The incredible shrinking maternity leave

A U.S. Census report shows that new moms are going back to work faster than ever.

Published February 16, 2006 7:49PM (EST)

USA Today has an article today on a new U.S. Census Bureau report that finds that more than 65 percent of women now return to work within a year of having babies and keep working later into their pregnancies -- often until the last month. The report also finds that mothers with the highest education levels and the highest-paying jobs worked later into their pregnancies and returned sooner.

Really, these statistics aren't surprising in the least. Opt-out revolutionaries aside, how many people can afford to take time off before or after they have a baby -- especially if they're not receiving paid maternity leave? The USA Today article goes on to quote fertility fear-monger Sylvia Ann Hewlett -- who single-handedly propelled a generation of women into mass hysteria when she released her infamous book "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" in 2002, and who agrees that, yes, financial pressure often forces women back to work soon after they have babies.

"There is a lot of burden in these figures," says Hewlett, who is founder and president of the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy and published a study earlier this year that found that women lose 18 percent of their earning power if they take a year or two off from work. (Another study at Cornell University found that women face a "motherhood penalty" and are less likely to be hired, are offered lower salaries and have to deal with the perception that they're less committed than men or childless women because they have kids.)

Not surprisingly, Hewlett does have some guilt to throw at the ladies. "If women are returning to work more quickly after childbirth because of financial pressure -- I think that is happening -- it's really bad news for newborn babies," she says. "All of the expert opinion says you need four to six months to really bond with a newborn." (Many working mothers -- myself included -- might like to debate the experts and Ms. Hewlett on that point.)

So, what is happening to all of those nonbonded babies -- and their older brothers and sisters -- when their moms return to work? According to another U.S. Census report, families with a working mother and children under 15 rely on a variety of child care arrangements, including relatives, day care for infants and after-school programs for school-age kids. Shockingly, the study finds that on average families spent $95 each week on child care costs.

"Certainly the price per year varies enormously with the age of the child," Rosalind Barnett, director of the Community, Families and Work Program at Brandeis University, tells USA Today. "If you're talking about full-time care for a baby -- that's a very expensive proposition. If you're talking about three hours after school for a 10-year-old -- that's another proposition." Joan Lombardi, a child-care expert based in Washington, D.C., says care for young children can easily cost $10,000 or more a year.

So let's recap: You can shell out a ton of cash for someone to care for your children while you go back to work -- and risk not bonding with them. Or you can leave the workforce altogether and pay the professional price for the rest of your life. Seems like I've heard this somewhere before.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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