The economic calculus of winning the bread vs. baking it

The economic calculus of winning the bread vs. baking it  |  www.everythingtosomeon.comOne of the reasons we started this blog was in response to the growing number of women, especially Christian women, who are working outside of the home full-time while their children are young. A new study from the Pew Forum explores the startling fact that women are the only or the primary income provider in 4 out of 10 homes in the United States. A healthy majority of these “breadwinner moms” are single (63 percent), which makes sense given their situation.

The alarming number is the married “breadwinner moms.” They number over 5 million. Their average combined income with their spouse is almost $80,000/year, while working women whose husbands are the primary breadwinners make a combined income of about $78,000. The breadwinner mom group is part of a larger trend toward married mothers working outside of the home. This broader cohort “has increased from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.”

I was struck by the high average income of the married double-income families. These are not families that need a second full-time income in order to eat or pay the mortgage on a modest home in most areas. These are upper middle class families who are earning to spend on “extras.”breadwinnermothers

But “extras” come with a price. Pew also polled people on the impact of women working outside the home. The majority of people believe that it has made the family able to live more comfortably at the price of healthy marriages and successful child rearing. In fact, only 16 percent of people thought that a full-time working mother with young children was an ideal situation.

The decision of a mother to work outside the home or raise her children at home is, then, an economic one. We here at E2S hope, however, that the value of children (and their attendant physiological, emotional, and spiritual well being) and the joy of a healthy marriage tended with time and affection weigh more in that economic calculus than the “extras.”

For most of us, raising our children full-time means economic sacrifice. It might mean only one car, a small house or apartment, and no annual vacations. But rather than being “chips and capacitors on the motherboard of the American GNP,” as blogger Tim Bayly described this week, we are choosing to be the wellspring of our homes. We are choosing to provide the priceless gift of ourselves to our little ones and husbands.

Image: The Laundry at Collise St. Simone by Eugene Louis Boudin

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13 Responses to The economic calculus of winning the bread vs. baking it

  1. KI says:

    First off, ladies, excellent job with the blog! I’m really enjoying your posts – our excellent undergraduate education shines through 🙂

    I was confused by the penultimate paragraph of this post. It infers from the previous paragraph that the decision for a mother to work or stay at home is an economic one. Perhaps my own sample size is skewed by selection bias, but I seem to be connected with an unusual number of mothers who work full-time outside the home who do so for non-economic (or not only economic) reasons. (It’s much more than 16% of the mothers I know, or know of.) I worry that there may be a strawwoman lurking here: the selfish mother ignoring the well-being of her husband and children, going off to earn money that pays for pedicures and vacations. I won’t say that there’s no one like that in the world, but I certainly don’t know of anyone who’s not a celebrity who fits that bill.

    • Bethany says:

      Thank you for the comment. The Pew study did not actually go into the motives of full-time working mothers. I inferred that economics was a motive based on the polling that found that people believe these second incomes make life more financially comfortable even if they add strain on the marriage and parenting. I believe this is a fair inference from the data at hand. Obviously, there can be more than one reason that mothers work.

      Also, I did not say nor imply that these women are working for self-centered spending (pedicures, a girl’s getaway, etc) but rather spending that affects the whole family like a second car, family vacation, or a nice house. In many ways, these latter things are givens in American upper middle class life. And they are hard for a mother to give up as part of her vision for her family. Few people would choose to move down a rung (or two) in socioeconomic status.

      Since you and are both engaged in speculating, I will go on to speculate that a full-time working mother is not intending to hurt her marriage or children by choosing to work full-time. In fact, she may have her husband’s support! However, her choice still has the unintended effect of hurting her marriage and children, at least according to the polling data.

