Why are today's mothers working so hard, putting in long hours at home and at the office? For the money.
Oh, sure, those ladies who took their grandmothers' advice and married a doctor, a lawyer or an Enron executive may show up for work to "fulfill themselves" or to "expand their horizons." But for most women who, like me, came of age in the '90s, it comes down to dollars and cents, and the calculation is brutal.
In one column sits that big-eyed slobbery youngster, and a mother's heart beating to be there so she can give him everything. And in the other column sits the mother's heart ... beating to give him everything.
Because in most of the U.S. it is no longer possible to support a middle-class family on Dad's income alone. This isn't a question of having enough cash to buy Game Boys and exotic trips. It is a question of having enough to buy the basics.
Like a home. Anyone who hasn't been hiding under a rock in Montana knows that it costs more to purchase a house than it used to. But what many do not realize is that this increase has become a family problem, with mothers caught in the cross hairs. Over the past generation, home prices have risen twice as fast for couples with young children as for those without kids. Why? Confidence in the public schools has dwindled, leaving millions of families to conclude that the only way to ensure Junior a slot in a safe, quality school is to snatch up a home in a good school district. In most cities that means paying more for the family home. Since the mid-'70s, the amount of the average family budget earmarked for the mortgage has increased a whopping 69% (adjusted for inflation). At the same time, the average father's income increased less than 1%. How to make up the difference? With Mom's paycheck, of course.
These moms aren't marching to the office so they can get into brand-new McMansions. In fact, the average family today lives in a house that is older than the one Mom and Dad grew up in, and scarcely half a room bigger. The average couple with young children now shells out more than $127,000 for a home, up from $72,000 (adjusted for inflation) less than 20 years ago.
Then there is preschool. No longer an optional "Mother's Day Out" enterprise, preschool is widely viewed as a prerequisite for elementary school. But that prerequisite isn't offered at most public schools, which means that any mother who wants her kids to have access to this "essential start to early education," as the experts call it, has to come up with cold, hard cash. A full-time preschool program can cost over $5,000 a year--more than a year's tuition at most state universities! Add the cost of health insurance (for those lucky enough to have it) and the eventual price of sending a kid to college (double--when adjusted for inflation--what it was a generation ago), and most middle-class moms find they have no choice but to get a job if they want to make ends meet.
To be sure, there are plenty of mothers who scrimp and save and find a way to stay home (at least for a few years). But there are plenty more who decide that the cost is just too high, and the choice of whether to stay home is no choice at all.
--By Amelia Warren Tyagi, co-author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke