Christina's Reviews > The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued

The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden
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Aug 06, 2009

really liked it
Read in August, 2009

This is a very dense, fascinating book. The book approaches the subject of motherhood from an economic standpoint and in nearly every evaluation, the mother who chooses to care for her child, whether as an at-home mom or as a working mom who forgoes overtime and higher pressure job tracks, pays a hefty price. Crittenden makes some very compelling arguments, but many of her "solutions" are going to cause as many problems as they start. She constantly points to Sweden, France, and several other more socialized countries as the model for how the U.S. should behave in regards to mothering.

Overall, the book was interesting and well-written. Ann, like many modern feminists, has rejected the feminism of yesteryear, where the way women were to become equal was to become more like men. She outlines clearly that while childless females are virtually on par with men in the workplace, women with children are almost always making less. Women make sacrifices for children and feminism needs to acknowledge the importance of rearing children.

My three main criticisms of the books is first, that her world-view is too narrow. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. Nearly all of the problems she describes are modern issues, many caused by feminism's social experiments and the breakdown of the family. Yet every solution she suggests involve more government, more social experiments, more money being spent on this or that program. My second criticism is that she is quick to jump to conclusions and then state her conclusions as fact. My third criticism is that she seems to want it both ways -- she wants mothers who choose to stay home to be valued, and yet almost every program and solution she touts would bring more mothers into the workforce. She says that Sweden is wonderful because they value motherhood, and yet, she also states that they have the highest female workforce participation. So, while stating that an at-home mom is an important job, she seems to suggest that the best way to support at-home moms is to make sure that there are subsidized day cares, long paid maternity leaves, and shorter workdays mandated -- in short, to get those at-home moms back in the workforce as soon as possible.

Here are her main arguments (and my evaluation of them):

1. Rearing children is an important social function that ought to be respected and valued. Rearing a child contributes to a country's economic prosperity to a great degree -- in fact, economists estimate that 2/3rds of a country's economy is due to human capital. (I agree wholeheartedly)

2. Women who choose to stay at home with children are not very well-respected by society at large.

3. Corporate America substantially rewards those who are unencumbered and able to work like a dog for promotions. (Yep; men who want more family-friendly options are at a disadvantage too. But changing leave policies or workweek hours is not likely to change the cultural, break-neck pace of many companies.)

4. In high-pressure, educated fields such as accounting, law, and science, women who have children are always making less and achieving less than men and childless women.

5. Stay-at-home mothers do substantial work, and yet their work is not considered "work" because it's not paid. Because economists only measure work that is paid, the huge amount of capital produced by mothers rearing children is not included in any measures. Mothers who don't work for pay receive zero Social Security credits. Women at home with children are considered "dependents" who are not contributing, when in actuality their work is very valuable economically and socially. (This is an argument that I agree with completely. As a mother at home with seven children, I work and I contribute a lot; and yet, in most measures, I am considered even worse than "unemployed." I am a dependent.)

6. There ought to be a better measure of services and "nonmarket" activity such as the work of a SAHM included in a nation's measures of wealth. In fact, some studies have found the value of these nonmarket sources of production to be very high -- 55 percent of GDP in Germany, 40 percent in Canada, 46 percent in Finland. New measures of GDP are needed. (Since I'm not an economist, I'm not sure how much a new measure would change the status quo, but it seems logical that leaving out huge sources of production and work is a problem).

7. There is a "Mommy Tax" on all mothers, and it hits those who choose to stay at home with their children the hardest. Even those who stay at home for just a few years are penalized in the marketplace, and those who do go back to work often cut back on hours and choose less-demanding positions in order to preserve time for their children. This affects their lifelong earnings potentials. (Very true, though I don't think there are solutions that make sense. This "mommy tax," in my mind, is the failure of feminism to account for the biological, emotional and internal desires mothers have to be mothers, not wage-earners. It is not possible for women to have it all, and the statistics just make that point. The only way for women to compete with men the way the feminists of the 60s and 70s encouraged is not to have children. Children require sacrifices, which Crittenden, who stayed home with her first child and paid her own "mommy tax" in her high-profile career as a journalist, well knows. Who makes the sacrifice and whether there is some way socially to compensate those who make it is a very interesting debate.)

