Hicks: Many women sacrifice careers for their children

May 10, 2014

Mother’s Day is a splendid opportunity to think about the evolving economic effects of women as parents, how this influences their economic lives, and how women value motherhood in economic terms.

Development in the most advanced parts of the world since the 1700s continues to have some of its most profound effects on family formation.

With infant and maternal mortality now rare, the size and purpose of families has changed in the West. In Europe and parts of Asia, one child is the norm. In the United States, it is two or three.

Expectations of survival shifted the focus of parenting and motherhood. Few of us now bear children to look after us in old age or to preserve family inheritance. That is a good thing, but the shift in families is not plainly all good.

Before the 1960s, single-parent households were fairly rare and at a stable rate of fewer than one in 20 births. They have since exploded to almost half of all births. Most families in long-term poverty are single parents, and mothers head most of these families.

Mothers who parent with a partner compose a small majority of households.

Thirty years ago, about one-third of married women worked, a figure that doubled by the middle of the past decade. These moms bear children later than their grandmothers did, and later than their contemporaries who have not married. They are also better educated and have better work histories than both comparison groups.

Still, these moms sacrifice greatly for their children. Perhaps the greatest cause of gender differences in earnings is due to women choosing occupations to accommodate families. Women are also more likely to take long periods off of work to raise children.

We are in an interesting time with these household dynamics, with an ever-increasing number of stay-at-home dads and better-educated women. Families will change much in this century.

It is easy to put a rough dollar figure on a mom’s contribution to a family. Time-use studies (and a bit of common sense) suggest that a typical mother’s contribution to a family would cost more than $100,000 per year to replace in the labor market. A working woman who stops working for 15 years to raise kids typically forgoes $1 million in earnings. This is a minimum threshold on how much we value our kids, and evidence of a still-robust American family.

There is much to study and learn about the evolving role of mothers and families. One thing is certain: Whatever thanks we give moms on May 11 will be insufficient.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and a professor of economics at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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