The interview was going fairly well. I was feeling confident, even in my borrowed suit, having fielded a number of questions about law school and my internship in the estates department at the Internal Revenue Service. I even passed an impromptu pop quiz about the Tax Code with flying colors, all while keeping my nerves at bay. My first “real” job in the legal world was a big deal to me and I didn’t want to blow it. I was prepared for almost anything. Until this question: “So are you planning on having any kids?”
I blinked. I stammered a little bit. And then I answered truthfully, saying that as one of three children, I always assumed that I would have kids of my own. I quickly added that I remained committed to being a lawyer, that I didn’t have a set time frame for having children, and that I knew that, when the time came, I would be able to manage the demands of the legal practice with motherhood. I felt pretty good about my answer.
But it wasn’t long before I was asked the same question again.
It turns out that while it’s inappropriate – and perhaps unwise – to ask questions about plans for having children, it’s not illegal (though making a hiring decision based on that question is illegal). And it happens. A lot more than you’d think.
You see, the decision to have a child has always been painted as a private one. But realistically, it’s always been more than that. Whether and when to have children is easily a talking point for our friends, our own parents, our neighbors – and even potential employers. We whisper about it in coffee shops and discuss it on talk shows. We gobble up celebrity parenting stories online and watch entire television shows about the likes of Kate Gosselin and Honey Boo-Boo.
But if discussions about whether to have a child were actually private, we wouldn’t have had that cover story on Time magazine touting “The Childfree Life.” Or this story in the Guardian about smart women not having kids. Or a day like last Thursday, when both CBS and NBC led their morning coverage with stories about mothering and careers.
The reality is that we like talking about it. But I’m not sure that we’re talking about it in the right way. We like sound bites and pithy anecdotes and snippets of statistics but those things tell just half a story.
Last week, I surveyed a number of women about their perceptions and thoughts on motherhood. The number of answers that I received blew me away: it was the largest response I’ve ever had for a story. Women really do want to talk about this issue. And they want to talk about it honestly. As I sorted through the hundreds of emails and messages, I started thinking about much of what’s been missing from our dialogue on motherhood. With that in mind, here are thirteen understatements, half-truths & misunderstandings – some serious and some light-hearted – that our society has about motherhood:
1. You get maternity leave. Folks talk about maternity leave as if it’s a paid vacation. Let’s just get something out of the way from the get-go: your employer may be required to grant you time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) but it’s unpaid leave. And not all employees qualify: you only qualify if your employer is a public agency (think government employees) or a private employer with 50 or more employees. Some employers may also offer short-term disability insurance which covers pregnancy: if that’s the case, you may be able to get partial pay for approximately six weeks after you have a baby. That money will come in handy because, well, see #2.
2. Raising kids is expensive. Of course it is. But we don’t talk about how expensive. For a typical middle-income family in America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates (downloads as a pdf) that it will cost nearly $300,000, adjusted for inflation, to raise a child from birth to age 17, or more nearly $20,000 per child – that doesn’t include the cost of private education or the cost of college. Housing is the single most expensive cost attributable to raising a child, accounting for 30% of the total. For kicks, I entered my information into the USDA calculator (you can give it a whirl here) to find out more based on my children’s ages, our income bracket, and our geographic area. The USDA kindly advised that taking into account all expenses including health care, food, clothing, housing and transportation, I would likely spend $54,647 on costs associated with my three children each year. I’m beginning to think they need to do more around the house.
3. Your entertainment choices are limited. I’m not going to lie to you: there’s some really bad kid TV out there. And even though you tell yourself that as an educated, grown person, you will not subject yourself to bad children’s TV, you will. There’s practically no parent out there who hasn’t both seen – and complained incessantly about – Caillou. And now, all of those same parents have that theme song stuck in their head (sorry!). It happens. But it’s not all bad: you have a good excuse to see all of the good Pixar movies in the theatre and even wear the kooky 3D glasses if you want. And yes, there’s “real” culture, too. We’ve seen the Nutcracker at the ballet and Wicked on stage – as well as the London edition of Les Miserable on DVD more than anyone should have to, really, but who could say no to Nick Jonas in 18th century French costuming?
4. You get the benefit of a tax deduction. Admit it. Those little onesies that proclaim “Mother’s Little Tax Deduction” are adorable – if slightly flawed. You see, if your child is a “qualifying child” for tax purposes (and in most traditional family situations, that would be the case), you would be entitled to claim an exemption amount for a dependent. It’s not exactly the same thing as a deduction – and you don’t have to itemize in order to claim it. It is, in simple terms, the amount that you can exclude from taxable income; the exemption is $3,900 for 2013. That sounds pretty great, right? That means that I can reduce my taxable income by $11,700 in 2013 simply for having children. But see #2. Those kids are simultaneously reducing my real income by much more.