8. In chapter 6, "The Dark Little Secret of Family Life," Crittenden makes many unsupported claims about how bad it is for women and children to be dependent on men. One-quarter of wives are "completely depended on their husbands." She claims that because of this, women are not true equal partners and that, "we all know from experience that the subtle balance of power in a marriage is tilted in favor of the spouse who contributes the money. In the privacy of the bedroom, who has not heard or uttered the dread cry, "I make the money in this house!" (Of all the arguments in the book, this is the one that makes me the maddest, because instead of actual research, Crittenden just makes blanket statements about "what we all know" to be true. Fact is, I've never heard such a statement and the truth is that dependency on each other makes for strong marriages. Just as my children and I depend on my husband to provide the finances for the family, he depends on me to nurture our children and provide the many services I give for the family. Crittenden would have society give women who stay at home independence from a wage-earner, which makes me wonder, what is left in her world for a man to do? She's already established that women do the bulk of the nurturing, whether they are at home or not, and yet, she says it is not good for a man to provide for his family because it makes his wife "dependent" on him. Later, as she writes about solutions, basically, all of her solutions have to do with diminishing the role of the father as provider and replacing him with government programs. Ironically, I read yesterday that studies have shown (didn't cite a source, though, so I'd need to look it up) that women manage the finances in 80% of marriages, which is hardly the picture of the poor, meek little dependent spouse that Crittenden would have us believe in)

9. Women who have access to money are more likely to spend that money on the children's well-being than fathers. (This is outlined by studies done in developing countries where payments to fathers often go to booze or drugs and payments to mothers go to children's educations. No argument here, except that you cannot extrapolate those studies to mean that in all countries, children are better off if their mothers have access to aid money, as Crittenden does.)

10. Women need more leverage in marriage because of point #9, and therefore, an independent income. "This is why reducing the mommy tax, by making it easier for married as well as single mothers to maintain their own income, is so important." (So, though Crittenden gives lip service to the valuable work of an at-home mom, the ultimate goal for her is to make it so women can compete better in the workplace and make more money without being penalized for having children. The last three points are made upon very tenuous grounds, with lots of assumptions about power struggles in marriage and about the evils of fathers providing. She's simply trying to take the same feminist arguments that drove the "be like a man" mentality and extend it to be "be like a man except when you're a mother, then let government make up the difference to you." Honestly, is it THAT hard to see that a traditional marriage where a man is a strong provider and a woman is a valued mother is best for children, rather than the many social experiments of the last fifty years? If there are problems with some marriages, and there are, then that is something to be addressed, but not by throwing out the whole institution and tradition of centuries and substituting laws that force a workplace to accommodate motherhood or institutions that pay care-givers separately from the family. In my opinion, devaluing the role of provider that fathers have performed for ages is just as big a disservice to children as devaluing the role of the nurturing mother.)

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time left to go into the other major points of her book, but here they are briefly:

11. Social Security devalues mothering in two ways. First, a SAHM earns zero credits for her work at home, and then when she retires, she is allowed to have half of what her husband earned during those years. So essentially, the SS system says that a mother is worth half of what a breadwinner is. (I agree with this, but I also think Social Security is on it's way to bankrupting our country and that the full cost of this entitlement will be paid on the backs of our children, so fixing Social Security to value SAHMs is probably not the first priority in that broken system.)

12. Second, Social Security provides a safety net for widows and orphans who receive payments when the primary breadwinner dies. She points out that there is virtually no difference between a single, divorced mother and a widowed mother, and yet the government provides for one and not the other. (Actually there are two huge differences between the two. The first is that the children in the first instances still have a living father who is supposed to provide for them and by law is required to via his child support payments. The second is that a widow presumably had no choice about her husband's death, while many divorced women did have some choice in the matter of their divorce. Not all, but some contribute to the divorce by their own behavior or even seek it despite their husband's wanting to remain married.)

12. Despite child support payments and in some cases, alimony, divorce leaves many mothers and children in poverty. (Through many examples, she makes it clear how bad divorce is for women and children and how getting men to pay their child support obligations can be difficult. After talking to an attorney friend who works in this area, it seems that many of the formulas and enforcement is actually more fair than Crittenden would lead one to believe. However, there is just no getting around the fact that a woman who has chosen to be at home raising children is much worse off in the event of a divorce than her former spouse. Now, she is expected, by law, to both work and to do the bulk of the nurturing of children. In one area, not mentioned by Crittenden, the value of a SAH mom is even further denigrated. In addition to child support, men are expected to pay their share (based on income, custody arrangements, etc) of any day care expenses. But if a mother somehow wants to stay home to provide her own care to that same child, she gets no additional money, so she loses both her own income and the money she would get to pay for day care. So, in this way, a "quality day care" is worth more than a mother. The travesty here is that I believe some distinction should be made in the system for the age of a child and that mothers should be able to receive at least a little additional for the years when her child is the most vulnerable and would do the best in her care, not in some day care center while she works minimum wage. Once a child is school-age, the support obligations on the part of the father can go down to previous levels.)

13. Furthermore, Crittenden takes divorce as a matter of course and something that cannot be helped, reversed or lessened at all. Since divorce is likely to happen in 50% of cases, she suggests all sorts of ways to help mothers become more independent of men. (Again, just because divorce in the last 50 to 60 years has become common doesn't mean that more social engineering is needed. Why not work on the divorce issues and strengthen families rather than simply accept the status quo and re-engineer social benefits so that women can walk away from marriages as easily as men? I do realize that there are some inequities in law that ought to be fixed, but moving to the Swedish system (universal government-sponsored day care, one year maternity leave paid for by government, etc.), which Crittenden constantly suggests as a better way, is likely to increase our divorce rate and the number of children being raised in single-parent homes, just like in that country. The fact that children do better with two parents is just as important as all the facts outlined about the difficulties of single parenting, the problems of poverty, child support enforcement, alimony, etc., and yet solutions like making divorce harder to obtain for couples with children or government subsidies for marriage counseling are never addressed. It's just not politically correct to suggest a couple to fix their marriage for the sake of their children, even though such a solution is going to do a lot more for children than any of the fixes Crittenden suggests.

14. The welfare mother problem is addressed. Welfare moms are usually on welfare because former spouses are not paying child support. With welfare reform, mothers are forced into the workplace and children into low-quality substitute care.

15. Child care, child care, child care. It's quality needs to go up. It needs to be subsidized by the government, it needs to be demanded by women's groups. Crittenden writes about the dismal pay, enormous turn-over, and frustrating working environment in most day care centers. (Yep -- "quality day care" of the touted studies (you know, the ones that show that children in "quality" care do as well as those with mother's at home) is actually elusive, and where it exists, expensive and with long waiting lists, giving some mothers no choice but to stay home with their own children. I'm conflicted on this issue. Once again, it seems that feminists are demanding that government provide a suitable subsitute for the work of a stay-at-home mom, so that women can be free to "have it all" and be saved from the tough choices that come with bringing a child into the world. When the substitute isn't adequate, they demand we throw more money at it until it is. Is it government's role to provide birth to age 5 care for children? Or to subsidize it? And who is hurt the most when all wage earners are taxed to pay for the day care expenses of the mothers who choose to work -- most likely the SAHM, whose husband's income will take a further hit and who will have to stretch the dollars even farther.)

16. Legal nannies are hard to find and even harder to retain. Immigration policy limits the number of "unskilled" workers allowed in a country and even if a nanny has years of education, she is still considered unskilled. A change in immigration policies would help a lot of upper-middle-class women find better care for their children. (I think our current immigration policy is a travesty and this rule is one that should be changed.)

