The high monetary costs of having children are well known to working parents and the employers looking to support them. According to US Census data, child care costs skyrocketed by more than 50 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1985 and 2011. These costs have been blamed for holding women back in the workforce by making it challenging for couples to start families without scaling back one of their careers: in the case of heterosexual couples, that usually means the woman’s, as she typically earns less money than her male partner.
Yet a study recently highlighted in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the total costs of motherhood are difficult for many working women to anticipate. “The Mommy Effect: Do Women Anticipate the Employment Effects of Motherhood?” by economists Jessica Pan, Ilyana Kuziemko, Jenny Shen, and Ebonya Washington finds that some women in their childbearing years have “misplaced optimism” about their employment prospects after becoming mothers due to other hard-to-quantify costs associated with having children. As the Journal noted, a recent US government survey found that 64 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees and children under the age of six agreed that “being a parent is harder than I thought it would be”; fewer than 40 percent of similarly situated men agreed.
Beyond the financial costs are the time and emotional “costs” associated with having children that are harder to plan for.
The day-to-day time costs can include household chores (more cooking, cleaning, and laundry); attending and organizing extracurricular activities (birthday parties, sports practices and games, play dates); and transporting children (to and from daycare/school, camp, extracurricular activities, etc.). The emotional costs include the pressure that parents, especially women, feel to be good parents and to provide the best for their children. The sources of emotional strain are wide-ranging, from concern about sending their children to the right schools to the pressure some women feel to breastfeed.
Coupled with the monetary costs, the high emotional and time costs associated with having children can prove prohibitive for some working families. Add in a work environment that amplifies these costs and it’s not hard to see why having children drives many women out of the workforce entirely. To retain these women, more employers are adopting or augmenting parental leave and flexible work policies. Employers who want to be truly supportive of working parents should bear in mind all the costs of having children—financial, temporal, and emotional—and think holistically about the impact their HR policies have on those costs.
In light of how parenthood can have disparate impacts on men and women, employers might also consider making their family benefits available to both mothers and fathers, so as to encourage fathers to play a more active role in parenting and alleviate the pressure mothers often feel from playing the role of “primary caretaker.” Research shows that men, particularly in the US, are eager to be more involved in caring for their children, but still experience stigma and often lack in support from their employers. One purpose of the gender-neutral parental leave policies many companies have adopted over the past few years is to reduce that stigma and push back against the expectation that women should make greater career sacrifices for the sake of parenthood than men.