their eligibility to earn Social Security benefits suddenly comes to a screeching halt. Women who fail to put in a total of 10 years of work will not be able to collect Social Security retirement benefits, according to the Social Security Administration's 2014 pamphlet on earning credits (though there are some exceptions).

But more important than just qualifying for Social Security is how your benefit is calculated. To quote the SSA:

Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or "indexed" to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most.

Working for fewer years, working at lower wages, bringing home a lower aggregate amount over your lifetime -- all of these factors cut into the size of the benefit checks mothers can expect when they retire from the work force.

Of course, some millennial women may not be taking the potential reduction in their Social Security benefits as seriously, because they expect the entitlement program will likley have been restructured by the time their generation faces retirement. As the Social Security Administration notes on its website,

"Your estimated benefits are based on current law. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2033, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 77 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits."


But regardless of how the system is reformed (or isn't), the reduction to a mother's benefits should still be viewed as a loss.

Other Retirement Savings Plans

Social Security may be nothing to depend on -- at least not at current levels -- but most workers today can use an employer's 401(k) -- or similar retirement plan -- to prepare for the future.

A woman who leaves the workforce to become a mother loses the benefit of her employer-matched retirement plan, and without any taxable income; she can't contribute to an IRA.

Mothers who stay in the workforce still won't reap the same benefits from an employer-matched retirement plan as their childless counterparts. A 5 percent reduction in salary (per child) would translate to a lower amount to contribute and (because it's based on a percentage of salary) a lower employer match.

And of course, those who forgo children don't have to prioritize the needs of a child over retirement plans. There won't be any debate about saving for retirement versus paying for braces, private schools or college.

Ultimately, It Doesn't Really Come Down to the Money

I'm thankful to have been raised by a mother who could play dress-up with me, heal my scrapes, and attend all of my activities growing up. My mother sacrificed career advancement to raise me, and I'll always be incredibly grateful to her. She, like most women who become mothers, will always claim it was the right decision and one she's never regretted (except probably, for a brief period during my teen years). The numbers may indicate that it's financially better for women to resist their biological urges, but on this Mother's Day, I thank my own Mom and everyone else's who didn't.

*For the sake of this article, in discussing the "motherhood penalty" or the possibility of being "mommy tracked," we are referring to women who are college educated with higher-income careers.

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38 Comments

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mrbaronsir

As a college educated female that has chosen to remain child free by choice, I am still completely baffled why any female would willingly want to have children? I do not possess a maternalistic bone in my body, and the financial freedom is the biggest reward I can achieve. I have no use for "family" and my ability to travel, and enjoy new experiences is what living is all about. To each his own, but from where I stand, not destroying ones body, financial freedom and personal achievement far outshine mommyhood.

May 16 2014 at 8:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dazed1821

I personally think to pass something solely as paid maternity leave would make the pay gap worse. I'd like to see the country pass "PARENTAL LEAVE." Perhaps, if men were given an equal opportunity to bond with their children from birth it would help negate this idea that only "mommies" are responsible for childrearing. We might be able to negate the bias that "moms take more time off" if more dads stepped up to the plate instead of expecting women to take one for the team and always be the one to put her career second. I also think that women need to be assertive. They need to tell their partners that raising a child is a partnership and lay out expectations before their bundle of joy arrives and they should sell parenting as a skill set instead of a detriment. As a COO of a family of six I have supervision and delegation down to a science. Communication skills? Well you haven't had those tested until you've had to decipher what a non speaking toddler wants(and what it needs) or gotten the silent treatment from a sullen teen. Motivation skills? In a workspace, expectations are clear. You've got rules and guidelines and they're written down and kept at HR. Running a household with children is far more challenging since the little buggers don't come with ANY SORT OF MANUAL whatsoever. What worked for one kid may not work for another. You've got to figure out what motivates them as you go along. There are dozens of motherhood traits that could translate into a workplace positive but many women seem to just act apologetic about being a mom.

As a mom, I've grown right alongside my kiddos. I've found that I'm far more patient and capable then I ever expected myself to be(even though it doesn't always feel that way.) It's a darn shame that businesses can't see the pros of that kind of experience.

