The State of the American Mom

  • "A college-educated woman with one child can easily pay a 'mommy tax' (lost lifetime earnings) of $1 million."


  • "Consider that in the Army a family that makes below $28,000 annually pays no more than $43 per week for childcare, or around $2,000 annually. And then compare that to the national average cost of childcare, which can rise to $10,000 per year or more."


  • "In terms of infant mortality rates, the U.S. tied for 38th in the world with Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates in 2003."


  • These are just some of the harsh realities Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner and Joan Blades researched and discuss in their book, "The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want -- And What to Do About It." I spoke with Kristin from her home in Kirkland, Washington. Here's Kristin ...

    What made you want to work on this book?
    [laughs] That's a big one. I wanted to work on this book because with the research and writing I've done over the past several years it's became clear that there are incredibly important issues for mothers and families in this country that aren't getting the attention they deserve, and that the general public isn't getting enough information about what's really going on with American mothers and families. So, I was really excited to work on the book and work on the movement to help share that information with people. Information like the fact that we are one of only four countries, out of 168 countries, that doesn't have some form of paid family leave for new moms. We join Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland as the four countries that don't have paid family leave for new moms.

    Information like the fact that there are 40,000 kindergarteners home alone every day after school because we don't offer enough quality, affordable after-school programs and many parents need to work during those hours. We have a modern economy that requires many families to have two parents in the labor force in order to meet basic needs like paying rent and buying food, but we don't have a country with policies that have caught up to the modern realities of parenthood. And so bringing these common, shared issues to the surface is really exciting.

    The opportunity to work and co-write this book with Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org and all around brilliant thinker, was high on my list as well.

    How did you go about getting all the great case studies that make up the book? The stories you and Joan capture in "The Motherhood Manifesto" are brutally amazing.
    All the stories are true, and gathering them took a lot of time. It's actually often harder to find people who have time to share what's going on in their lives than it is to find research. [laughs] We knew those stories were out there, and knew people were having issues with the topics covered in the case studies just from looking at trends and demographics. So, the case studies in the book actually represent a lot more women than the individual women discussed on the pages.

    And we had help from many organizations, the lovely internet, as well as friends asking friends if they knew anyone who wanted to share their story. Many people came forward and were delighted to share their stories because one of the things about this issue is that so many people are facing the same problem at the same time but often feel like they're experiencing it alone. And, in fact, we argue that when this many people are experiencing the same problems at the same time, it's a societal issue not a personal failing. So, when people came forward to share their stories I think many of them were empowered by sharing what's going on with them, and also by helping make our country a bit better at the same time.

    I have heard of the term, "the glass ceiling" before. And I've heard of the term "pink-collar jobs" used by many activists in the women's movement and by many of today's feminists. But I've never heard of "the maternal wall."
    I think Joan C. Williams actually coined the term. She's an amazing researcher, author of the award-winning book "Unbending Gender," attorney, and director of the WorkLife Law Center.

    Why do you think this term hasn't been used regularly by many feminists or women's rights activists?
    I think people are increasingly aware of the maternal wall, particularly when you look at the root of many problems women are facing economically. I wrote a book called "The F-word: Feminism in Jeopardy" a couple of years ago in which there is a chapter about motherhood that started me down this road. When you look at what's happening with women in America, you can see the root of the wage gap between men and women in our country really stems from this maternal wall: Women with children make about 73 cents to a man's dollar, single mothers make an average of 56 to 66 cents to a man's dollar, and women without children make about 90 cents to a man's dollar. So, the maternal wall is a big part of the overall women's wage gap -- women make between 76 and 77 cents to a man's dollar. Since 82 percent of women in America have children, the lower wages moms receive pulls down the average for all women.

    And some of the really interesting research that's happened recently looks at the root of why mothers get paid less. There was a study by Dr. Shelley Correll last year at Cornell University that found that with equal resumés, equal job experience and equal education, women with children were 44 percent less likely to be hired than women without children. And they were offered an $11,000 lower starting salary on average. And so we know that this is an actual bias up-front against mothers -- not because of something moms are doing wrong, but because with equal circumstances the bias is there. So, tracing wage inequality back to what's going on with women in America, we're seeing a lot of it has to do with motherhood. And getting to solutions from there is very important.

    The Motherhood Manifesto book covers a lot of common-sense solutions. We find that when family-friendly policies are in place in other countries, then the wage gap for mothers is not nearly as large as it is here. This is because, in part, the economic repercussions are spread and are carried more than just by the mom alone.

