These days, it seems that wealth requires three things: being female, single, and childless. New research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that in 2019, single women without children had an average of $65,000 in wealth; their male counterparts had $57,000. For those with kids, the situation is reversed. In what some call the “motherhood penalty,” working mothers earn an average of 70 cents for every dollar made by a working father. Single mothers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the poorest group of all, with only $7,000 in wealth.

The media celebrate the financial rewards of being female, single, and childless. “Women who stay single and don’t have kids are getting richer,” declares one headline. But these trends are long-running. Time reported more than a decade ago on the “reverse gender gap”: women under 30 earning more than men of the same age. In major cities, in particular, being young and female reaps financial rewards. Research suggests that when women hit their mid-thirties, the point by which they are most likely to have started a family, their earnings start to fall.

Recent data on pay and sex should prompt serious questions, though, about the established gender-pay-gap narrative. For too long, campaigners have used pay data to portray women as victims of patriarchal working practices and sexist bosses. Every year since 1996, advocates have marked Equal Pay Day to note “how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.” Without explanation or context, it can appear as if women get paid less simply for being female. This is an irresponsible, and inaccurate, message to send young women about to embark on their working lives. It perpetuates a sense of victimhood that bears little relationship to reality.

Pay statistics do not show women being discriminated against simply for being female. Instead, they show that, for women more than for men, having kids entails hard decisions about when to return to work after childbirth, whether to return in the same role, and whether to continue with full-time employment or begin working part-time. Such decisions are especially complex for highly educated, career-focused women, who have come to see their salaries and job titles as markers not just of professional status but also of self-esteem.

For women, twin narratives emerge. The first praises wealthy, single, childless women; the second expresses outrage about the pay gap for older women with children. The Sterling Cooper ad execs on AMC’s Mad Men asked women, “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” Today, women allegedly face another confining choice: be a “girl boss” or be a downtrodden victim, who works 42 days of each year for free.

We need to be clear about why women earn more than men when they are young but earn less after having children. It seems unlikely that sexist bosses have shifted from penalizing women in general to mothers in particular. The crucial word, of course, is “earn.” With new priorities to juggle, mothers may decide to work fewer hours; they may choose not to apply for the promotion that would involve more time away from home, or to cut short after-work socializing that aids networking and facilitates information-sharing about future opportunities. Women are not being paid less for doing the same work for the same number of hours—rather, they earn less as a result of working differently. For many women, far from being a penalty, redirecting priorities away from the workplace and toward care of their children is a welcome part of motherhood.

In our identitarian age, we often assume that disparities equal discrimination. Today’s feminists struggle with the notion that some women make decisions that prioritize nurturing a family, not maximizing income. It is the motherhood penalty, some critics maintain, that explains why women are delaying having children. Loss of salary, combined with the high costs of raising a child, apparently make motherhood prohibitive for younger women.

But having children has always involved tradeoffs—whether of time, money or personal freedom. Why is the lure of a pay raise considered sufficient incentive to encourage women to delay motherhood now?

It only makes sense to talk of a motherhood penalty when having children is seen as an individual and not a shared project. When children are regarded as a familial responsibility—perhaps one that goes beyond mother and father to encompass grandparents or aunts and uncles—then the weighing up of precisely who earns what becomes less important than the collective resources of the family unit. When motherhood is seen as merely a lifestyle choice, children become luxury goods—nice to have, perhaps, but not necessary for adulthood or marriage.

When children are regarded in this way, one person—usually the mother—is assumed to be entirely responsible for the child’s welfare. Mothers often get a message that their children’s physical health, emotional state, and academic success depend entirely on how good they are as a parent. This is a heavy burden.

Much of our cultural attitude toward children is driven by a pervasive anti-humanism. Far from being seen as a blessing, babies are potential racists, polluters, and a drain on limited public resources. Our obsession with the motherhood penalty suggests an inability to assess value beyond material terms. An anti-human instrumentalism leaves us struggling to express the worth of education, culture, work, and relationships, other than through potential economic returns. Having kids comes to be viewed in relation to financial gains and losses rather than human bonds formed and love gained.

Attempts to measure motherhood against earnings also show a conception of life stuck in the present. A job is often a finite commitment. Employees can leave a position they no longer find rewarding. The fashion for “quiet quitting” suggests that many people consider their work of little real importance. Children, on the other hand, are a lifelong commitment. To have a child is to have a stake in the future.

When dominant cultural currents encourage us to view the past as shameful and the future as forbidding, the prospect of commitments and responsibilities that go beyond the immediacy of now appears daunting. Today’s gender-obsessed economists miss this point. In their rush to put a price on everything, they see childlessness as a rational response to pay incentives. But this reads reality backward. It is because our culture is often set squarely against children and families that we insist on measuring a motherhood penalty in the first place.

A society that values children as integral to families and communities and sees raising the next generation as a commitment to the future would not see giving up time, money, or freedom as a penalty, or even a sacrifice, but as an opportunity to transcend individual needs. Our focus on a motherhood penalty reveals a very different set of priorities.

Photo: hyejin kang/iStock


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