Is it time to start paying stay-at-home parents?
- In a country without guaranteed paid leave or childcare, many parents' best option is to stay home to raise kids.
- While they told Insider they love what they do, they also feel that the work is undervalued.
When Shannon Carpenter's daughter was 19 months old, his days unfolded like this: Wake up at 6:30 a.m., drop off his daughter at daycare at 7, go to work, get off work, pick up his daughter, come home at 6:30 p.m., have dinner, and go to bed.
"It felt like I was just working to pay someone else to take care of my kids," he said.
To break out of the "rut," Carpenter and his wife began talking about having a parent stay home. At first, jokingly, he said it should be him. Then the reality set in: It should be him. His wife's career track in advertising "was higher than mine was ever going to be" in state government. So, for the past 15 years, Carpenter has been working as a stay-at-home dad to now three children.
"I have a job and I treat it like a job. It's not time off for me," Carpenter said. "I actually have a job description." It's a "never-ending" job, he said, and his compensation is creating a strong family unit — what he refers to as "working for memories."
Like many of the stay-at-home parents Insider spoke to, Carpenter began his work in reaction to an economic reality. It blossomed into a career that he would never give up, but his situation also reveals the cracks in how America treats parents and children.
As a stay-at-home father, he often comes up against the stigma that care work is women's work — and it's work that's shuffled onto the economic sidelines. Women in the US did $1.61 trillion of unpaid care work in 2021, according to Insider's inflation-adjusted calculations for unpaid care work hours, assuming a federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25.
"That's one of the reasons, clearly, that birth rates are falling all over the global developed capitalist world," Kristen Ghodsee, a professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on women's lived experiences and utopias, told Insider. "Because women and people who provide care in the home and do this un-remunerated labor are finally saying, 'Nope, I'm done.'"
As workers across industries rethink what they want out of work, parents could be the final frontier. Countries are scrambling to combat shrinking populations — Hungary, for instance, canceled income tax for new moms for the rest of their lives. A municipality in Finland offers parents a "baby bonus." Estonia, as the BBC reports, successfully boosted birth rates after implementing a year and half of family leave and monthly child benefits for parents. Parents in Denmark receive child allowances.
The US briefly flirted with an expanded child tax credit, sending out direct monthly checks to parents — which many of them turned around to then use on childcare. But the US has no federal paid leave, or guaranteed childcare. That leaves both working and stay-at-home parents to create their own economic models, and perhaps dissuades some Americans from ever becoming parents.
"Women are basically providing this very valuable commodity, quote unquote — if you think about labor power as a commodity — for free, in societies where women are basically doing all of the labor that is necessary to reproduce the labor force in the private sphere," Ghodsee, who's the author of the upcoming book "Everyday Utopia," said.
"I'm doing all of this work and people see it as, 'oh, you're just a stay-at-home mom'"
Jessica Strunk, who works as a stay-at-home mom of twin girls, was two years away from graduating with a teaching degree when she got pregnant.
"The plan was my little meager on-campus job would be able to cover the cost of childcare for one kid at my university," she said. "And then we found out it was twins."
Strunk estimates she's "on shift" for about eight to ten hours every day. In stark terms, that parenting work is in service to America's economic future. She's working to set her kids up to be happy, healthy members of society, and she ensures her husband has what he needs to do his job effectively.
"If I paid somebody to do this, I would be paying out the butt for it. So I should value myself the same amount that I would pay someone else to do it," Strunk said
If she received a wage, she said she'd be content with around $15 an hour. For Carpenter, it'd be at least $30 to $50 an hour. Salary.com's estimate of an annual salary for a stay-at-home mom — when taking into account all the jobs that they do, including chef, chauffeur, cleaner — is $184,820. GoBanking Rates, using economists' estimates of wages for different roles, finds that stay-at-home moms would earn $41,504.15 annually.
The idea of paying parents in order to boost birth rates and ensure better outcomes for those children isn't new. In fact, a slew of other countries have "universal child benefits." Research has shown direct payments to parents can increase fertility rates in addition to cutting poverty and improving long-term health for both kids and parents.
For Willow Tepper, quality time with her kids doesn't feel like work, she said, but most of the rest does.
"There's so much other stuff that I feel like isn't necessarily seen," she said.
Tepper, who worked as a thought leadership consultant and writer, decided to start working as a stay-at-home parent just three months before the pandemic started. She now runs an Instagram devoted to valuing the work of parents.
"Something I wasn't really expecting to notice, and I didn't really notice until I became a stay-at-home parent, is the leadership skills I've had to develop," she added. "It's conflict resolution and negotiation, stress management, project management."
The skills involved in raising a family full-time and the importance of the work of raising the next generation are arguably a public good, and should see some kind of financial support.
"In our modern, American way of life, we have this ideal that the choice to have children, the choice to raise a family, is a very private choice," Ghodsee, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said. Because of that American framing of parenthood as a private choice, there's a belief that there "shouldn't really be the kinds of social supports and safety nets there to support this very, very valuable work that the economy and the state actually needs to survive — but doesn't really want to pay for, because paying for it would reduce profits."
Because stay-at-home parenting exists outside of the realms of traditional work — and remains unwaged — it feels undervalued by the parents who do it. At the beginning of her career as a stay-at-home mom, Strunk struggled a lot, feeling like she wasn't bringing in money.
"I'm doing all of this work and people see it as, oh, you're just a stay-at-home mom," Strunk said. "I'm not 'just' anything."
Why wages for parents probably won't happen
In the seminal 1975 text "Wages against Housework," scholar Silvia Federici writes that making housework paid would help challenge the idea that it is intrinsic to women's nature, rather than work.
"To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible," Federici writes.
For as long as families have come up against the reality of America's lack of safety net, and how invisible housework is, they've had to adapt. Michael Connelly has been working as a stay-at-home parent — and then grandparent — since about 1986. He and his wife, a professor, realized his salary as a journalist would essentially just go towards childcare and taxes.
"I said, forget that. I'll stay home and raise our boy, which then some years later, turned into two, and then three, and then four," he said. He loved it, but he wished there was at least an option beyond staying home out of necessity.
"The need really is for government-provided childcare, because the marketplace for more than 40 years has not been able to provide that product — which is quality, affordable childcare," Connelly said. "It just simply doesn't exist in the United States."
Without things like paid leave, or universal childcare, parents are left to fend for themselves. Putting monetary value on the ways that they do so would illustrate how a job that some governments subsidize is very much an unpaid endeavor in the United States.
However, proposals to make paid leave universal, or make childcare more affordable, or distribute monthly checks to parents have all faded away in the US. While one idea to make parenting more sustainable is paying parents to do it, it might also threaten an underlying social order.
"You'll find lots of congressmen, I'm sure, who'd say, 'Pay people to stay home and watch their children, that's ridiculous!' But that's exactly what we should be doing," Connelly said. "It makes all kinds of sense. There's no downside. The money it would cost for the government to pay that would more than come back to the economy. We're just stuck in the 1950s or something."
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