🚨 On 18 July, I am moderating a panel on why we should take children and carers into account when reporting on migration. It will feature Luis H. Zayas, chair of mental health and social policy, at UT Austin, U.S., as well as award-winning journalists Ismail Einashe of Lost in Europe and Sally Hayden, author of My Fourth Time, We Drowned. Attendance is free, and you can register here.

When my son was born in 2019, I was a freelance journalist, married to another freelancer, with no stable income, property or access to maternity leave.

Like most new mothers, I was overwhelmed by this transition into a new life, dictated as it was by a newborn who depended fully on me for all of his vital activities. Changing nappies, figuring out how and when to breastfeed, and when and how to sleep occupied almost my entire brain. I went as far as saying out loud that I had come to hate night times because I simply didn’t know how often I would have to wake up. But I couldn’t afford a break from work so I had to deal with this new phase while keeping my work brain together. I breastfed Lorenzo while writing, interviewing, editing and giving classes.

Unlike most mothers around the world, not only did my work pick up, but I actually started earning more.

How was this possible?

The motherhood penalty

In a 2001 study, U.S. sociologists Michelle Budig and Paula England started using the phrase “motherhood penalty” to describe the negative impacts on career and earnings that accompany motherhood. Budig went on to study the phenomenon for another two decades, and established that women experience a 4% wage penalty for every child they have. On the other hand, most men earn more when they become fathers.

But there are important caveats. Women who work low-wage jobs experience a much higher wage penalty when they have children (6%), while high-earning women actually have an increase in their wages.

Social scientists are still investigating the correlation and causation of the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus, but some things are already very clear: most care work is carried out by women. This is not usually taken into account as a paid job in the GDP, which usually impacts paid jobs.

Rethinking what it means to be a father

So how could I be a new mum and yet be earning more? The solution has to do with Nacho, my partner. We sat down and discussed options. Lorenzo was six months old when The Correspondent, a new member-funded journalism platform, offered me a full-time job. It was a great opportunity, the job I had always dreamt of. Nacho decided to take a step back in his work and look after Lorenzo full-time while I became the main breadwinner.

Lorenzo was still breastfeeding fully as I participated in conferences, workshops and work meetings all around Europe. I managed to attend them all because Nacho was there to look after Lorenzo while I worked on my journalism.

Since then, opportunities have multiplied for me. The Correspondent came to an end, but I managed to launch this newsletter. Then came the job as an advisor for the Early Childhood Journalism Initiative at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, as well as more fellowships and opportunities.

A couple of weeks ago, I went away for ten days by myself to attend a friend’s wedding and to do workshops for journalists and students in Bulgaria around the importance of early childhood journalism. Once again, I could go because Nacho was there to step in with Lorenzo.

Over these years, his journey has been one of deconstructing his ideas around being a man. “What does it mean to be a man if I am not working?” This is how Nacho explained it recently in Oreja Peluda, a Spanish-language podcast about masculinity, where he asked: What does it mean to be a man without being financially independent? What does it mean to be a father if changing rooms are only in men’s bathrooms?

Nacho’s life changed like most women’s lives usually change when there is a new child in the family.

Recalculating parenthood

Now, Nacho is finally writing about his experience, and I am so proud of his work. His newsletter, Recalculando (Recalculating), will come out in Spanish and English next week. You can sign up here in English. (Or in Spanish here.) In all the years working on early childhood, I have found few voices that are as honest and open about the difficulties of being a father. I think his perspective can help us all question our deeper assumptions. I know I am biased, but you’ll soon be too. 😉

So, is having a great partner a key to overcoming the motherhood penalty? I think most changes need to be structural and deeper (let’s not forget, there is a gender pay gap to begin with, and that in the U.S. Black men earn less on average than white women), but there is an important element when it comes to partnerships.

At work, we are more likely to understand and call out a lack of balance than in romantic relationships. Our perceptions of our gender and our role in society shapes a lot of our thoughts and expectations, and it is hard to set things straight when the societal structures are not in place — for example, if there is no paternity leave.

But there are some things that we can start by asking ourselves, which is what Nacho’s work and writing is prompting me to do.

You can start small. You can yourself: if you had a child, did your work and life balance change as a result? If it did, and you are in a partnership, did your partner’s work-life balance also change? If it didn’t, what made that possible? Were there open conversations around what happened?

I would love to hear your experiences. Please leave a message below this story if you are a paying member.

What I’ve been reading

This story looks at the experience of trans fathers in Argentina, where a group of trans fathers founded a network to fight the stigma attached to their experience of fatherhood. There are many ways in which trans people can become fathers. There are those who carried the pregnancy, others who gave birth before transitioning, or those who adopted or became fathers to non-blood related children. Most are still struggling to be accepted by their gender identity, but the network is helping create more visibility around the group’s problems. “Wanting to have a biological child is not a male or female desire, but a human desire,” as Thomas Beatie, who became famous as the world’s “first case of a pregnant man”, says in the article.

What I’ve been listening to

Is mama a common first word or last word? This is one of the topics discussed in “Hello, Goodbye“, a beautiful episode of Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. It is about people’s first and last words — and how strangely there may be an overlap between them. Host Patrick Cox interviews language writer Michael Erard, who is writing a book about last words and their relationship to first words, and reflects on how much importance we give to words in our life. “When he uses words, then I’ll really know who he really is.” But then he realised that he didn’t need words: “there were so many other ways to understand his emotional state… words as a thing really weren’t that important.” Bonus element in the episode: you can hear from Tanmoy Goswami, my friend and former colleague from The Correspondent, and creator of the India-based mental health journalism platform Sanity.

What I’ve been watching

I love this story of a man in Utah who created a special racetrack for a 4-year-old boy who was “trespassing” on his driveway with his bicycle. After receiving alerts from his smart security camera, Dave Palazzolo decided to entertain the child, and started drawing racetracks on the floor with chalk overnight. The boy got better and better at going up and down the tracks and found some unexpected entertainment on the way.

Who’s been inspiring me

I discovered NPR’s Joy Generator through Gaby, a member of The First 1,000 Days community. Based on scientific research that shows what gives us joy, this page offers the opportunity to time travel to happy soundscapes connected to our childhoods, as well as options to create poetry by deleting parts of an existing text. It is a fun space for diversion, and a good way to spark joyful memories from our childhood.

With love and care, 
Irene

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

Photo credits and alt-text: Jenna Christina on Unsplash, woman carrying baby.

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2 thoughts on “The cost of the motherhood penalty

  1. My partner and I went from 100% paid jobs to 80% paid jobs, meaning that we work 4 non-overlapping days a week. So our kid goes to kindergarden 3 days a week and has 1 papa day and 1 mama day during the workweek. In this way we have more time to take care of the household: cleaning, washing, buying groceries, washing and cooking., whilst also having our papa or mama day to visit family or friends or go sightseeing: eg the forest, the botanical garden, a playground or to the city.

    1. Hey Joram, thanks for sharing your practical solution to welcoming your child into the family home and splitting the work load. I would love to ask you a follow-up question: how do you guys organise yourselves around vacation time? It seems like it is a major sore spot especially in countries where daycares and schools close for a long time…

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