5. You don’t sleep. You do sleep. Statistically, you actually sleep a little more in the beginning of motherhood than the average person. A 2005 Sleep in America poll found that, on average, adults in America report sleeping an average of 6.9 hours per night when considering both weekday and weekend sleep. New moms get a bit longer average sleep: 7.2 hours. But here’s the rub: it’s “highly fragmented” sleep which can be likened to the same kinds of disturbed sleep as you experience with, say, sleep apnea. Your sleep gets regularly disrupted throughout the night, meaning that there is little in the way of quality of sleep. That can make you cranky and contribute to lack of concentration – and other fatigue-related problems which could affect your daily activities, like, oh, say, your job performance. So see #6.
6. Having a child reduces your chances of getting a promotion and moving up the career ladder. In the 2009-2010 class, women made up 47.2% of J.D. students. About that same rough percentage – 45.4% of associates – were women in 2011. However, only 23% of all federal judgeships were held by women. At top law firms for women, 10% of firm chairpersons were women, 12% of the firms had women managing partners and 19% of the equity partners were women. I cite those statistics because I’m a lawyer and that’s the world that I know. I also happen to know that while some of those numbers are attributable to motherhood (you try being coherent for 80 hours a week at the office and still remember all of the words and moves to ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’), it’s not a matter of simply connecting the dots. There are clearly other factors at play, including your run of the mill gender discrimination and the curious notion of why anyone would want to remain in the law.
Of the women I surveyed, about half of those who had children predicted that they would have been in the same place, career-wise, without children; about the same percentage of those who didn’t have children estimated that they would be in the same place if they did have children. The answer to the question, however, appeared to vary more by career choice than motherhood. Penney Mizell Brooks, who works as a Human Resource Policy Training Specialist, indicated that she “would have made different, more drastic, more risky career choices if not for being a parent.” Many chimed in similarly, saying that they might have gone back to school or tried for management positions.
Others, however, aren’t so sure that motherhood played a role in their current position, saying that their career path is exactly as they assumed it would be. Still, others believe that women may use motherhood as a crutch, with a successful freelancer telling the story of a competitor who volunteered that “she would be as successful as me if she didn’t have children, but I think that’s just an excuse.”
7. It’s easy to work outside of the home since you can put your kids in childcare. It is true that a lot of parents opt to pay for childcare. In order to accommodate work schedules for parents, nearly 11 million children under age 5 are in some type of child care setting for an average of 35 hours each week; by the numbers, that works out to just under the population of the state of Ohio. In 40 states and the District of Columbia, the cost of child care for an infant exceeds 10% of state median income for a married couple. Depending on where you live, that actual out of pocket attributable to putting your infant in childcare ranges from $4,600 to $15,000 per year. Compare those numbers to the salary for a person making minimum wage in 2013: he or she would earn just $14,500 annually, pre-tax.
To offset the cost of child care, taxpayers may qualify for the child and dependent care credit. To qualify, you must pay qualified costs for qualifying children under age 13, or for dependents of any age who live with you for more than half of the year and who physically or mentally cannot take care of themselves. The credit can be up to 35% of your qualifying expenses, depending upon your adjusted gross income (AGI): as you make more money, the credit decreases. For 2013, you may use up to $3,000 of expenses paid in a year for one qualifying individual or $6,000 for two or more qualifying individuals to figure the credit; largely, child care expenses exceed those caps. If you do the math, it means that those at the bottom struggle simply to pay for child care and those at the top are dinged for paying.
So does that mean that the cost of childcare is driving women out of the workplace? Clearly not, if you consider the number of children still in child care. That said, almost all of the moms I surveyed who did quit work after they had children cited the cost and worries over quality child care as a primary reason. That typically happened not after the first child, when child care was still manageable, but after the second or third, when the costs and in some cases, hassles, of paying for child care made it unrealistic to continue.
8. Your diet will necessarily turn into the stuff of school cafeteria nightmares. Yes, things change. But let’s be clear on this one: my life is not a rotating smorgasbord of chicken nuggets and Happy Meals. I like to cook. I like to eat out. I always have. And having kids didn’t change that. While it’s true that we now have industrial-sized boxes of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish in our home, as well as enough juice boxes to carry a small town through a nuclear disaster, we’ve made a conscious decision to introduce our kids to all kinds of food. My kids eat dim sum and sauerkraut and naan and every kind of vegetable on the planet. In fact, they’ll try almost anything: over the weekend, they even tried bone marrow at nearby Wyebrook Farms.
And while I realize the folly of dragging them into a quiet BYO (nobody wants to have a romantic dinner with my kids at the next table), that doesn’t mean that we’re relegated to terrible eateries. We go to real restaurants where I expect them to act like human beings – quite frankly, they’re often better behaved than many of the adults.
In our family, I think it’s important not to buy into the stereotype that kids are de facto picky eaters. I have a pantry filled with chutneys and chili peppers that would say different.
9. Women must sacrifice their own education in order to have children. The Guardian article that garnered so much recent press focused on research that Satoshi Kanazawa performed indicating that “maternal urges drop by 25% with every extra 15 IQ points.” Kanazawa lamented that smart women were no longer having children, a notion that he claimed was antithetical with the survival of our culture since fewer intelligent moms should mean fewer intelligent kids. If we keep that up, he posited, we’ll end up with a nation filled with dunderheads (I might have paraphrased him a bit there).
