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What You Need To Know About The Motherhood Penalty

First of all, it's real. Very very real.

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Andrea D'AQuino
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My husband and I were sitting at our kitchen table, in the midst of a hope-filled discussion about the medical intervention needed to help me get pregnant with a second child, when a higher-up at the job where I’d been working for the past six years called. That was odd. He’d never called me on my personal phone before — and never in the evening. He said some encouraging words regarding the work I’d recently been doing, but I only needed to hear three: “opportunity for promotion.” Stunned, I hung up the phone.

“What’s happening?” my husband asked, but I couldn’t articulate it yet. What was happening? Both possibilities — promotion and baby — were family and life-changing. As if living out a scene in a sitcom (“The Big Choice” episode), I thought, I can’t go for both, can I?

I stared at the pamphlets and factsheets that I had spread out on the kitchen table before us — phrases like embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization. I settled my gaze on the pictures of babies blooming on the covers of the pamphlets, with their bald, tender heads and full-moon eyes. I felt the opening of a hidden door into the room in my skull where I’d been hoarding maternal desire since giving birth to my daughter three years earlier. A constellation of stars lit up in the reward centers of my brain. Baby!

Then my stomach dropped. A motif in a Russian folktale goes like this: “If you ride to the left, you will lose your horse; if you ride to the right, you will lose your head.” I was standing at the proverbial fork in the road, which suddenly appeared to me not as a fork but as the female body — the professionally dressed woman represented the road I had taken for the majority of my fertile years, when I had pursued advanced degrees and then a career. (I’d been warned in graduate school that having children early would significantly slow me down.) While the maternal, pregnant body led to a second baby. I jumped ahead of the months of preparation and the arduous, multistep process of the job interview and the evenings when I would have to drop my pants so that my husband could inject hormones into my body, and instead tried to imagine beginning my new position — which meant a heavier, more intellectually challenging workload — with the heavier, more emotionally challenging work of caring for an infant.

The words “divorce” and “shoddy mother” and “resignation” loomed on the imaginary horizon. A motif in a folktale for the professional woman goes like this: “If you ride to the left, you will lose your career; if you ride to the right, you will lose your baby.”


Do women really have to stare down such an archaic, uniquely female, either-or dilemma in the professional world? Unfortunately, sociologists argue that “The Motherhood Penalty” exists. Statistically, each child a working woman has reduces her opportunities for promotion and earnings over the long term, while the opposite is true for fathers — likely because employers view fatherhood as an asset and view motherhood as a liability. Employers fear that mothers of young children — or even single women in their childbearing years — will be less dependable and miss more work due to caretaking obligations, but assume fathers are ultracommitted, responsible employees.

Further, mothers face discrimination during the application-screening and hiring process: They receive fewer callbacks and may be offered lower salaries than their male counterparts applying for the same position. Ironically, mothers who are perceived as being more dedicated to their professional lives than their children confront equal scrutiny, the assumption being that a mother performs poorly somewhere — at the office or at home (if not both places). Many women forgo getting pregnant altogether until they’ve achieved job security (like I did), only to discover that their fertile years may be over. How do we change antiquated cultural and social attitudes toward mothers? For one, we need to keep having conversations about gender stereotypes. In order to recognize both parents as caretakers, paid family leave for mothers and fathers would help, along with affordable daycare at the workplace. And, when possible, flexible work schedules are ideal. Anne-Marie Slaughter, an international lawyer and former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, who famously left her job to spend more time with her two teenage sons, advises that more women need to populate executive positions and become judicial leaders in order to “create a society that genuinely works for all women.”


Despite my fears, in the end I went for both. Rather predictably, with me nearly 40, my eggs were too weak and too few, even after the thousands of dollars we invested in them and the paper gowns I wore, the painful procedures I endured. My brain cells, however, proved hearty and plentiful: Let me tell you, I ruled that room during the job talk that resulted in my promotion. It’s a sign, I tried to convince myself, that this is finished: our family of three. But I couldn’t silence the what-ifs in my head. I searched out other roads, other paths. And at 42 and through adoption, I became the joy-filled, professionally working mother of a second daughter.