Dr. Susan vs. Dr. Laura: The Cost of NOT Staying at Home

In honor of last weekend’s holiday (DID YOU CALL YOUR MOTHER?), Dr. Laura decided to pile the guilt and shame on mothers who work. Happy holiday!

As it is a blog post and not a question/answer, I have excerpted it below.

She starts out with some pret-ty big assumptions:

Dr. Laura
Dr. Laura: living a life made possible by feminism, and then bitching about feminists.

We all know the costs of moms not staying at home with their kids. But did you know it literally costs more for moms to work?

Really, Dr. Laura? Do we all know the costs? Because when I Google “Stay at home versus working mom,” it’s clear that there is no clear answer. So no. We don’t all know or agree on the costs. But since this is Dr. Laura, it’s nice to start out with a vague statement and then pretend that statement is fact.

After factoring in the rising costs of child care, gas, wear and tear on the car, parking, and other work-related expenses (clothes, food, etc.), a growing number of mothers are figuring out it doesn’t pay to have a job.

This makes sense to me. It makes sense to me because we currently face this situation in my household (although with my husband and not me). We don’t have enough money for him to work at this point. When he finishes his degree, he will be more employable, but she’s right – minimum wage jobs don’t cover the cost of child care. Dr. Laura has evidence, though! Maybe not the kind of evidence that backs up her point, but evidence nonetheless:

In a CNN article, a third-grade teacher making about $48,000 a year in the Fairfax, Virginia public school system was shadowed. Out of the $48,000 she earned, she brought home about $30,000 after taxes, health insurance, and retirement contributions. Even though she lives in Virginia, where child care costs are among the lowest in the country, care for the child would have cost $12,000 a year – nearly half of her before-tax income.

She says, “It wasn’t worth $18,000 for us to let somebody else raise our son.” So I thought, “Well what amount of money would make it worth it to have somebody else raise your kid?”

See how she jumps from one argument to a totally different conclusion? It’s not “literally” more expensive to stay at home for the people in the study, it is just not worth the difference in salary. To that family. The thing is, her conclusion isn’t wrong – there are families and situations where the job would not cover childcare. But the example she gives is not one of those families. Apart from the fact that this is an additional $18,000 a year, this is also after health insurance and retirement, which matter. That’s like saying, “I make $1000 a month, but after I pay for my car, my rent, and my groceries, I hardly have anything left.” Logic, Dr. Laura. You might want to take a class in it.

And that bit of shaming that she throws in – for some people, $18,000 makes the difference between eating and not eating, between getting medicine and not getting medicine. This isn’t a black-and-white issue. It’s not as simple as “I love my kid so I won’t sell off his upbringing” versus “I am a greedy greedy asshole who doesn’t care about my kid.” Dr. Laura goes on:

The Pew Research Center also conducted a study on the public attitude about stay-at-home moms. According to it, when motherhood and children are brought into the debate, there is an ongoing ambivalence about what is best for society. Oh my gosh! Imagine thinking of the greater good. Only 21 percent of adults think the trend toward mothers of young children working outside the home has been a good thing for society. Personally, I’m sad that the response was as large as 21 percent, but it’s still small. On the other hand, 37 percent of the people surveyed said being a working mom is a bad thing, and 38 percent were not sure it makes a difference.

And we care, because…?

The study is interesting, of course it is. But it’s public opinion. What does it matter if 37% of people think mothers working outside of the home is bad? That doesn’t mean that working outside the home is 37% worse than staying at home. It is merely a reflection of how people react to it.

The truth of the matter is that children of stay-at-home parents and those of working-outside-the-home parents tend to fare equally well. Some studies show some benefits or drawbacks one way or the other, but when all of the available science is compiled:

“The only negative effects were found with very intensive, full-time employment early on,” says Wendy Goldberg, a professor in the department of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. “We have to look at other factors that affect child achievement and behavior. Maternal work isn’t the whole story by any means.”

Of course it isn’t the whole story. But Dr. Laura doesn’t care about the whole story.