May 12 2014 at 5:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cpruitt221

Having children for most women is more rewarding than any job or career. Being a mother enhances your life in ways that you never know if you do not have children. I believe a woman reaches her full purpose and potential when she is a mother and for those who cannot have children it is important to find another way to nurture adopted children or other children in the family. Humans like to believe they are far removed from the rest of the animal species, but when you look at most animals you see the female at her best with her children.

May 12 2014 at 3:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mac2jr

$114,000 per year is one estimate of what a Stay - at - home mom should be receiving. Less of course the man's contribution to the family of a house over her head, food in her belly, a vehicle to drive, clothing for her and her children, her entertainment, her makeup, her medical insurance, her medical cost, her hairdo, her pedicure, her schooling, her many shoes and pocketbooks, her... her... her, whoops she owes him .... and there she goes, suing him in divorce court for millions in lifelong support for her and her children...

May 12 2014 at 1:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mac2jr's comment
dazed1821

Uh, it's apparent that it's the spouse in your household that does the budgeting and hopefully if you have any progeny the her in "her" kids(isn't it nice how you made the clothing the kids wear something SHE is responsible for) have "her" brains instead of yours.

For $114,000 a year I could have a nice house, nice car, pay for medical, dental, and all those other things and owe absolutely nothing to anyone. How do I know this? The median wage in this country is around $50,000 rocket scientist. At twice the median most people would be more than comfortable.

Oh and generally speaking it takes a MALE and a FEMALE to create a child. Therefore, they aren't "her kids" they're "their kids"(which is why men end up paying CHILD SUPPORT when men and women divorce. Divorce doesn't absolve you of parental responsibility.)

May 12 2014 at 5:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
supermolar

motherhood is for people on welfare-working women do NOT have the time to raise children properly. Which is why we are finished as a society.

May 11 2014 at 10:18 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Winnie

Raising children to be responsible adults by staying home and taking care of them is gaining more by not having to get them out of trouble when they are older.

May 11 2014 at 6:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
JC

So what's the problem? Each and every person decides how to order their lives and what is important to them. I wonder how many mothers, when on their deathbeds, lament that they had kids instead of working more?

May 11 2014 at 6:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Larry

The "pay inequality" for women doesn't factor in such variables as absence from the marketplace. As a man, if I had taken time off for my family as most women have been expected to do, I know it would have affected my advancement and overall pay.

May 11 2014 at 5:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Larry's comment
dazed1821

Did you actually READ the study Larry?

I'm guessing NO since the actual commentary on the study says, " For example, Budig and England (2001) examine differences in work patterns between mothers and nonmothers and find that interruptions from work, working part‐time, and decreased seniority/experience collectively explain no more than about one‐third of the motherhood penalty."

Additionally, you are missing the larger point. Why is there an expectation that women need to be the ones who take the time off for their family? Why isn't childrearing split down the middle? If a kid has a cold then why does "mommy" have to be the one who takes time off instead of "daddy" (could some of that be because daddy makes more money so the paradigm continues ad nauseaum?) The reality is until we start discussing problems such as the value we place on parenting, not just for females but for BOTH parents, we won't make any headway in parity.

You might want to read the study instead of just commenting on it. It's fairly interesting to read how they determined bias.

May 12 2014 at 5:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ATM

The cost of being a journalist who chooses artificial rewards like a temporary pay increase and "notoriety" for writing a controversial article is losing the wisdom and ability to discern what life is all about.

May 11 2014 at 5:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ATM

What a sad piece of non- journalistic puke to try to put a monetary value on the gift of motherhood and fatherhood. Parenthood is a gift and chasing money is an addiction with no value or purpose. It is a shame that the this author and the publisher have nothing better to write about and have yet to figure out what is really important in life and so articles like this get published.

I am grateful for my wife, our family, motherhood, and fatherhood - there isn't a price worth giving that up, and I would hate to think of life in terms of "value" associated with a fiat currency of liars, criminals, and greedy bastards

May 11 2014 at 5:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply