Four days a week, I’m the publisher at a digital media company. It’s a job I love in an industry that’s fascinated me as long as I can remember. Fridays are different; instead of heading to the office, I spend the day with my 18-month old son. I take him to a music class near our home. We stroll through the park, nap together, trek across the city for playdates, have adventures. All week, I look forward to this time together, the priceless moments and the simple joys of watching my son grow.
Underneath, though, it’s more complicated.
When my son was 3 months old, I made the decision to take a 20% pay cut in exchange for working a four-day week. In doing so, I opted in to what experts call the Motherhood Penalty — the price women pay at work for having children. No working mother needs research to back up the reality of her experience, but in case anyone doubts that the Motherhood Penalty exists, there are plenty of studies out there.
Mothers are paid less than male colleagues with the same qualifications, and they’re also less likely to be hired in the first place, according to the New York Times. And the penalty isn’t just measured in hard metrics like pay and hiring rates. A woman with a child is less likely to be perceived as competent at work than a male colleague with the same qualifications. In fact, men with kids are actually rewarded at work. Like so many issues working mothers face — including if and when to tell your employer or prospective employer you’re pregnant — the Motherhood Penalty places women in a gray area.
I wrestled for weeks with raising the question at work, even as my husband, who works full-time in a related field, offered his total support for my decision. My own thoughts took the form of a near-constant internal debate, as I weighed the costs and benefits of spending more time with my son and less time at work. When I proposed the change, my employer completely understood and was more than happy to accommodate me with the flexibility to scale back a day.
You’d think this result would have put me at ease, but in fact it only made me view the decision with disbelief. Had I really come this far in my career only to voluntarily dial it all back? Was I signaling to myself and others that I’d reached the plateau of my ambitions? Who on earth chooses to take a pay cut?
Earlier in my career, there were years of struggling to make ends meet, years when I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pay the rent and couldn’t see any future for myself beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. Now that I’d finally found my place, why would I give up the momentum?
Of course, this mix of doubt, guilt, and self-criticism isn’t unfamiliar to working mothers. It comes with the territory. As Claire Caine Miller wrote in the New York Times, “One of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children.” I’m one of the lucky ones, aware that electing to take a pay cut in order to spend more time with my child is a privilege. Many moms don’t have a choice when it comes to how much, or how little, they can work. They’d love to be able to arrange their lives differently, but flexible workplaces and precious time spent with their kids are privileges that are simply out of reach.
For mothers who work the night shift and other nonstandard schedules, the challenge is compounded. Some working moms whose employers don’t provide paid maternity leave are even turning to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe to help make up for lost income, according to the Washington Post. It’s no wonder, when 57% of Americans don’t have enough money saved to cover a $500 unexpected expense.
When you consider the tenor of the conversation around women and work, you see that the challenge isn’t just policy, it’s perception. Even when policies are in place that benefit working mothers, there’s still a stigma, rooted in the suspicion that working mothers are somehow gaming the system.
Take Wyoming state representative Gerald Gay, who last year said, “Women are always going to take their full maternity leave, and there’s the dependability issue about whether they’re going to show up for things.” For women and men alike, leave policies can be a minefield, since you can never be sure if you’ll be penalized or stigmatized for taking advantage of them. I’m sorry to admit there was a time early in my career when I felt resentment toward women who left work at a decent hour to get home to their kids while I stayed late.
Now, of course, I know better.
Work doesn’t stop for mothers who rush from the office to get their kids from daycare. Most moms either have to figure out how to get more work done in less time or log back in after their kids are asleep (or both). In either case, it’s hardly a win-win situation. Some companies have made efforts to help working mothers, but even good intentions can be fraught.
When Amazon, mindful that a 40-hour workweek may not be a “one-size-fits-all” model, launched a program to experiment with a 30-hour workweek for some employees, Leslie Jane Seymour noted that if only women sign up for it, that’s a problem. “Will this simply become the new mommy track — or ‘slacker track’ — for people seen as ‘less than capable?” she asked.
I remember during the 2012 presidential election, the “Mommy Wars” erupted when an Obama surrogate criticized Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, saying she’d “never worked a day in her life.” Even then, years before I was to become a mother, I remember following the firestorm of commentary that followed about how staying home to raise children is hard work. It struck me then that viewing the issue through the Mommy Wars lens seemed to miss the larger point. It is not about whether going to work is harder than staying home and raising a child. They are both hard. They are both respectable.
The real issue is the lack of options out there for working moms. There are women out there who’d love the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom, but simply can’t afford it. Conversely, there are moms who’d love to find purpose in their career but can’t due to inaccessible child care.
Here we are, an election cycle later and we haven’t come much further. The Trump administration has proposed a parental leave and child care plan strongly influenced by the first daughter, Ivanka Trump, who noted during her speech at the RNC that “gender is no longer the factor creating the greatest wage discrepancy, motherhood is.” Many defend the plan saying it is better than nothing. But its proposed six weeks of parental leave would still leave the US behind 96% of all nations.
Working mothers face a cultural challenge as well. For whatever reason, we tend to treat working women as a monolithic bloc, believing that we all must want the same thing. Call it the Lean In effect: the assumption any woman who is serious about her career must want more money, more promotions, and generally more career success.
But the truth is, some women want these things, and some women don’t. In the New York Times, Catherine Rampell profiled a working mom who wanted a rewarding career — but more important, a flexible one. According to a survey from the Families and Work Institute, only 37% of working women say they actually want a job with more responsibilities. And preferences might change over time, owing to a range of factors, from the age of our children to the particular circumstances of a job. I’m now a year into my new arrangement, and I’m extremely grateful for the time I’m able to spend with my son — knowing how hard this type of quality time is for working moms to come by.
While I may be hurting my earning power in the long-term by overtly signaling I’m willing to work less and stay home more, I don’t see it as a disadvantage. I know there will be perceptions that I’m less driven or less serious about my career, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In this moment, I see it as a gift that I’ve been given the flexibility (albeit at a cost) to both stay in the game and devote some precious time to bonding with my son.