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Women are now 42% of U.S. breadwinners — but also 'underestimate the costs of motherhood'

Katie Krzaczek
·Associate Editor

Chanie Wilschanski of Brooklyn, N.Y., said she and her husband, who works as an assistant director at a prominent college, had to reevaluate their financial situation as they decided to have more children.

“When we were looking at our finances and how we were going to be raising our family, it was like: OK, either he gets a different job … or I could take more of an active role in the income that’s coming into the family and really create a better life for us,” Wilschanski said in an interview.

Wilschanski is one of an increasing number of women who are stepping into the lead or co-earner role in their families. Since the 1960s, the number of women breadwinners has quadrupled — from around 10 percent to about 42 percent as of 2015.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, center, with Elizabeth Warren, baby Maile, Tina Smith, and Patty Murray
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., the first senator to give birth while in office, takes her infant daughter Maile from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, July 2018. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s just another way women have been chipping away at gender inequalities. And it’s something financial expert Farnoosh Torabi said is not only leveling the playing field for women in the workforce but also can also contribute to healthier marriages.

“Being in a family with one income is financially difficult, even if that one income is a lot of money,” financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, author of “When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women,” told Yahoo Finance. “You have one income and it creates a very fragile environment,” which can lead to stress and even debt-induced divorces.

As of 2015, approximately 64 percent of women were acting as breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families, according to a study from the Center for American Progress. Of those women, 37 percent are married and out-earning their husbands, while single mothers make up the remaining 63 percent.

(Photo: Center for American Progress)
(Photo: Center for American Progress)

Surprisingly, however, the data showed that regions in which women were more likely to be the primary or sole earner were not the same regions where demographics show higher education or income levels. That suggests that the demands of raising a family are derailing some career paths.

‘Women underestimate the costs of motherhood’

Being both a breadwinner and a mother has become difficult for different reasons in the 21st century.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, about 73 percent of women between the ages of 24 and 54 are currently employed — the same number as in 1995. (Before that, the number had been steadily climbing for half a century.) Female employment peaked in April 2000, with 74.7 percent of women holding jobs at that time.

At the same time, the costs of parenting — in terms of time spent child rearing and the price of childcare — have increased sharply in the U.S. and U.K. since the ’90s. The result is that young women these days, particularly those with college degrees and demanding jobs outside of the house, are struggling to balance a career and motherhood.

(Photo: NBER)
(Photo: NBER)

“A result is that women underestimate the costs of motherhood,” the New York Times reported when describing a new study on the demands of modern motherhood. “The mismatch is biggest for those with college degrees, who invest in an education and expect to maintain a career.”

The U.S. Department of Education predicts that by 2026, there will be 2.7 million fewer men than women enrolled in higher education programs. At the same time, according to the new study, employment for women in the U.S. drops sharply after their first children are born.

“From roughly 1985 through the present, no more than two percent of female high school seniors say they expect to be home-makers at age 30,” the researchers from Princeton, the University of Singapore, and Yale wrote in the new analysis, “even though the share of home-makers among thirty-year-old women has remained roughly constant at 15–18 percent since 1990.”

And so, while women are valiantly fighting an uphill battle by taking on more student loan debt and being paid less than in the workforce, the pressure to stay home has actually risen.

“It is deeply puzzling that at a moment when women are more prepared than ever for long careers in the labor market, norms would change in a manner that encourages them to spend more time at home,” the researchers stated in the working paper, titled “The Mommy Effect: Do Women Anticipate the Employment Effects of Motherhood?,” which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

Businesswoman Irela Bague multitasks as she drops her son, Alberto, at his father’s office in Miami. (Photo: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
Businesswoman Irela Bague multitasks as she drops her son, Alberto, at his father’s office in Miami. (Photo: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)

‘Motherhood is harder today’

According to the research, the majority of mothers believe that “motherhood is harder today than for their own mothers.” And the data seems to back up that assertion.

As of 2015, the estimated cost to raise a child from birth through age 17 was $233,610 for a couple with two children and a before-tax income between $59,200 and $107,400.

