Most of us are familiar with the “motherhood penalty,” a systemic bias that puts working mothers at a disadvantage in terms of pay and perceived competence. But what would the inverse of the phenomenon be called?
Perhaps we should call it the “not-mommy” penalty or the “I-got-so-busy-I-forgot-to-have-children” penalty or the “childless-by-choice” penalty. It’s a concept so underdiscussed and unrecognized that we haven’t yet named and stigmatized it properly.
Even without a name, a kind of suspicion about not having children exists, especially when it’s women who don’t have them. It rears its head in unexpected ways, in response to questions like: “How many kids do you have? How old are your children? Where do your kids go to school/camp/college/church?” When the answer is, “I don’t have any kids,” then comes the sudden flash of embarrassment from the person asking the questions, the uncomfortable stammering, the quick backfilling of conversation. And then worse, some of the follow-up questions teter on being highly inappropriate.
“The syndrome that shall not be named” manifests itself in a very common belief that not having children is something of which to be ashamed of or disappointed. If a woman does not instantly evince some sort of embarrassment or recognition that she has made a poor choice, the next step in the process begins — I think of this as the “can you work an extra shift because you don’t have children” phase.
In the workplace, the not-mommy penalty often manifests in requests to cover for fellow employees on holidays, birthdays or other occasions; the underlying rationale being that if someone doesn’t have children, no one will be disappointed if they are not attending social events. There is often an expectation that those without children will come in earlier, stay later and forgo meals. Night meetings? They’re yours. Weekend obligations? Yup — yours too. It’s your niece’s first poetry slam? Not your daughter? Well, then too bad, there’s a deadline to meet.
Although I make light of this, it is an unfortunate thought process that devalues those who have made choices other than the ones expected by societal norms. I’ve met women who were paid less than parents with children, with the rationale they didn’t have kids to support. I have a friend who works for an organization in which the majority of employees don’t have children. She tells me that a coworker suggested the organization was not normal because of the employees’ personal choices. This sentiment regarding norms and mores is not uncommon, and I’ve heard similar stories from others.
I know what I’m saying counters much of what we as a society think we understand about today’s women in the workplace. For instance, research has shown that there’s been a longstanding gap between the wages of mothers and of women without children. Research published last year reinforced this finding that mothers make less than their childless female peers, noting that the gap hasn’t narrowed at all since the 1980s. For mothers with two children, that gap is about 13 percent, and for mothers with three children, it’s about 18 percent. (This goes a long way toward helping explain the gender gap, and why women overall make less than men.)
I recognize there may not be a big body of research — yet — to support my argument that the not-mommy penalty exists on a wide scale. But in my own experience and in those of many friends and colleagues, it is very much real. So the bigger point I’m making is that we as a society need to think deeply about how far we’ve come in terms of our treatment of women in the workplace.
The decision not to have children is not always black and white. Some people want to have children but can’t because of struggles with infertility. For others, it’s a choice. A friend once told me that her decision to not have children was heavily influenced by her desire not to contribute to our world’s overpopulation crisis. Whatever the reason a woman doesn’t have children, it does not make her a lesser person, someone to feel sorry for or an employee to who doesn’t deserve her free time.
Choosing not to have children should not be penalized, demeaned or seen as a lesser choice than choosing to have children. Just as women choose to have children should not suffer the motherhood penalty for needing time to raise their children, neither should those who have chosen a different path. We need to embrace a paradigm that rewards and recognizes each of us for our different talents, aptitudes and, yes, also our childbearing choices.