Video: Weighing in on 'women's work'

By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/18/2009 6:54:43 PM ET 2009-10-18T22:54:43

One of the biggest hurdles for working couples trying to balance work and family is finding good and affordable day care. But for some reason, many mothers think arranging and paying for child care is mainly their concern.

Take, Karen M., a stay-at-home mom from Pennsylvania who is considering returning to work. Her husband is a sales manager for an environmental company who saw his pay slashed by 30 percent due to the down economy.

“I want to help our income, but my boys aren't in school yet. Day care would eat up any money I make outside the home,” said Karen, who has 3 1/2-year-old twin boys. She did not want her full name used because she did not want to jeopardize her husband's job.

Although women now constitute virtually half of the work force, many still see child-care expenses as coming out of their paycheck — not the household's overall budget.

The number of women in the labor force with children under 18 has jumped to 71 percent in 2007, from less than 50 percent two decades ago, according to the Families and Work Institute’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce. Also, women are contributing more to the household budget. In 2008, women’s earnings among dual-income couples made up an average of 44 percent of the annual family income, according to the study.

And dads need more help than ever these days from their spouse. Men have been hit hard by this recession, with a jobless rate of 10.3 percent in September, compared to 7.8 percent for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But still, women who work full time continue to make less than men. Data released by the BLS on Friday, shows women working full time make $657 a week, compared to $812 for men.

There seems to be more equity when it comes to who’s bringing home the bacon, but for some reason, child-care expenses are seen as coming out of a mom’s ka-ching.

This perception often creates undo burdens on working moms and can even keep some women out of the work force, at a time when many feel compelled to return because of the recession, experts say.

A mother's work?
“Our belief as a society is that mothers are responsible for the care of children, not the couple,” said Nora Bredes, director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership. “We give lip service on how it’s a family priority, but it really is all on her.”

Laura Pagles, who works as a marketing coordinator for FatWallet.com and recently returned to work after being out on maternity leave, had always seen handling day care as her task. “Child care, either the act or the expense when I'm not performing the act, feels innately like my responsibility,” she explained.

And Michelle Poteet, a professional organizer from San Antonio, Texas, saw it that way when she put her kid in child care in 2004. “I think ultimately I felt that if someone were to stay home it was going to be me. So since I was working, I automatically associated the cost of it with my income.”

But Poteet changed her perception after taking financial classes with her husband. “Instead of feeling as if I was the one paying for the child care, I realized it was a combined effort. It was coming out of our collective budget, not out of my paycheck,” she said.

For some women, it’s a “cost-benefit analysis,” said Nicole Else-Quest, an assistant professor in Villanova University's department of psychology. “There’s still a stigma of having kids in day care, so at the end of the day, you wonder if it was worth it.”

Clearly, day care is a big expense for working parents. Depending on where you live, the price of full-time day care at a facility for an infant last year ranged from $4,560 to $15,895 annually; $4,056 to $11,680 for a 4-year-old; and $2,160 to $10,720 for school-age kids who needed part-time care, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.

Challenging norms
Even the government seems to think the child-care burden is that of mothers. When gathering Census data on child-care arrangements, demographers focus on the moms.

“We find that interviewing the mother on child-care arrangements, the data is more reliable because she’s the one most likely to know about the arrangements,” said Linda Laughlin, a family demographer for the bureau. “They’re probably the ones that arranged the care. Typically fathers defer to the mother to answer these questions.

“In the last 30 years, we have see more involvement from the fathers, but because of cultural norms, it still falls on moms,” she added.

Such norms, however, need to be challenged if women are going to get a level playing field when it comes to their careers, said Alice Adams, vice president of workplace diversity education company Common Ground Consulting and Director of Women's and Gender Studies at University of Maine Farmington.

Society is “not very good yet at balancing family responsibilities between men and women,” she said. “That hurts businesses as well as mothers’ careers and wallets.”

And it’s not just hurting women.

“For one thing, ‘kids need both their parents’ has become a kind of mantra, and yet we go on acting as if one of those parents, the father, is incompetent to deal with major parental responsibilities like child care,” Adams said. “That increases women’s burden unfairly, but it’s no good for fathers either because it makes them seem inessential.”

Long-term view
Of course, there are other reasons mothers choose to work, such as a sense of accomplishment. But many who opt not to work because of child-care costs may end up regretting it, according Leslie Bennetts, author of “The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up To Much?”

“Women often assume there’s no point in working because child care would eat up their entire paycheck, but that’s such a short-sighted way of looking at it,” she said. “A career is an investment you make in yourself, and it pays increasing dividends as time goes on, whereas child care is very costly when your children are young, but becomes progressively less expensive as they get older.”

Within a few years, “you’re paying much less and eventually don’t need child care at all, but your income keeps on rising. It's so important for women to take a long-term view of this issue.”

Women also need to consider the long-term impact on future Social Security payments, their 401k and the potential loss of earning power for being out of the workplace for prolonged periods, said Amanda Steinberg, founder of personal finance newsletter for women DailyWorth.com.

Research has shown that “families are far more secure and less vulnerable to financial hardship when both partners share the breadwinning, so couples should regard child care as a short-term expense that's a necessary investment in the family's future,” Bennetts added.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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