PAUSING AND THE ISSUE OF PRIVILEGE
One of my friends is a hard-working single mother of two. Ellen (as I’ll call her) never went to college, but makes ends meet by working as an in-home care nurse. She is often one paycheck away from being booted from her rental apartment. She has never considered taking a pause because she has never had, as she calls it, the “luxury” to do so. Pausing, as she sees it, is the purview of wealthy women who married rich husbands.
She’s not alone. When we think of women who pause, we think of “opt-out” moms like the Princeton-educated women Lisa Belkin profiled in 2004. There is no doubt there is some truth to this profile. These women graduated from prestigious schools, married husbands destined to be successful, and then left their careers when their babies were born because they had the resources to do so. As noted in chapter 1, nearly 60 percent of women who graduate from elite universities do step back from their careers for a period of time to care for their children. But, these elites make up only 5 percent of current stay-at-home mothers.
The reality is two-thirds of stay-at-home married moms are middle class. True, they are privileged to be married, but they, along with their husbands, are cobbling together suboptimal solutions to meet the demands of work and family. For many of them, it is often cheaper to stay home because they cannot find work that covers the cost of day care. Today, a year of day care costs more than a year of college in many states.88
And it’s not just the outrageous cost of child care, but also the unyielding payload of school debt that is poised to impact mothers in the workplace.
Today, more and more middle-class families are sacrificing everything to send their children to college. Arguably, that’s good news. More women with college degrees means there are more women contributing to the economy and, we would expect, more women in the pipeline to leadership. The bad news is that most of these newly minted college-educated women are burdened with mountains of school debt and/or have husbands as I did with mountains of debt. Juggling the high cost of day care with the immovable burden of school loans means couples have few options, and often one of them (typically, the woman) is forced to pause. There’s no “luxury” in that.
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Rising journalist Annamarya Scaccia is facing this issue right now. She unexpectedly got pregnant a few months after she started her master’s program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She and her partner, Richard, decided they could afford for her to finish her degree, but when she graduates, Annamarya won’t be able to work full-time until their son starts kindergarten. The loans she has from both college and graduate school make paying for day care prohibitive.
“I am so eager and ready to work, but we can’t afford it. We’ve decided I’ll try to freelance as a journalist for the next few years while Richard provides the steady income,” she said. “Hopefully by the time my son goes to school, the culture of work will have changed enough so that my career break won’t mean career suicide.”
More than 40 million Americans currently hold nearly $1.3 trillion in student load debt, averaging around $40,000 each.89 Given that women make up over 60 percent of college graduates, it falls to reason that they share a majority of said debt. If women can’t afford to work because we can’t afford the twin burdens of child care and school debt, believing that women’s workforce participation will increase is simply a fool’s dream How then is their pause a privilege?
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