Speaking of the whole story – mothers who work outside the home tend to be somewhat healthier and happier than those who stay at home. From the same article as the above quote:

Mothers who worked reported better overall health and fewer symptoms of depression than women who stayed at home. And those employed full time appeared to fare just as well as their counterparts working part time.

Healthy mothers are good for kids, as are happy mothers. But the study is showing overall trends, and there are some mothers who will be happier at home. Dr. Laura touches on this, again, approaching it from the point of view of “if you work outside the home you hate your children”:

The study goes on to say, most working mothers (62%) prefer to only work part time, and only 37% say they prefer full-time work. That’s scary… a third of those children have mothers who would rather be away from them all day. And finally, only one-in-ten moms say having a mother who works full time is the ideal situation for a child. Do you realize they took ten mothers and asked each of them, “If you work full time, is that ideal for your kid?” And one of them actually said, “Yeah.” I wonder what motivated that, because I’ve always said not everybody’s a great mom. If you’re not a good mom the kid might be better off with somebody else. It is possible.

No, Dr. Laura. Thinking that working outside the home is ideal for your kid does not mean that you are a bad parent. I am one of those people who thinks that working outside the home is good for my child, and it has nothing to do with my parenting skills: I think it’s good for her to see her mother following her dreams and succeeding professionally. I think, when she goes to daycare next year, it will be essential for her social development and linguistic skills. I could be an awesome parent and that wouldn’t change.

A good parent is one who is able to look at their specific situation, at the specific needs of their child, and adapt to do what is best for the family. For some families, this means somebody stays at home. For others, this means that both partners work. Assuming that one solution will fit all problems is, in fact, setting the family up for potential pitfalls. There is a cost to not staying at home, just as there is a cost to staying at home. No family’s choice, as long as it was made with the unique needs and wants of the members of that family in mind, is wrong.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

6 replies on “Dr. Susan vs. Dr. Laura: The Cost of NOT Staying at Home”

This is really nitpicking but… so many of her ‘facts’ are so off-base. For instance, you need a car to work? And you don’t need food if you don’t work? While those costs might be higher (depending on the choices you make; you might carpool and not pay more for gas, work might subsidize bus/Metro fare, you might bring lunches into work or they might provide food, etc.), it’s not a given. What if you work from home? So many variables.

And, Fairfax county – where I grew up – is one of THE wealthiest, highest-cost-of-living places in the country. Costs there are NOT comparable to the state of Virginia, so the claim that those child-care costs are ‘cheap’ and among the lowest in the country is ridiculous.

On the other hand, 37 percent of the people surveyed said being a working mom is a bad thing

And how many of them are mothers? How many of them are children raised by working mothers? How many of them are disgruntled dads who think they loose their balls when their wives work more than them?

If you’re not a good mom the kid might be better off with somebody else. It is possible.

Yes, there are times when children are better off without someone else than their mothers. I don’t think ‘Works’ is an argument to support that thought, but hey, who am I.

Dr. Laura’s take on this issue makes me so, so, so mad. For starters, this “dilemma” is only a dilemma for people who are parenting with a partner. My friend, whose husband left her two weeks after she gave birth? She didn’t have the luxury of deciding. This make-believe issue is only an issue for middle and upper class families with two parents.

The whole idea of making one choice more valid than another is ludicrous.

It absolutely comes down to math, but there’s also more than that. Infant child care is ridiculously expensive, BUT, is it more expensive to put a career on hold for two years before childcare  costs go down some? How about in this economy, do you risk taking a leave of absence or resigning with the hopes that in five years you’ll be able to find a job?

And why isn’t Dr. Laura surveying all of the men? have we asked the men “is being away from your child all day an ideal situation”? I mean, come on. Is a man working part-time an ideal situation as well? Are families supposed to live off of hugs and and the fat of the land?

I made more on unemployment than I would have at my old job after all the costs were figured in, but if unemployment hadn’t been an option I wouldn’t have *lost* money by working. I just probably wouldn’t have made enough for it to be worth the exhaustion, given that my husband was bringing in a pretty good salary.

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