      • K I says:

        Thanks for the clarification, Bethany! I agree that there’s much speculation involved, though I actually think that’s a consequence of the Pew study itself (not our fault, in other words!) — from the chart in the original post, it looks like what’s being measured is people’s *perceptions* of whether a mother working full-time outside the home makes these three factors “easier” or “harder”. The philosopher in me wants to know what sorts of metrics folks are using to assess “easier,” “harder,” “enough,” “comfortably,” and “successful.” Again, this is just a suspicion, but I’m guessing that there are some false assumptions mixed in with those data that make it questionable at best. What it does show is that people *believe* that a mother’s choice has an unintended effect of hurting her marriage and children.

        I’d be really interested to know if there are studies that identify specific metrics of family well-being (robust spiritual life, healthy emotional attachment, physical and mental health, behavioral indicators, etc.) and then look at the economic structures of families who score high on those metrics. I think that data might be more useful.

        • Zoe says:

          I’m late to the bandwagon here, but I would also be interested in the kind of studies that KI mentions, and your comments on it, bloggers! Along the same lines, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts for women who feel they have a double vocation: that of motherhood and some other work. I agree with much of what Dorothy Sayers has to say about the importance of discovering the sort of work you are made to do and then doing it, but because her circumstances were so different than ours, her personal life isn’t a good example of how to juggle twin vocations (unless you want to pay your cousin to secretly raise your out-of-wedlock child, that is!). My instinct is that a large part of the problem is the way the American economic model is structured, with so little flexibility allowed for everyone, and especially for parents.

          • Emily says:

            Zoe, I think you’re going to get very different answers from each of us! As a fly-by reply, I’d say that several of my mentors are women who stayed home with their children (and homeschooled them), then once everyone was off to college, went back to school/picked back up a previous career/threw themselves into volunteering or service that they couldn’t do with kids at home, and are now in their 50s and 60s doing what you might call a secondary vocation. For myself, my dream job-for-pay is teaching English literature, something that I adored doing online when the kids were small, that I’ll enjoy doing again when they’re old enough to study it, and that I imagine I’ll do again in some form when I’m an empty nester. Though I’m taking a break from teaching Jane Austen to sweet high school girls, I’m still getting to discuss literature constantly with my kids–it’s just Betsy-Tacy these days. And as a homeschooler, I sortof get to meld the vocations of mother and teacher into one. I think that Dorothy Sayers is a pretty horrible role model in this area–in fact, I have never been able to enjoy Gaudy Night because of the hypocrisy in how she paints professional women and full-time mothers and how she “solved” the issue in her own life. Reminiscent of Rousseau. Anyway, where does she say that about vocation? I love her other Lord Peters, The Mind of the Maker, and her translation of the Divine Comedy. Haven’t read anything by her in a while, though, so it would be fun to put her on my fall reading list (and maybe discuss it with you after reading it?)…

          • Bethany says:

            Zoe, I too am interested in seeing the type of study KI mentions. Unfortunately, unbiased research of that breadth is incredibly hard to find. I have been doing some research and have cobbled together studies that look at one aspect of a child’s well being.
            I do hope to write about women who feel vocational callings beyond motherhood. But at this point, I’m just trying to stake out the ground that motherhood is a full-time vocation. That is not an established fact in the culture. It would be ridiculous to suggest that I can be both an amazing medical doctor and a philosophy professor. You can only do one of those professions well and the other thing would have to take the form of a beloved hobby. Yet when it comes to motherhood, we seem to think that we can be mothers to babies and pursue some other vocation. That’s impossible. What happens is that babies become the hobby. That’s a problem for the baby.

          • Zoe says:

            Sayers discusses the issue of work in Are Women Human? and (I think?) in The Mind of the Maker somewhat. It is throughout her letters, of which I have read so many that it would be difficult for me to find a passage that encapsulated her view without a long search. She was passionate about a person doing the right work for him- or herself (possibly to the point of its being an obsession) and stoutly objected to having others define her proper role for her or trespass on her rights as a writer. As you mention, though, Emily, she is no role model in the motherhood department, although I think her circumstances call for pity and understanding. And she was an exceptional human being. The world will not be a much worse place if I never write the books in my head, but it would have been much less without her contributions (Dante, her religious plays and other theological contributions, her influence on other important people of the time (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, etc.), and of course, Lord Peter!). I am always happy to discuss Sayers’ work!

