CLEVELAND, Ohio — Elizabeth Bailey is a mother of three. She has a college degree, and work experience. She is also a full-time stay-at-home mom, but not by choice.
Sitting at her dining room table, the 30-year-old from Elyria tells how she worked her way through not just one but two degrees, navigated childbirth and motherhood in the midst of COVID-19, and came out the other side in 2022 with a full-time job as a payroll specialist.
She speaks articulately about her situation and, despite being surrounded by toys and the many necessary tools of motherhood, she exudes an air of confidence and professionalism.
It was, she says, a great job, where she was successful and felt supported and appreciated. She was even on track for advancement.
But that job was not to last. After just four months, she needed to find a new daycare provider and her already nearly untenable childcare costs had increased yet again. Bailey says she had to face a harsh reality: she was losing money going to work.
“I was making $19 an hour full-time, amazing benefits, amazing company. It was practically my dream job,” said Bailey.
But $19 an hour is only $760 a week, before taxes and payroll deductions like health insurance. The cost of her childcare was nearly $800 a week. Bailey quit. She now takes care of the children full-time, and her husband supports their family as the sole wage earner.
“It was a great opportunity, but when all was said and done, because of the daycare situation and not having family members to help us out, I had to take a step back.”
Or several steps back.
Studies show that when women like Bailey take time out to be the full-time caregivers of children, their careers often take a big hit, and they can take a long time to recover. Stay-at-home mothers not only lose immediate wages, they miss out on increases they would have received.
In addition to the pay gap between women and men, research has shown that mothers who reenter work after having children experience between a 5% and 10% pay gap compared with their childless peers. And research estimates this “motherhood penalty” often amounts to 40% less in earned income over time.
For women like Bailey, for whom a job and a career are a large part of their identity, it can be a big blow to their self-esteem.
In our Rethinking Child Care series, cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer in 2023 are examining the struggle of finding quality, affordable childcare and proposing solutions to share families’ burdens and help the economy. Follow the coverage at this link.
“It kind of really devastated me,” Bailey said. “For a while it was really difficult to accept. But once I came to terms with this is what we’re doing for now because the daycare is just out of reach for us financially, it became a lot easier. But it’s still really disappointing because I want to work. I am ready to work. And I am capable of working. But I can’t.”
In the meantime Bailey says she is focusing on ways she can build her skills so that when she does go back to work, she’ll be “the best employee possible.” She is taking on part-time work-from-home opportunities with flexible schedules, but still, she still worries about how full-time motherhood will affect her future prospects.
“I do think that I will be surpassed by others who have been in the workforce for longer. Maybe those who haven’t had kids or who were able to afford the daycare. I think they will have more opportunities for promotions and committing time to these jobs that I want to apply to,” Bailey said. “Really all I can do is focus on caring for my kids before I can focus on pursuing my own career.”
She’s not alone.
Millions of American women face a similar dilemma. The average annual cost of child care in Cleveland is $11,160. For an infant the average cost is $12,310 at a child care center or $10,860 for at home care. For a toddler, it is $10,020 and $8,250, respectively. This means for three children, the average cost is $670 a week, slightly less than what Bailey was paying.
What’s more, those high child care costs are keeping plenty of qualified women out of the workforce.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just before the pandemic in February 2020, 59% of women over the age of 20 were participating in the labor force. Data from 2019 shows that 72% of all mothers were participating. To compare, 71% of all men and 93.3% of all fathers were participating in the pre-pandemic workforce.
This gap exists despite the fact that women are earning degrees faster than their male counterparts. Data from the Pew Research Center shows the number of women pursuing higher education has increased steadily over the last 40 years, outpacing men in both college enrollment and graduation.
In places like the Canadian province of Quebec, where the government began subsidizing child care in 1998 for $6 per child per day, they saw an immediate and dramatic rise in female workforce participation. Before subsidized child care, 67% of women in Quebec worked. A decade and a half later that number was 82%. Today, Quebec has one of the highest rates of working women in the developed world. Similiar trends can be found earlier in Europe.
Bailey says that if the United States adopted a similar policy she would go back to work immediately.
“I love my children so much, but in having them you do have to sacrifice opportunities for your career,” she said.
The boost she would get from affordable child care goes beyond her personal career aspirations, she said. She could do more to fix up her house, put her kids in educational and extracurricular programs she wants, and pay down the family debt.
“We would just be so much better off financially,” Bailey said. “If I had had any kind of help whatsoever, I just feel like the possibilities would be endless for me.”
The lack of affordable child care is holding women back she said. And it hurts future generations too, because society underestimates and undervalues the abilities of mothers who spend all day caring for children.
Bailey may not have a wall full of plaques touting her professional achievements —yet. But she is unwavering on the point that her children are an accomplishment too. And at least for now, she’s willing to let her career take a back seat, wait it out and “cross my fingers that child care can get cheaper the older they get.”
Until then, she shares a sentiment that resonates among many mothers.
“I’m not just a mom. I’m so many other things.”