When I push back against the stay-at-home mom fantasy — the myth that children fare better when mothers do not work, and that this lifestyle benefits anyone at all — I am often met with: “What do you care? We should respect all women’s choices in the spirit of sisterhood!”
When women chose to stay home full-time, abandon career and earning, in the name of better mothering, or commitment to family, we all lose, most especially women.
Your choices affect me, and my choices affect you.
None of us live on an island. This is community and society and we are all intertwined. Choices matter, and when you make choices that hurt gender equality, I am hurt by that. All women, children and men are hurt by that. I am responsible to you, and vice versa.
I get the challenges. I appreciate very much that childcare is prohibitively expensive. I recoil at the fact that the United States has some of the worst maternal leave, child care, and health care policies when it comes to working parents. I work very hard in both my personal and professional lives to change that. I also understand very much the incredible social pressure to stay at home full time with children. This pressure is rooted in the misconception (some of the numerous relevant studies cited below) that this is what is best for children. I meet many women who make the decision to fully abandon their earning power and become dependent on husbands with genuine belief that this is what is good for their families. Many others leave the workforce because child care costs make employment unaffordable.
The United States needs vast policy change.
But votes and calls to legislators are not enough.
Each of us is called to make choices for our lives and families that aim for the greater good — including equality for all people. The more educated you are, the more money, access, privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to others to live a life that pushes the envelope for positive change in the world.
That includes working for money.
13 ways that failing to work and earn holds back all women.
1. You perpetuate stereotypical gender roles, as that is what you model to your children, spouse, friends and neighbors.
If you, woman, are home, your children equate housekeeping, child care and other unpaid ‘women’s work’ with women. They see their father, a man, earn in the world. That informs their ideas about gender and what is expected of women and men. That is why Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn found, in her study of 34,000 people across 24 countries, that girls raised by mothers who worked outside the home for pay, achieved more academically and grew up to be women who achieved more professionally and financially than their peers who had stay-at-home moms. Boys raised by working moms were more caring for children and older people living in the home than their SAHM peers, and grew up to be men who were the same — all while achieving as much academically and professionally as those raised by SAHMs. In short: kids grow up to be what they see.
2. You inform your working husband about what women and family need.
Men — especially the white variety — still very much control corporate and government policy, and are far more likely to advocate for policy that supports working parents if they themselves share in family responsibility because their wives work, too. Researchers at Harvard, NYU and University of Utah found:
“Employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”
3. The world misses out on your unique talents.
Recent headlines such as “Closing the gender gap could grow the economy by $2.1 trillion” (CNN) scream that the best way to grow the economy is to better engage women in the professional world. You consumed educational resources that were designed for the benefit of all of society. You worked hard to earn positions, raises or build a business. When you drop out for any significant period, all those collective skills and network are paused — or tossed out. That is a brain drain that we, as a society and world, cannot afford to lose.
4. Your choices discourage the hiring and promotion of other women.
Your departure from the workforce discourages managers and companies from hiring, training and promoting women since it sets the precedence that women of a certain age will just drop out indefinitely to have babies. Read: “Motherhood Penalty Affects Women Who Never Have a Child”(NBC).
5. You abandon the women who stay in the trenches fighting for equality.
My friend Maria, a divorced mom, has fought her way into an executive position at the male-dominated accounting industry where she’s worked for 22 years. She told me: “Every time a woman in my company drops out to stay home and ‘be a mom,’ I want to scream. I think, ‘I and every other woman in this big company need you to be here in these meetings and fight for them.’ I feel let down and, frankly, abandoned. They left me here to fight alone.”
6. You shame other moms.
Culturally, Americans believe children need stay-at-home moms. Pew found that 60 percent of Americans believe it is best for kids when a parent is home full-time, and a full 40 percent of Americans say that children are harmed (!) when mothers work outside the home. A full 70 percent of U.S. mothers work, and the majority of those who do not would like to work, but do not because child care is so prohibitive, studies find. The majority of moms who work do so because they need to eat, and their children need to eat — not because it is a lifestyle choice. In other words,
When women say, “I don’t want to go back to work because I love my children,” that means, “I love my children more than you do. I am a better mom.” We all love our children. Here a very important fact you need to hear right now:
The University of Maryland’s very important meta-study, “How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?” found that for children ages 2 to 11, it makes no difference the number of hours a mother spends with her when it comes to the child’s academic or psychological success.