    Do you think women's rights groups are really advocating for mothers' rights? Or is it still a new thing?
    They are certainly advocating for mothers more vocally, which is terrific. I think more and more people are getting a deeper understanding of what's happening with families in America, and how motherhood is a part of a lot of women's rights issues. It's interrelated and woven together.

    In the past there was a lot of focus on equal opportunity legislation, in terms of jobs, and not as much focus on family-friendly legislation. And frankly, we are behind most other nations in all of our family-friendly legislation: healthcare, childcare, paid family leave, after-school care, all of these things. But I do think there is a sort of awakening that's going on now that is recognizing that "yeah, these things are directly tied to the negative economic impacts many women see after having children."

    For example, on one end of the life spectrum, a full quarter of families with children under six live in poverty. On the other end, we know that many more elderly women live in poverty than elderly men because they've incurred wage penalties over their entire lifetimes.

    Motherhood issues span all classes. The so-called "opt-out revolution" is incredibly frustrating to me because it's sort of a nonissue in the sense that just as many men would like to opt-out [laughs], and it covers such a small percentage of women who actually have a choice about whether or not to "opt out." The majority of women don't have an opt-out choice since their families need their pay. As an aside, at the same time the dubious opt-out report came out, there was another study that came out showing a huge percentage of men would opt-out to take care of kids if they could -- but that study didn't make the papers. Go figure.

    Right now 72 percent of all moms are in the labor force. They aren't opting out. Sure there's been an increase in the number of parents who stay home the first year of their child's life. But we don't have any federal paid family leave, and without that we have an incredible issue with high costs of infant childcare (between $4,000 and $10,000 per year), and a stagnant federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, which hardly covers the expense of childcare alone. These numbers don't add up for many families. In fact, one of the top causes of poverty spells in this country is having a baby. The census shows that for moms with children over age one, on average, there are actually slightly more mothers than nonmothers in the work force. So, those that are "opting out" aren't doing so forever.

    And we find that mothers take up to nearly a 40 percent wage hit for taking time out of the labor force. You see the impact of that wage hit over their entire job life. It's just not the first year back. It gets smaller over time, but it's still there. So "opting out" shouldn't be taken lightly.

    This isn't to say that all parents "should" work outside of the home or "should" stay home with children. This isn't to say parents "should" do anything. Each has to figure out what's best for them and their family. But it does address a common economic reality, penalty really, that comes with having children in our country. The truth of the matter is that families with a full-time parent are seven times more likely to live in poverty in our country than those with two working parents. We need public policies in place, like paid family leave and childcare assistance, to help curb this problem.

    What is the probability of households led by two moms becoming bankrupt, especially considering women overwhelmingly make less than men?
    Oh, it's huge. And you know one interesting thing on that note is that there was a study in the New York Times a couple of years ago that used census data and found that a parental couple comprised of two men are the most likely to have a stay-at-home parent. Second most likely: male and female. And the least likely is two women. You can just look at it right there and say: Economics. Men don't face a wage gap, and don't take a fatherhood penalty. In fact, on average, men's wages go up when they have children.

    It's important to remember that it usually costs more money in the long run to not provide early support to families through policies like paid family leave, childcare, after-school programs, healthcare and realistic wages. This is due to later social costs such as grade repetition, preventable illness, criminal justice interaction and welfare needs.

    When you look at the whole issue from a bird's eye view, it's like a puzzle. And when you look closer at the puzzle you say, "Whoa, I can't believe we're doing it this way and most other countries don't." That's the thing. Lots of other countries treat parenting differently because children are the economic engine of our future. Children are a resource. So, it's really sad.

    It's very sad. And you mentioned in the book how the U.S. military has a great childcare program. Do you think it's because the majority of people in the military are men so they are expected to earn more, and because they make only a certain amount they need subsidized childcare?
    I think it is the will to do something. As in "where there's a will, there's a way." Back in World War II when women were needed in the work force because there was a work force shortage, they, meaning the government and corporations, set up subsidized daycare facilities, some of which even provided take-home dinners. They came together really quickly to provide that resource to the family and to working mothers when the need was clear. And then they also disassembled it really quickly when men came back from the war and the work force shortage was over. So, when there is a clear need, we know we have the ability to step up to the plate.

    This is the point of the military example in the book. Military positions often aren't highly paid, so there's an obvious need for a sliding scale childcare subsidy based on income -- just as there's a need for many nonmilitary parents. We hope people take the solutions highlighted in the book and broadly implement them so more people can benefit. The need is clear now.

