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I'm Tired of the Double-Bind Dilemma for Working Moms

As my husband and I sat down to take stock of our expenses for the coming school year, one thing became clear: With two kids in preschool, plus dance and music lessons, we were running a small deficit.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make us parse through the budget and try to find areas to cut. We live very cheaply. We pay for groceries and most of our weekly expenses with cash. We rarely go out to eat and our cars are paid off. In sum: My husband, the budget keeper in the household, makes Dave Ramsey look like Kim Kardashian.

But as we looked through the spreadsheet it became clear; we needed additional income, or else we’d have to cut those extras for the kids. And that wasn’t something I wanted to do. “Well, then, can you make more money?” My husband asked. His question was innocent, but it made me get defensive.

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When I first moved to this small Iowa town in 2005 for my husband’s dream job, work was hard to find. Then in 2008, the town was hit by a one-two punch of a devastating flood and the recession. I was let go from the best job I had and began picking up freelance editing and social media jobs to make ends meet.

I still applied for normal 9-5 jobs, but no one was hiring or they didn’t pay well. I remember walking into an interview, four months pregnant and being told that the job had no maternity leave, very few benefits, I was expected to be in the office 40-50 hours a week and, oh yes, the salary started at $25,000 a year. I was 29.

The salary offer was less than what I was making working freelance, even after taxes. I blinked so hard the hiring manager asked me if there was something in my eye. “No,” I said, “I’m just not interested in the position.”

“Well, at least take our personality evaluation in case you change your mind.”

“No thank you,” I said and walked out.

Later, I felt guilty for sniffing at the salary. I knew people who would have jumped at that offer. But it didn’t make sense. Full-time childcare for one child would cost anywhere between $10-15,000 a year where I lived — and that was cheap. I could earn more working part time. So, I did.

Looking for a job requires time and that time means childcare. Childcare costs money. But to pay for that childcare, I need a job. Repeat this times infinity and welcome to America.

When my daughter was born, I worked for two more years, freelancing in that nefarious world of editing, social media consulting and proofreading. But when we decided to have another child, the numbers just didn’t add up. We couldn’t pay for childcare for two children with my salary and have anything left over. I looked again for jobs, but encountered the same problems I had before — high expectations with low pay.

So we trimmed up the budget, paid down my student debt, and I quit the few jobs I had. I thought I could write in the evenings to make up any lost income. I did and I do, but it’s paltry.

Now that the baby is older, I would like to work more, but we find ourselves in the bind that so many American families face. Looking for a job requires time and that time means childcare. Childcare costs money. But to pay for that childcare, I need a job. Repeat this times infinity and welcome to America.

My family is lucky, we can handle a small deficit for a month or two. But for so many American families the work v. childcare double-bind is a lot more dire.

Recently news headlines have been filled with stories of working mothers who have left their children in the car while going to an interview or sending their child to play at a park while they worked — in both instances, the mothers were jailed for the crime of not being able to make it work.

In my own town, I recently met a mother who leaves her two children, 8 and 7, at the local library while she works. They walk across town for a free lunch and walk back. I see the kids there when I go pick up and drop off books. We talk, share snacks and they play with the baby. I have tried to help and I hope I have, but honestly, I don’t know. I reserve judgment, because I’ve been there too.

"Wealthier first-time moms who can afford child care are more likely to work full time until their last months of pregnancy, they’re more likely to benefit from paid leave, and they’re more likely to return to their jobs once their babies are born."
— Jessica Grouse

Once, when my daughter was 18-months old, my babysitter canceled because she had kidney stones. I had to take a phone call for a job (no option of rescheduling), but I couldn’t find a back-up babysitter and my husband was out of town. So, I shut my daughter in a room with the TV and snacks for almost 40 minutes. I don’t feel good about that decision. But it’s one I made in a moment of desperation. And I’m a middle-class, white lady with a Master's.

In Slate, Jessica Grouse writes: “And when mothers are the primary caretakers from day one, that sets a precedent: If a family can’t afford child care, it’s generally the mother who will leave her job to pick up the slack. This phenomenon is backed up by census data: Wealthier first-time moms who can afford child care are more likely to work full time until their last months of pregnancy, they’re more likely to benefit from paid leave, and they’re more likely to return to their jobs once their babies are born.”

Society and economic realities demand that women work, but we also bear the full-brunt of the childrearing responsibilities. Don’t have enough money? Well, just get a job. Can’t find someone to help with your kids? Then, why did you have them in the first place if you can’t take care of them? Even in the middle class where there is the illusion of choice, in the end, the reality of a working mother’s life is decided by the answer to the question: Are you just working for childcare?

I wish it were better. I want to work. I think there are solutions out there — so many countries are able to subsidize childcare and make employers offer maternity leave. But just try bringing those solutions up in a conversation, and you will be accused of making America pay for your inability to take your birth control (of course, America doesn’t want to pay for that either).

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If you cut out love and family and all the gushy stuff, even the numbers side of having children show that kids are beneficial and necessary for a vital economic future for any country. Just ask Spain, a country desperate to up their birth rate with a lagging economy and an aging population. So here we are again, back at an annoying tautology that’s become just another reality of motherhood: In order for a country to grow, you need people to have kids, but kids cost money. In order to have kids, women have to have money. In order to have money, women need to work. In order to have work, women need to have childcare. In order to have childcare, women have to have money ... And so on.

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