Stay-at-home moms take big financial risk

Published May 13, 2007

It's a headline grabber: $138, 095 a year, that is how much money a typical stay-at-home mom in the United States would earn if her work as a housekeeper, teacher, van driver, psychologist and other various roles, were paid on the open market, according to the compensation experts at Salary.com Inc.

The figure, I gather, is supposed to make us reflect on stay-at-home work, demonstrating that the domestic sphere really does have a hard dollar value. But everyone knows that the market value of work is what it is actually paid, which in this case is nothing (or whatever the breadwinner deigns to bestow). So a statistic that is supposed to appear empowering is really just patronizing and kind of sad.

Rather than be soothed by cultural mythology and gauzy nostalgia masquerading as crunched numbers, stay-at-home moms need to understand the reality of their choice.

They are handicapping their future financial security and that of their children by being economically dependent on a man. Leaving the workforce, even for a relatively short period of years, can permanently affect a woman's ability to support herself and her children in the event that something untoward happens to her marriage or to her husband's job or health. Once you leave, it's not so easy to get back in.

This should be obvious. So why is there a recent uptick in the number of accomplished, well-educated young women who are abandoning their vice president of marketing jobs to become vice president of snacks?

I think it is in large part because the media have been complicit in subtly applauding the retrograde family, as if it's the undisputed ideal. Combine that with the frustrations and stress of working, even if it is rewarding work, and the wives of well-compensated men choose the easier road. They opt out and call it sacrificing for the betterment of their children - a socially acceptable excuse. But they have no idea of the true sacrifice.

The consequences of economic dependency are the subject of a new book, The Feminine Mistake, by Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, who has raised two children along with her husband, while maintaining a professionally fulfilling and money-making career. Her blunt but honest thesis that stay-at-home moms have made a choice that "represents a fundamental abdication of responsibility for their own lives, " has made the dependent class positively apoplectic.

But raising the ire of defensive sanctimommies is not the point of Bennetts' warning. She is trying to open women's eyes to the very real gamble they are taking by making raising children - what is essentially a "temp job" as law professor Sylvia Law puts it - one's sole vocation.

My guess is that just about everyone knows at least one woman who devoted herself to unpaid child-rearing only to be blindsided by her husband walking out on her. Still, when Bennetts asks young wives about the possibility of divorce, she is repeatedly confronted with shrugs and denial.

"I don't think that's going to happen to me, " Kathy Tanning, 32, told Bennetts. Tanning's husband has a lucrative Wall Street career. "I don't look at life in a defensive way. I'm not thinking, 'Ten years from now, my husband's going to leave me and I'm going to be living in a one-bedroom apartment, working at the Gap.' "

Well, good luck to you, Tanning, because plenty of women have experienced just that and at a time when their professional options have closed and their looks aren't what they used to be (in case getting another man to depend on is the recovery plan).

As Bennetts says, most women wouldn't think of going without health and car insurance, but so many are willing to tie their future security to the hope that their marriages "will remain impervious to the toll of aging, boredom, stress, depression, financial woes, sexual temptation" and everything else that wears down a relationship.

It's a happy partnership until it's not and then watch what happens to the "partner" who has no income, no assets in her name and no job prospects. "Women's standard of living drops 36 percent when their marriages are disrupted, whereas men's standard of living rises by 28 percent, " Bennetts reports.

Most people when asked what they would do if they won the lottery say they would quit work. Women who marry a six-figure-or-more-earning husband, think they have won the lottery and leave the work world accordingly. But it's not really their ticket, it's his, and she gets to share the wealth for only as long as he is willing.

If what a stay-at-home mom does is truly worth more than $100, 000, then her husband should write her a check. Otherwise, she needs to protect her financial future and her footing in the larger world, and opt back in.