While there is some data to suggest that women with advanced degrees are less likely to have children, it’s mostly old data that’s a little bit skewed. According to a fairly recent Pew Study, a higher level of education is associated with lower rates of motherhood except for women who pursue the most advanced degrees. In other words, women with professional degrees and Ph.D.’s are actually more likely to have children than their counterparts with lesser degrees. In terms of tipping the bus, I’m firmly on the professional degree with children side.
What could cause these kinds of numbers? Claudia Goldin has suggested that certain of the fields that require the most education may also be those fields that allow a healthy work-family balance. Whatever the reasons, almost across the board, responses from the women I’ve surveyed seem to suggest that most women are still pursuing the level of education they intended whether they have children or not.
10. You have to drive a mini-van. Before we had children, we had an awesome car. It was a little bit of death trap but it was beautiful: a 1976 Fiat Spyder convertible. We still have it though it’s mostly relegated to the garage for very practical reasons: it has lap belts only, no airbags and it doesn’t have a proper back seat. Nowadays, however, car seat laws and other state and federal safety regulations mean that you have to be somewhat practical. Safety matters. No, you don’t have to buy the mini-van, even though many of my friends swear by them, but the fun little two-seater is definitely out. At least for 15 or so years.
11. Paying for your child’s education will bankrupt you in your golden years. The College Board reports that the cost of an education at an in-state public college for the 2012–2013 academic year averaged $22,261; for a private college, the average cost was $43,289. Those are big, big numbers and they cause many sleepless nights for a lot of parents. But here’s a big secret: you don’t have to lose your shirt over your kid’s education. You don’t have to spring for the most expensive school; even if you do, financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships may be available. And some folks have suggested that it might be a good idea not to pay for your child’s education in the first place: there’s nothing that says you have to. I know it sounds terrible but, to be fair, my parents didn’t pay for me to go to college. I relied on scholarships, work, and borrowing to finance my education and despite how terrible making your kids pay their own way may be painted in the press, it didn’t kill me. In fact, I’m still paying for my education now – and I consider it an investment.
But even if you do opt to pay your child’s way through college, you don’t have to break the bank. You can invest as you go through qualified tuition plans, such as 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. Additionally, when the time comes to write the check, there are education tax credits, including the American Opportunity Credit, and deductions, such as the above-the-line tuition and fees deduction and the student loan interest deduction, available to help offset those costs.
12. You won’t ever go anywhere interesting ever again. That picture of that couple lying on the beach on the cover of Time touting “The Childfree Life” has attracted quite a bit of attention. My vacation photos never look like that. Of course, they never really looked like that before I had kids either. But it was the case that vacations were easier before kids. I used to be the kind of girl who could be packed and ready in five minutes. Now, I can’t even get the kids with their pre-packed suitcases out of the door in five minutes. But that doesn’t mean that every vacation has to be a stop at an amusement park. While I’m not as bad as my dad – who used to drag us to the cemetery to do grave-rubbings for his genealogy project (which, to be honest, we thought was pretty awesome) – I take my kids to places that I want to go within reason. So no, they didn’t go to Vegas with me and my husband and I didn’t take them to Cooperstown for our anniversary. But I have run a 5k with my daughter on Bald Head Island and taken a pedicab through New York City’s Time Square with my son. We’ve been to state parks and small-town fairs. My kids have scrambled over rocks in Maine and gone digging for clams in the sounds of North Carolina. It’s more difficult to travel with kids. Airfare is crazy-expensive. Hotels are meant for families of four. And day passes at amusement parks for all five can run roughly the cost of our mortgage. But we’ve made it work.
Interestingly, however, when I asked mothers to name one thing they wished they had done differently, it wasn’t careers or sleep or education that most cited. The number one regret? Not traveling enough before having children.
13. Everybody else is doing it. When I was a kid, it went without saying that I was going to be a mom. And my mom before that. And her mom before that. But that’s not true anymore. The birthrate in the U.S. at an all-time low: about 80% of women become mothers now, compared with 90% just forty years ago. While it’s true, then, that statistically more women are still opting into motherhood, it’s no longer a given that being female equals having children. So even if you were inclined to keep up with the Joneses, it’s hard to know what that means any more.
I don’t think that there was ever a moment when I thought that I wasn’t going to have children. I just knew that I was going to be a mom. I will confess, however, that every now and again, I imagine that it would be amazing to have those moments of quiet thoughtfulness. A day where no one asks me for a snack or follows me to the bathroom. A day where I don’t have to break up an argument about who gets to put the lightning bug in a jar or who gets the purple crayon first. A day where I could just plop down and click on the television to watch something completely indulgent. But that isn’t the life I chose.
And that’s the bit that I think is hard to reconcile in all of this press that we’ve been seeing popping up. Having children is a choice. And not having children is a choice. And just like any important choice, you should arm yourself with the facts. But then, it’s up to you.