The single biggest factor that holds women of the United States back in career and money is working mom guilt.
The general, public assumption is that in the United States, women earn 79 cents on the male dollar because white men in C-suits arbitrarily decide that women do not deserve equal pay, and the male-dominated halls of government fail to fund family-focused policies.
Instead, many studies find, it is women’s decisions about career, marriage and children that retard our ability to earn and build wealth on-par with men. The social and internal pressures that women face to create the Leave it To Beaver, nuclear family with a stay-at-home mother and breadwinning father are real and powerful forces that shape attitudes and major life decisions.
Here are the facts about working moms in the United States: In the United States, a full 70 percent of mothers with children under age 18 work outside the home, and 40 percent of these moms are the family breadwinner. Yet whether mothers work because they want to, or — far more likely — because they and their kids need to eat, they usually feel bad about it. It’s no wonder why. Society teaches us that when mothers work outside the home, children are hurt. A recent Pew survey found that 60 percent of Americans believe children are better off when a parent is at home, and 37 percent of people in this country believe it’s bad that mothers of young kids work outside the home.
It’s no surprise that Pew found that 38 percent of full-time working mothers say they spend too little time with their kids, compared with just 11 percent of stay-at-home moms. A Workingmother.com poll found that 57 percent of respondents feel guilty every single day, and 31 percent feel guilty at least once a week.
Where does all this guilt come from?
American moms feel guilty for working outside the home because collectively, as a society and as individuals, we idolize a fictitious notion of a world in which the norm is a classic nuclear family: The father worked outside the home, earning the money, the mother stayed home all day, caring for a house and nurturing children’s frontal lobe development.
The problem with this fantasy world is that it was never, ever the norm.
Our collective point of reference for a “healthy” family often goes to a contrived golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, when television shows and magazine advertisements blasted this stereotype into millions of American homes, only perpetuating the Leave It To Beaver fantasy.
Until those post-war years, women had always been financially critical for their family’s survival, typically working on the family farm, or alongside the men in a family business. Homemaking was labor: requiring hard, physical work of growing, harvesting, preserving and storing food, cooking entirely from scratch, spinning, weaving, sewing, chopping wood and other time-intensive and physically grueling tasks. Yes, childcare was woman’s work, but with scant and recent exceptions, children have been raised in communities where grandmothers, aunts and other, older women cared for young children while their mothers’ valuable labor was maximized.
Humanity has thrived despite the fact that women’s prime earning years coincide with our child-bearing years. It is no wonder that survey after survey has found that mothers want to work, and moms who do work report less depression, anger and are overall happier, than moms who do not work for pay.
Thankfully, the stay-at-home mom is being challenged in significant ways. One of the most exciting antidotes to working-mom guilt has been the recent slew of scientific research that finds that children with mothers who work outside the home thrive.
A Harvard Business School study of 50,000 adults found that in 24 countries, daughters of working mothers finished more years of education, earned higher salaries, and were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles than their peers raised by moms who never worked. In the United States, daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework. “In other words, when mothers work outside the home, the pay gap narrows, and the labor gap inside the home narrows,” the study’s lead author, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn, told me.
But what about all those working single moms whose babies are abandoned to child care?
First, a history lesson: Today moms spend on average 14 hours per week with our children — 40 percent more hours than mothers did in 1965, according to Pew. Meanwhile, thanks to technology and perhaps more lax expectations of sparkling clean homes, we now spend on average far fewer hours on housework than our grandmothers and mothers did — and seemingly have shifted those efforts to intense parenting.
To what end? Not a whole lot, according to the most liberating of all research when it comes to working-mom guilt: University of Maryland’s awesome meta-study, “How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?”
The answer to that academic question? None! That’s right, with few exceptions, it matters zero how many hours you spend with your kids. For children ages 3 to 11, it makes no difference at all the number of hours a mother spends with her when it comes to the child’s academic or psychological success. In fact, the pressure to spend so much quality time with children creates so much stress in moms that it may actually make us worse parents than if we just focused our time on making more money, as a mother’s education and financial achievements have a greater impact on her children than sheer hours spent together, the researchers found.
Debunking the fallacy that is working-mom-guilt, is critical if women will ever step into their full potential as individuals, or collectively as we work to close the pay gap. Work and money are not luxuries, and your children benefit in countless ways by having a proud, successful, financially comfortable mother. Go earn, and never look back.
Adapted from The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest You, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children by Emma Johnson with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Emma Johnson.