Working Moms and the Dual Income Trap


In Kiplinger's June 2009 issue there's an article titled "Goodbye City Life," by Elizabeth Ody. It tells about a Manhattan lawyer who quit her high-powered job to spend more time with her family and start a less demanding career at home: baking. Like many women today, Felicia Fisher has decided she wants a simpler life; so she started the Black Buggy Baking Company out of her home. Most of her work is done by 8:00 am -- 11:00 am on a bad day.

"Although losing her salary was an adjustment, [Fisher] says it's been surprisingly manageable. Health insurance from her job had been covering the whole family, but they're also saving a bundle on the combined expenses of commuting, babysitters, and an office wardrobe. She says the experience of living next to Mennonite neighbors helps you realize you don't really need the luxury items people own nowadays." Fisher is a great example of one of the arguments I make in my book, 7 Myths of Working Mothers: You really can stay home if you want to.

Particularly in light of our new economy. In fact our new economy is the best reason to stay home. Since the downturn, there have been scores of articles written about how families can cut back, spend less, become more frugal, downsize, budget better -- you name it. In "The Upside of Living on Less" (Redbook, March 2009), Whitney Joiner writes about couples who've turned a liability -- losing their job, for example -- into an asset. Countless families have learned an important lesson: It isn't always financially sound to have both parents in the workforce full-time. Not when your children are little, anyway.

In fact I would argue that the mass exodus of mothers from the home is partly to blame for why we're in this economic mess. We say we need the money, but for what? For larger homes we can't afford? For some time, the prevailing wisdom in America has been that most mothers "have to work." I say there's never been a better time to challenge this argument. If you read the articles about families who are scaling back, you notice a pattern: In describing their new lifestyle, women mention things like cooking their meals at home; spending Saturdays at the park; playing games with their children; going to the library -- basically, the kinds of things families used to do in the old days. You know, when mothers were home. The reality is that we've simply created an environment that requires two incomes. In order to keep it up, mothers say they "have to work." And they do -- if they expect to meet the demand they've created. Change the demand, and options abound.

David Brooks writes in New York Times Magazine that wealth "really does seep into your soul." As a result, "life becomes a vectorial thrust toward perpetual gain and aspiration fulfillment. It takes a force of willpower beyond the call of most ordinary Americans to renounce all this glorious possibility." Of course, we didn't renounce all this glorious possibility -- which is one of the reasons our economy is faltering. It's also why for years we've been referring to at-home mothers as "lucky" -- because the alternative is to believe these families are somehow able to renounce that second income and live without abundance. Yet this is precisley what most of them do.

There will always be circumstances that force mothers into the workplace. But the fact remains that the dual-income family -- in which both parents are employed year-round and full-time -- is a trap. Do the math, change your lifestyle, and most families will fare better economically (to say nothing of the reduced stress) if one parent stays home. If this suggestion seems outlandish to you, it's only because Americans have been taught to believe that mothers today have no choice in the matter. In fact this is considered such a fait accompli that few dare to question the wisdom (or lack thereof) behind it.

The only way to counteract the message is to think for yourself. You just may find, as so many women have, that there really is another answer.


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