Putting a Price Tag on Stay-at-Home Parents

First-time mom Kathy Kogut, 34, isn't always sure she's adequately meeting the challenge and responsibility of motherhood.

But the Glen Ridge, N.J., resident can already hear the loud ticking of her maternity leave winding down. She would like to stay at home, but the impact on retirement savings, Social Security contributions and her future earning potential would be disastrous, she said.

Her company has no written policy that would hold her job as a software applications consultant. In any case, she said, "If I were to stay out of my job for more than six months, I would be obsolete."

But what if Kogut's company was mandated by law to allow longer leaves with job guarantees? Or what if she earned Social Security benefits for the years she spent working as a mother? And what if hiring preference laws were enacted to help stay-at-home parents re-enter the workforce?

Basically, what if the work Kogut would perform as a stay-at-home mom received the same economic recognition and cultural respect as her job as a software consultant?

These are just some of the solutions journalist Ann Crittenden proposes in her book The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, just available in paperback.

A former reporter with The New York Times, who quit to become a mother two decades ago, Crittenden describes stay-at-home mothers as the nation's "invisible" and "unpaid" laborers whose work needs to be better recognized.

"Women have not made it clear to the world that the work we do [in the home] is tremendously important," Crittenden said in a telephone interview. "We got the right to be hired. We won respect professionally. Now we need respect for raising kids."

Crittenden's proposals have found supporters and critics in unexpected places. The harshest critics thus far: childless workers who feel the family-friendly trend has already spiraled out of control.

The childless workers argue they get stuck with benefits packages they can't use, pay high taxes to supplement family tax breaks and are ignored by politicians. Another journalist, Elinor Burkett, championed this cause in her book Baby Boon two years ago.

"It's favoring some over others because it's good social policy for the country," said Thomas Coleman, an attorney who heads the American Association for Single People. Coleman said such policies leave single workers with part of the tab for people's personal choice to have children. 

Coleman believes employers should offer "cafeteria-style" benefits that allow workers to pick and choose as they need.

Depending on your political bent, Crittenden's proposals can sound a lot like old-fashioned welfare, affirmative action and giant entitlement programs — funded by taxpayers and enforced in the courts.

"It's basically asking that social welfare programs be incorporated into the private sector," Coleman said. "I don't think that's the job of business."

The Independent Women's Forum, a conservative anti-feminist group, has praised Crittenden for encouraging parenting. But it has also taken some issues with both her approach and some of her specific solutions.

"Crittenden routinely endorses big government solutions while failing to consider more market-oriented reforms," lawyer Jennifer Braceras wrote in a review of the book for IWF's newsletter, The Women's Quarterly. Braceras noted that suggestions to actually pay mothers a salary could provide "perverse incentives" for teen pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births.

"Everybody hates taxes, that's always the argument," Crittenden acknowledged. But she makes no apologies. "We're now busting the budget right open for things we think we need. We've never busted the budget for what women and children need."

Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority, who Crittenden expected to take issue with a pro-motherhood manifesto, have been supportive. One reason may be that many women of Kogut's generation also embrace motherhood.

A bulletin board on the Ms. magazine Web site was filled recently with mothers of young children frantically seeking advice on how to work from home, survive on one salary — any solution that would allow them to stay at home.

"Women in their thirties are more comfortable saying 'I'm a mother' than we were," said Crittenden, identifying herself as a baby boomer. "They have more of a sense of choices and feel more entitled, they have had no obstacles in their equality."

But they need to be aware they are vulnerable as economic dependents. "Young women have never experienced discrimination and think it doesn't exist ... That sense of entitlement is great, but it needs to be wide-eyed," she said.

Many of Crittenden's ideas are based on policies in place in Western Europe and Canada. Sweden, for example, provides 12 months of parental leave for new parents, and allows parents of children under eight to work 80 percent of a regular work schedule.

"Everyone is always saying, 'Oh, what's wrong with kids,'" Kogut said. "It's because parents are so busy working they don't know what's going on."

There's no doubt the workplace has become more family friendly since Crittenden left the Times. While the Family Medical Leave Act of 1996 requires companies with 50 or more employees to grant 12 weeks of leave for the birth of a child (it does not mandate companies pay for this time), many companies have acted on their own to establish flexible work schedules, job-sharing, telecommuting arrangements, and longer leaves.

"It all has to do with recruiting and retaining talent," said Jim Sinocchi, a spokesperson for IBM. Big Blue allows employees to take up to three years of unpaid leave and has pioneered flexible scheduling and telecommuting, with 30 percent of employees now working off-site.

"We believe that if we offer a flexible work-life package, they'll come and they'll stay," Sinocchi said.