7. You perpetuate the myth that motherhood is enough to fulfill us.
Instead, here are studies that show that mothers who work are happier and healthier, and less sad and angry, than their peers who work for pay. This is old news. Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique established this five decades ago. We are having the exact emotion vs fact debate today. Let’s move this conversation forward.
8. You are more prone to poverty.
Whether you stay married for the rest of your life, divorce, or your spouse passes away before you do (statistically likely), you are more likely to be poor. A financial plan in which an entire family is dependent on one income is simply bad planning. After all, you know you should buy life insurance in the unlikely event that you or your partner dies. The chances of that happening are far, far lower than divorce, disability, illness or unemployment — all situations in which a second career could mean the difference between staying in your home or living out of your car. The fewer women living in poverty means good things for all women — and members of the world.
9. You are less likely to be involved in your family finances.
Knowing everything about your household finances is critical in the event that you divorce, or otherwise are forced to manage the money in the absence of your spouse (he becomes disabled, unemployed, dies, is incarcerated or any other horrible things that happen every single day). One study found that women’s involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income. In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them.
The more involved a woman is with managing money, the more security she and her whole family have. this contributes to making wiser, empowered decisions, and being safe in every sense of the word.
10. You are more likely to suffer abuse.
A full THIRD of U.S. women will be domestic violence victims at the hands of an intimate partner, and in 99 percent of those cases, financial abuse is part of the equation. You are in physical, emotional and sexual danger when you do not have your own money.
11. When you divorce, you are screwed.
You have the same ~50 percent chance as the rest of us (though some studies suggest the divorce rate is higher in marriages when one spouse is financially dependent on the other) . Alimony reform is underway in every state, and while you may get short-term maintenance (think about that term: a man who you are no longer involved with is forced to maintain you), you are now expected to earn a living. Statistically women wind up poorer after divorce than men — typically because we have less earning power to start with. Take away any recent work experience, you are s-c-r-e-w-e-d. Read: Why you should never depend on alimony
The challenges for divorced women with no recent work history run deep. Want to keep your house in your name? Without two years work history, you can’t get a mortgage. You also likely can’t get a car loan or credit card with a decent interest rate. In short: the pay gap, wealth gap and women’s choices overall plummet without earning power.
12. When women stop working, you have far fewer choices, and when women don’t have choice, we all lose.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a woman’s earnings drop 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years. This calculator created by the Center for American Progress projects the potential impact to a woman’s lifetime earnings when she takes a break mid-career. A 26-year-old woman earning $50,000 per year stands to lose more than $800,000 in wages, raises and retirement benefits over her lifetime when she steps off the career path for just five years. You also can’t get a decent car loan or credit card or mortgage.
13. SAHMs’ post-divorce / separation life is tumultuous.
When you are in financial straits post-divorce/separation, you are understandably afraid, and acting in fear leads to bad decisions and poor behavior. Any family attorney or divorce court judge will tell you that terrified women and angry men then spend a lot of very contentious time and lots of money with lawyers and judges arguing over money. This conflict bleeds deeply into your co-parenting. It is impossible to share parenting time and decisions in a healthy way if you are duking it out in court. Your children suffer the most. These are the same children who were supposed to benefit from the countless hours you spent with them at home. Related: How to divorce like a feminist
As a citizen, I am affected because courts are jammed up with petty arguing over custody and alimony, while actual abuse and neglect cases are marginalized. As a society, we all suffer, because statistically, when men are marginalized in custody cases — and they are in 80 percent of cases that go to court, in favor of giving mothers primary custody, despite 55 reviewed studies that prove that equally shared time with kids is best for children, once again following in those gender-stereotype — they tend to drop out of kids’ lives all together. This is good for no one. Not you, not me, not the kids, dads or penal systems, which are full of kids who did not grow up with involved dads. Ladies, be part of the solution.
Related post on gender equality and divorce
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.