17. "It was her choice." A long chapter delineates why this statement isn't fair to women, in Crittenden's opinion. A mother who chooses to stay at home pays the mommy tax, deals with the uncertainty of single parenting if it happens and loses respect in society. But she does it because she loves her children and wants what is best for them, and that is her choice. Crittenden says it is only her choice because there are no other alternatives. If the government would just step it up and provide quality day care or allow more nannies in or mandate 6 hour days for working moms, then there would be a real choice. (Yes, a real choice that will cost society an enormous amount of money through expanded socialism and entitlements and still won't be as good as the traditional family.)

18. After spending the great majority of the book writing about all the unfairness in society, a very short chapter at the end (18 pages of a book length of 275) outlines some suggested solutions.

They are:
Employers should redesign work around parental norms. Give every parent a year's paid leave. (Not to worry, the cost won't have to be borne by the employer alone, the government can step in and pay for it.)
* Shorten the workweek. In Sweden (yes, that wonderful utopia), parents by law can work just 6 hour days until a child is 8 years old
* Provide benefits for part-time work. (Actually of all the suggestions, this is one that makes some sense -- why don't employers allow more part-timers? I don't think government mandates are the way to accomplish this, but if a mother could work part-time and still be considered a valuable employee and not a temp, wouldn't that serve both businesses and society?)
*Eliminate discrimination against parents.

Government should
*Equalize social security for spouses. Stop penalizing full-time caregivers. (agree, but as I said before, this isn't the worst problem with the SS system)
* Offer work-related social insurance to all workers (Agree here, too. A mother needing to enter the workforce should be able to access the same job-training help as any other worker.)
* Provide universal preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds. (No. I don't disagree with part-time preschool programs for disadvantaged kids, but school already begins early enough with 5 year olds attending kindergarten.)
* Stop taxing mothers more than anyone else. "The government could actually raise more revenue, without lowering families' income by a penny, by taxing married men more and married women less." (And who does that penalize the most? Those families who DO try and live on that married man's income. Once again, this solution only destroys the provider role traditionally given by fathers)
*A Child Allowance Should be Given for Children. This is better than the current tax credits because it goes to all parents, not just those rich enough to owe taxes. (I'm on the fence on this one. Our tax code already makes significant allowances for those who raise children, and rightly so. Families who are raising tomorrow's taxpayers ought to be given credit for the work they do. However, I also believe in self-reliance and this idea smacks of a dole, with all its attendant problems)
* Provide free health coverage for all children and their primary caregivers. (All this sounds great until you consider just how expensive something like that would be! Already, there are health benefits to lower-income mothers and children in the form of Medicaid. Why expand that to include everyone? Just to make us more socialist?)
* Add unpaid labor to the GDP. (Sure, sounds fine)

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany Wacaser Now I absolutely have to read this book. After living in the utopian society of Sweden for 5 1/2 years, I rather disagree with the conclusions the author has made about the way Sweden values motherhood. They value it so much that mothers are only expected to mother for 1 year. After that, the child is fully expected to integrate into the system where the government takes full responsibility for raising the child, teaching ethics and values, and indoctrinating the child into Swedish society. So it seems rather odd to me that she claims Sweden is a mother-friendly society. The primary aims are not to provide for mothers, but rather to get moms out of homes and put them BACK in the workforce.

I just can't wait to read it. Thanks for alerting me to such an interesting book.

message 2: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany Wacaser Tiffany wrote: "Now I absolutely have to read this book. After living in the utopian society of Sweden for 5 1/2 years, I rather disagree with the conclusions the author has made about the way Sweden values mother..."

Oh, and its funny (but perhaps deliberate) that you chose the word "utopian" to describe Swedish society. The word utopia means "nowhere" which really describes the fairy tale/fantasy land that the author asserts exists. I'm starting to wonder if she spent any measurable time in the country.

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