A Care.com survey found that one-third of families spend 20 percent of their annual income on childcare, which includes costs of daycare and after-school sitters. The results showed that, since 2013, the “average weekly rate for a nanny has risen over $100.”

Furthermore, employers in the U.S. have been slow to accommodate working mothers — forcing many to choose between a career and child rearing. Whereas paid parental leave and subsidized childcare are common in other countries, new mothers in the U.S. have no guarantee that they’ll be able to take an extended leave from their jobs once they have given birth.

“Today, about fourteen percent of the civilian U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave (which includes maternity leave),” the NBER report said.

Lisa Rumain with Barack Obama
Working mother Lisa Rumain introduces former President Barack Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families, June 23, 2014. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“It was sometimes dubbed the ‘man-cession'”

Overall, adult women in the U.S. weathered the 2008 financial crisis fairly well. For men in the 24–54 age bracket, employment data looks more like a roller coaster, with an especially noticeable dip around the time of the recession.

“It was sometimes dubbed the ‘man-cession’ because a lot of male-dominated industries like construction, manufacturing, finance — these were [sectors] that shed a lot of jobs, and these were jobs that were held by men,” Torabi explained.

That created opportunities for women to step up to become the chief or co-earner in the family, Torabi explained, especially as industries that have traditionally been female-friendly — “education, services, health care” — continued to grow.

That’s where Wilschanski found opportunity. After working as a teacher for eight years, she went on to pursue her master’s in early childhood and special education. She then began teaching workshops for educators. At $200 per student per class, Wilschanski wasn’t bringing in a ton of money, but she enjoyed what she was doing.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is not a business,’” she said. “‘This is an insanely expensive hobby. I can make money off of this.’”

In August 2015, Wilschanski started an education consulting company. It was a time when she described her family’s financial situation as “living hand-to-mouth.” She eventually invested in a mentor and turned the business into something more lucrative.

Chanie Wilschanski (Photo: Courtesy of Chanie Wilschanski
Chanie Wilschanski (Photo: Courtesy of Chanie Wilschanski

Since then Wilschanski and her husband, parents of four children ranging from 9 months to 8 years old, have worked hard to find a balance between home and work. “We totally tag-team,” she said. “It’s not like the house is my responsibility on top of everything else. It’s 100% a dual role.”

That’s not the case for many families. Oftentimes the exacting realities of motherhood are not often openly discussed, nor are they put into the context of parenthood as opposed to just motherhood.

“If we’re creating a structure — a social structure, a political structure, a family structure — where women don’t feel supported to go and work and be good moms,” Torabi said, “I think [then], as a society, we’re leaving women behind.”

‘I only have one shot at raising my family’

It can be somewhat controversial to argue against the typical dynamic of having one parent stay home as the other brings home the bacon.

And while the number of women breadwinners rose steadily over the last few decades, there has been barely a dent made in the number of stay-at-home dads. Between 1989 and 2012, the percent of stay-at-home parents who were fathers moved only slightly, from 10% to 16%.

“In our society, it’s almost like, if the man takes time off to do something for his family, it’s like, ‘What? You’re taking time off to do something for your family?’” Wilschanski said. “If the woman does it, it’s like, ‘Of course, she’s the mom.’”

The idea of a stay-at-home dad in the U.S. has always been portrayed as quaint. (Photo: MR. MOM (1983))
The idea of a stay-at-home dad in the U.S. has always been portrayed as quaint. (Photo: MR. MOM (1983))

However, Torabi said that the lack of stay-at-home dads is not necessarily a bad thing.

“As a financial expert, as a woman, as a mom, as somebody who really believes in equal rights for everybody, if I’m gonna tell women not to be stay-at-home moms because that’s going to create financial fragility for them, I have to also say to men: ‘You have to go out there and work,’ for the same reasons,” Torabi said.

Wilschanski stressed that couples with both partners working “need to have these conversations so that you both are comfortable and you don’t destroy the intimacy and the beauty of your relationship because of money.”

And despite being a successful working mom herself, Wilschanski noted that she always reminds herself that “I only have one shot at raising my family.”

“If I mess that up,” she added, “then anything I accomplish professionally is not going to be worth it for me.”

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