- In a country with no guaranteed paid leave or childcare, many parents’ best option is to stay home to raise their children.
- While they told Insider that they love what they do, they also feel the work is underappreciated.
- As populations shrink and Americans rethink work, it may be time to start paying parents.
When Shannon Carpenter’s daughter was 19 months old, her days unfolded like this: wake up at 6:30 am, drop her daughter off at day care at 7 am, go to work, leave work, pick up her daughter, come home at 6:30 am, have dinner and go to bed.
“It felt like I was just working to pay someone to look after my kids,” he said.
To get out of “the rut”, Carpenter and his wife started talking about having a parent at home. At first jokingly said it should be him. Then reality set in: it had to be him. His wife’s career in advertising “was better than mine would ever 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 a break for me,” Carpenter said. “Actually, I have a job description.” It’s “never-ending” work, he said, and its payoff is creating a strong family unit — what he calls “working for memories.”
Like many of the stay-at-home parents Insider spoke with, Carpenter began his work in reaction to an economic reality. It blossomed into a career he would never give up, but his situation also reveals the flaws in how America treats parents and children.
As a stay-at-home dad, he is often faced with the stigma that care work is women’s work – and it’s work that is shuffled to the economic side. Women in the U.S. did $1.61 trillion in unpaid care work in 2021, according to Insider’s inflation-adjusted calculations for hours of unpaid care work, assuming a federal minimum hourly wage of $7, 25.
This reality, along with increasingly expensive and scarce child care and few federal protections for parents, may be one of the reasons why populations around the world are shrinking.
“This is clearly one of the reasons why birth rates are falling across the global developed capitalist world,” Kristen Ghodsee, Professor and Chair of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the experiences and utopias lived by women, said Insider. “Because women and people who provide care at home and do this unpaid work are finally saying, ‘No, I’m done.’
As workers across industries rethink what they want from work, parents can be the final frontier. Countries are scrambling to fight shrinking populations – Hungary, for example, has canceled income tax for new mothers for the rest of their lives. A municipality in Finland offers parents a “baby bonus”. Estonia, as the BBC reports, has successfully increased birth rates after implementing a year and a half of family leave and monthly benefits for parents. Parents in Denmark receive child benefit.
The US briefly flirted with an expanded children’s tax credit, sending monthly checks direct to parents – which many of them used to care for their children. But the US has no federal paid leave or guaranteed child care. This leaves both working and stay-at-home dads to create their own economic models and perhaps dissuades some Americans from becoming parents.
“Women are basically providing this very valuable commodity, quote – if you think of labor power as a commodity – for free, in societies where women are basically doing all the work necessary to reproduce labor power in the private sphere, ” Ghodsee, who is the author of the upcoming book “Everyday Utopia”, said.
Some economists, politicians and parents began to ask themselves: what if we paid them?
“I’m doing all this work and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re just a stay-at-home mom,'”
Jessica Strunk, who works as a stay-at-home mom to twin girls, was two years away from graduating as a teacher when she got pregnant.
“The plan was that my little job on campus would be able to cover the cost of childcare at my university,” she said. “And then we found out they were twins.”
Strunk estimates that she is “on shift” for about eight to ten hours every day. In absolute terms, this parental work is in the service of America’s economic future. She is working to prepare her children to be happy, healthy members of society, and she makes sure her husband has what she needs to do his job efficiently.
“If I paid someone else to do this, I would be paying their ass for it. So I must value myself as much as I would pay someone else to do this,” Strunk said.
If she got a paycheck, she said she’d be happy with about $15 an hour. For Carpenter, it would be at least $30 to $50 an hour. Salary.com’s estimate of an annual salary for a stay-at-home mom — taking into account all the jobs they do, including chef, driver, cleaner — is $184,820. GoBanking Rates, using economists’ estimates of salaries for different jobs, found that housewives would earn $41,504.15 annually.
The idea of paying parents to increase birth rates and ensure better outcomes for these children is not new. In fact, many other countries have “universal child benefits”. Research has shown that direct payments to parents can increase fertility rates, as well as reduce poverty and improve long-term health for both children and parents.
For Willow Tepper, quality time with her kids doesn’t feel like work, she said, but most of the rest does.
“There are so many other things that I feel are not necessarily seen,” she said.
Tepper, who has worked as a thought leadership consultant and writer, decided to start working as a stay-at-home mom just three months before the pandemic began. She now has an Instagram dedicated to valuing the work of parents.
“Something I really didn’t expect to notice, and I really didn’t realize until I became a stay-at-home mom, is the leadership skills I had to develop,” she added. “It’s conflict resolution and negotiation, stress management, project management.”
The skills involved in raising a full-time family and the importance of the work of raising the next generation are arguably a public good and should receive some form 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,” said Ghodsee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Because of this American framing of parenting as a private choice, there is a belief that “there really shouldn’t be the kinds of social support and safety nets to support this very, very valuable work that the economy and the state really need to survive. — but doesn’t really want to pay, because paying for it would reduce profits.”
Because stay-at-home parenting exists outside the realms of traditional work — and remains unpaid — it seems underappreciated by parents who do. Early in her career as a housewife, Strunk struggled greatly, feeling that she was not bringing in the money.
“I’m doing all this work and people see it as, oh, you’re just a stay-at-home mom,” Strunk said. “I’m not ‘just’ anything.”
Why Parenting Salaries Probably Won’t Happen
In the seminal 1975 text “Wages Against Housework”, scholar Silvia Federici writes that making housework paid for would help challenge the idea that it is intrinsic to women’s nature rather than work.
“Saying that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a salary makes our work visible,” writes Federici.
As families grapple with the reality of America’s lack of a safety net and how housework is invisible, they’ve had to adapt. Michael Connelly has worked as a stay-at-home dad – then grandfather – since about 1986. He and his wife, a teacher, realized that his salary as a journalist was basically going to just take care of the kids and taxes.
“I said forget it. I’m going to stay home and raise our boy, who a few years later turned into two, then three, then four,” he said. He loved it, but he wished there was at least an option other than staying home out of necessity.
“The need is really for government-supplied daycare, because the market for over 40 years has not been able to provide that product — which is quality, affordable daycare,” Connelly said. “It just doesn’t exist in the United States.”
Without things like paid leave or universal childcare, parents are left to fend for themselves. Assigning a monetary value to the ways they do so would illustrate how work subsidized by some governments is an unpaid undertaking in the United States.
However, proposals to make paid leave universal, or make childcare more affordable, or hand out monthly checks to parents have faded in the US. While one idea for making parenting more sustainable is to pay parents to do it, this can also threaten an underlying social order.
“You’ll find a lot of congressmen, I’m sure, who would say, ‘Paying people to stay home and take care of their kids, that’s ridiculous!’ But that’s exactly what we should be doing,” Connelly said. “It makes perfect sense. There’s no downside. The money it would cost the government to pay this more than goes back into the economy. We’re just stuck in the 1950s or something.”