            I have never felt a passion to do something instead of or in tandem with raising kids, or at least not anything that would require me to send them to daycare for large chunks of time. Because of this, I’m not so much advancing an argument from positive knowledge as raising a question. I am very hesitant to castigate women who choose to do some meaningful work that they are suited to, while also raising a family with a participating father. It is here that I criticize the American economic model, and I should have mentioned, the modern trend to live away from family. With more flexible job options for both parents, and with family nearby, the problem would be mitigated.

            I also wonder if my kids would benefit from seeing me go to work, even on a part-time basis. The Proverbs 31 woman comes to mind – what exactly should come under the scope of motherhood when you transcribe it to the 21st century? Surely no one planting vineyards, weaving and selling cloth, and buying fields – in short, running multiple businesses – was also available to her children 24/7.

            Emily, it is very good that your gifts and interest in teaching literature can be used to teach your children, but that can surely not be the case for all others. (I’m speaking in this comment, not of women who want just any job, but of women who feel they are meant to do something specific. I don’t feel in any way that my education was a waste because I’m not “using” it in a profession; my family benefits from it.)

            I’ve gone on too long and have hopefully not confused the issue too much, but I can’t end without saying that the women I know who are in professions because they love and are suited to the work, have not relegated their children to a side-show or beloved hobby. It hurts the issue to speak of it that way and is no doubt painful without being helpful for working mothers to have the objection thus phrased.

            By all means, discuss the effects of having two working parents on children and on family life. Urge parents to place their children’s well-being as high or higher than their own. If a system or mindset needs altered, let’s alter it, but let’s go about it the right way.

          • Emily says:

            Many topics to be discussed here, Zoe, deserving of their own posts and not just a brief comment. Stay tuned for a continuation of this conversation, though–I do plan to tackle some of these things as I have the time!

            I have not read Are Women Human?, and sadly, it is not at our public library. I will try to scrounge up a copy online and look forward to discussing it with you!

          • Christine Miller says:

            Debi Pearl has a new article in the NGJ Sep-Oct newsletter (available online) that addresses your comment that “surely a Proverbs 31 woman running multiple businesses could not be available to her children 24/7”. Her daughter, Shoshana, runs The Herbal Store. Debi, Shoshana and Shoshana’s 27-month-old daughter, Penelope, were checking out at Costco. The checker asked Penelope the name of one of the fruits they were buying. She could barely pronounce it, but she knew and said that name as well as the names of all the other fruits and vegetables too. Shoshana had never “taught” her but Penelope had learned them all by being involved with what Shoshana did, hour by hour, day by day. True, both Shoshana and her husband are involved in their family business so mother isn’t with children 24/7 but the business model of a family owning a business is as old as business and certainly alive and well today in the USA.

        • Zoe says:

          Emily, I think I’ve gotten most of her ideas on work from letters, but at least some of them from Are Women Human, which consists only of two short essays. I will try to find quotations from the letters, but unfortunately, I loaned the most relevant volume out. I look forward to posts on these topics! And I need to respond to your fb message to me. 🙂

          Christine, that sounds like a lovely example of what a family can do to provide for themselves and show a good example for their child without splitting the family up during the day. If only we could all do something similar!

  2. Laura says:

    Thoughts on stay at home dads. Just curious what you ladies think.

  3. Christine Miller says:

    IHow regrettable that moms and dads really do believe that mom working outside the home makes life more comfortable for their families when in reality the children are suffering according to that 74% figure that says it is harder to raise children when mom works outside the home! Hardship develops good character where comfort produces a desire for more comfort. But, as you said, few people would voluntarily chose to move down a rung or two in their socioeconomic status. Hopefully articles like these will open their eyes!

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