    Another thing is, when a parent stays at home, she or he loses retirement money. And with all this talk about doing away with social security, how can one stand a chance to create their own retirement? That's really important because when you stay home with children, that means you have zeroes in your social security calculations for those years -- which brings the overall average down. Author of "The Price of Motherhood," Ann Crittenden, poses the question: Who is contributing more to our future? Is the woman who has five children, each of whom are paying into social security and contributing to the next generation who are drawing on social security? Or is it the person who doesn't have any children and is just drawing on the social security money that those five children are putting in?

    Again, that's not to say that everyone should have children, or that everyone should stay home, or that everyone should go to work. It's just about looking at things from a different perspective and taking in facts. The Motherhood Manifesto and MomsRising.org, the organization Joan and I founded to work on these issues, are not about "should." It's more about here are the facts, here are the trends, here's what is going on now, and here are some ways we can work toward solutions that will help people. MomsRising.org now has over 50,000 members and is growing. We hope to build the MomsRising.org membership, which is free, and momentum quickly to bring these issues forward in a big way.

    Do you think socioeconomic differences between mothers will hold back the mothers' rights movement?
    I don't think so. And I hope not because MomsRising.org and "The Motherhood Manifesto" aren't about highlighting differences -- it's more about highlighting our shared issues and calling for common-sense solutions we all need. And this also goes for men and people without children. Many of the issues we talk about, in terms of flexible work options, paid family leave, and healthcare, don't stop at mothers. It benefits the entire society.

    What perceptions of mothers do you think might prevent nonmothers from joining a mothers' rights group?
    That's a really good question. From the feedback that we get online occasionally, I think one of the common misunderstandings that happens with those opposed to advocacy for family-friendly policies, which we talked about a little bit earlier, is that people don't understand that the work of parenting makes such a big economic difference in the long term. Investing in family-friendly policies and programs actually pays off later. For example, for every $1 invested in after-school care, there is an up to $13 return later. This is because kids in after-school programs generally have less interaction with the juvenile justice system, fewer grade repetitions and a less frequent need for welfare when they are older.

    And a similar thing happens with early childhood development and preschool education. Studies show that for every $1 invested, you get about $7 back later. Some studies show an even higher dollar amount return. It's just that there's a delay in the monetary return. You don't necessarily turn in $1 and come back with $13 right away. And so, one of the common themes we hear is that people don't fully understand just how economically beneficial family-friendly policies and programs can be for greater society. Such programs are a benefit to all of us.

    Do you think, in general, mothers are respected in the workplace? Or do you think fellow co-workers see them as a burden?
    That, I can't answer. We do know that, again, 82 percent of American women have children by the time they are 44. So, the majority of women in the work force are mothers.

    As far as what happens with mom versus nonmom, I think that "conflict" is overhyped by the media. On the whole, women have vastly more in common than they have differences. That's not to say all policy and cultural changes are all easy. One good example of a positive workplace culture change is at Best Buy. Best Buy innovators turned Best Buy's corporate offices, which includes about 2,000 employees, into a results-only work environment, so that all employees, mothers and nonmothers, men and women, have completely flexible work hours as long as they get their work done.

    At Best Buy they found that when the workplace culture is changed, particularly by doing things like getting rid of the "sludge" talk in the office and making the programs available to all employees, there were great results. An example of "sludge" talk would be: "Oh, she's a mom. She's going to leave early."

    With this program there was better performance by all employees, so the company was happy. There was higher employee retention and lower training and recruitment costs because people were not leaving their jobs. The company was happy, and the employees were happy -- both people with children and people without children. They even have little buttons that say "No sludge." I actually have one. Many of the family-friendly solutions that are out there are helpful to everybody.

    What would you like to see first achieved from "The Motherhood Manifesto"?
    That's a hard question because all of the issues that are in the six Motherhood Manifesto points (M-O-T-H-E-R) are tied together. We touched on this a little bit at the beginning of our conversation. For example, without paid family leave, many people can't afford childcare because it's too expensive with our current federal minimum wage at $5.15 an hour. So, it's really hard to pick one, because it's a systems approach, and all of the Manifesto points are interrelated.

    There are some that are more likely to happen sooner rather than later. Healthcare is starting to get some traction in some states. Minimum wage is being raised, or has been raised, in many states. Paid family leave is also getting traction on the state level. Open flexible work is something that we're also seeing get traction through nonlegislative channels at places like Best Buy, Google, Jet Blue and more. And so, many of the Manifesto points are starting to move forward, but it's hard to pick just one because they're all so deeply interrelated. MomsRising.org is working hard to move the issues forward and people can check out our website to find out more about the Manifesto points, the issues and what action they can take for change.

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