Many families make the decision for one parent to stay home for a time when their children are young. Sometimes, this is because of personal preference, and sometimes it’s because the cost of childcare is prohibitively expensive.
Moms are still much more likely to stay home than dads, in part perhaps because their earnings are often lower to begin with. (PayScale’s data show that women earn just 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, when we compare the median salaries of all workers.) But just because it makes financial sense for some women to take time out from their careers in the short run, doesn’t mean that the decision to stay home is a simple one. Women who opt to hit pause on their careers can lose more than a few years’ earnings.
The Culture Hasn’t Adjusted to Women Being Breadwinners
The majority of American moms are breadwinners. In 2015, the Center for American Progress found that 42 percent of mothers were the sole or primary earners in their family — they brought home at least half of the family’s income. Another 22.4 percent were considered co-breadwinners, bringing home 25 to 49 percent of the family earnings.
Despite this, women still get the short end of the stick at work. The pay gap persists. The opportunity gap means women often don’t advance professionally as they should. And, family leave policies lag behind what’s available in other nations.
All of these pressures, coupled with the fact that childcare is so costly, mean that women often choose to stay home for a multitude of reasons, many of which are out of their control.
“For many women, staying home is their desire. But for many more, it’s a decision of convenience. Our society is structured in such a way that gives us the most rewards for living in the way it deems we should,” wrote Darlena Cunha at Time. “Fifteen years ago, we found ourselves putting in huge amounts of effort to work outside the home, and we got very little reward in return. We learned that, yes, we can venture outside of this societal box of mother and homemaker, but our culture does not invite it, does not make it easy for us, and does not make it worth our very valuable time and effort.”
It may make the most financial sense for mom to be the one to stay home — but there are often unfair economic and cultural drivers at play that tip the scale in the direction.
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The Hidden Financial Costs
Often families make the decision for one parent to stay at home because the cost of childcare is so high when compared with their salary. The loss of that salary is certainly something to consider when making this choice. But, there are also hidden financial costs.
Not only do women and their families lose out on her salary during the years that she stays home, her career pause impacts her wages for the rest of her life. Time away impacts how wages grow, or don’t grow, over the course of her career. This in turn affects retirement savings and social security benefits, for example. In fact, women staying home to raise kids is part of the reason that women over 65 are twice as likely to live in poverty as men. Their social security benefits are significantly less than men’s benefits on average.
Families should carefully consider these hidden factors and costs when grappling with a decision about childcare and work. It might save families money for mom to stay home initially, but it’s important to examine all of the factors that contribute to that. And, it’s important to be aware that there are hidden costs associated with staying home to raise kids — even if those costs don’t appear until further down the road.
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