Tired mom

(WOMENSENEWS)–“It takes a village to raise a child.” If that African proverb were adapted to modern American family life, the phrase “and about $250,000” should be added. That’s the amount of money the average parents will spend to raise a child until her or his 18th birthday–excluding the cost of college–according to 2013 data from the U.S Department of Agriculture.

What these numbers don’t indicate is the cost to women in particular of having children.

A year after giving birth, women without paid leave lost 86 percent of their pre-birth earnings, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. The numbers only grow over a woman’s lifetime: highly skilled women lose over $230,000 in lifetime wages, while women with less education (who tend to work in lower paying jobs) lose $49,000.

Men, meanwhile, actually earn 6 percent more after having children, according to a recent study.

The time-off statistics suggest the extent to which parenthood exacts a higher price on women. Seventy percent of women reported taking time off from work because of their kids, compared to 30 percent of men, a 2013 Pew Center report shows.

Many women struggle financially after having a child because their employers don’t offer paid sick or maternity leave, which would allow women with children to keep earning money at several key junctures when they would otherwise go without pay or leave their jobs, such as after the birth of each child and during children’s sickness.

Without the paid-leave buffer to protect their earnings and job security women with children burn out and some look at the high costs of child care and decide it’s too much.

“The need for child care affects women by reducing their earnings and their career paths–mothers don’t have as many promotions,” said Jennifer Hunter, a professor of family financial management at the University of Kentucky. “Child care often costs so much that parents have to consider if a parent should stay at home. Women need to think about the immediate and long-term financial impact of leaving the workforce.”

Low-Income Women Crushed

If women who make a decent living are struggling to find low-cost, quality child care services, low-income women are being crushed.

Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 10 percent of family income for child care as a “benchmark” for affordable care, the average family earning less than $1,500 in monthly income spent almost 50 percent on child care, according to 2010 data from the Center for American Progress. High-income families with children under the age of 5 who make more than $4,500 per month spent an average of 8.6 percent of their income on child care. In 2011, the average working woman spent $143 a week (or $7,436 a year) on child care, compared to $84 (or $1,008 per year) in 1985, according to inflation-adjusted data from the Census Bureau.

And without a single paid sick day, many mothers struggle to find employment and child care arrangements that work for their families.

One-third of all low-income mothers who were unemployed tied that situation to child care problems, compared with only 18 percent of higher income mothers who remain at home, finds a study done with participants in California’s welfare to work program. Additionally, more than one-third of the women reported problems because child care providers would not care for sick children.

In states such as Georgia and Oklahoma, preschool and other early child care programs are largely subsidized, and there has been a push from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to create funding for free universal pre-K in the city to help working families. Although there is financial assistance for child care costs in over 20 states, only 1-in-7 eligible families will actually receive such help, according to the Center for American Progress. Middle class women often earn too much for such programs, yet still find themselves struggling to afford quality day care or babysitters.

“The labor-intensiveness of child care is why it’s so expensive,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director of the Women’s Economic Policy program at the Center for American Progress. “But the truth is that we don’t invest enough in child care. We need to look at children as a social investment–our best social investment.”

Cheaper to Stay Home

For some women such as Milagro Bikofsky it’s more affordable to stay home than to work and pay for child care.

In a sad irony, Bikofsky, who lives in Queens, N.Y., used to work at a nonprofit that connected families to child care services. She loved the job but decided she had to quit after giving birth to her second child nine months ago.

“If money hadn’t been an issue, I would still be working,” Bikofsky admits. After having her first child, Bikofsky paid a babysitter to take care of her daughter while she worked four days a week because it was important to her husband that their child was raised in their home, even though having a babysitter cost more than daycare. But after giving birth to her son, Bikofsky realized she was spending the same money she earned toward child care costs, especially since care for newborns costs more than for older children. And having to balance work and two babies–as many moms know–was a struggle.

“When you don’t have kids you don’t have to worry about getting home on time,” she said “It’s like there are two different experiences for working women, and the change begins once you have kids.”

Bikofsky hopes to start working again next year, but part time so she and her husband won’t have to pay as much for daycare.

Bikofsky is one of a growing trend of women who stay at home–29 percent of moms did not work outside their homes in 2012, compared to 23 percent of moms in 1999, according to the Pew Research Center.

Census data indicate that the average 25-year-old woman has worked just over seven years, six months less than the average man. But by age 40, women have worked three years less than their male counterparts.

After a decade in the workforce, women with a gap of at least six months earned 18 percent less than those without gaps. Women who took time off earned 36 percent less than men after a decade in the workforce, while women who worked continuously faced a 19 percent wage gap.

Negative Stereotypes Persist

It’s not just a lack of family-friendly policies that leave mothers with fewer earnings. Negative stereotypes also keep women from regaining their financial footing after pregnancy.

“Some employers hold onto an outdated stereotype–that for many women was never true in the first place–that women will leave the labor force once they have children,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and co-founder of MomsRising, an organization and media outlet based in Washington, D.C., that addresses problems affecting women and families. “But three-quarters of moms are in the labor force. They are here to stay.”

Women who stay in the workforce are also likely to rely on a patchwork of child care arrangements and schedules.

More than 11 million children under the age of 5 are cared for by someone other than their mother, which can range from formal day care programs to relatives. Of the nation’s full-time working moms, three-quarters say they use family care for their children or alternate work schedules with a partner at least part of the time, according to Census data published in a child care fact sheet by the Center for American Progress.

Without a single paid sick day, many mothers take extreme measures to hold their jobs and child care arrangements together.

For five years, Jessica Erfer, a congressional analyst in Washington, D.C., “banked” her days off so that when her son was born in October 2013 she could take 12 weeks off to take care for him.

“The lack of affordable child care services places a disproportionate burden on working women,” Erfer said. “Many women can’t afford to take off so much time from work.”

She and her husband, who both work for the federal government, applied for 15 daycare waitlists because it usually takes one year to make it to the top of the list in D.C.

To care for their son in the meantime, they hired a nanny with great references. But when their baby started losing weight, they realized something was wrong. After installing a nanny cam, they realized the nanny had stopped feeding their baby, and that she would take him outside for hours without food. On top of that, he began developing diaper rash because the nanny wasn’t changing his diaper. Once the couple fired the nanny, Erfer had to take additional time off of work.

The couple’s daycare costs range from $1,500 to $2,600 a month; a sizeable chunk of the household income. Their “amazing” current nanny costs 40 percent of her and her husband’s take-home pay.

“We’re upper middle class and we’re struggling,” Erfer said. “Almost half of my salary should not be going to child care.”