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  1. Politics
28 February 2000

Why a second child spells ruin

There's a mother gap as well as a gender gap at work. One child is bad enough; another could rob you

By Rebecca Abrams

Just what is it with this country and children? How do we manage to combine an attitude of saccharine sentimentality about the sanctity of the home with the most punitive employment practices for anyone who dares to let home interfere with work? Look at all the fuss about David Beckham missing a training session to be with his ill baby. If you are reading this, David, you might like to know that my husband was also at home on Monday afternoon looking after a sick child. Of course, no one cared much in our case, which may be something to do with the pay differentials between soccer stars and academics. But the important point is this: Beckham got a bollocking by the boss and a dressing-down by the British press, when what he deserved was a round of applause for putting his family first.

Despite 25 years of so-called equal opportunities, raising families is still widely regarded as women’s work, and still comes with huge costs attached. A report from the Women’s Unit published on 21 February showed that women not only lose out financially for being women, but are additionally penalised for being mothers. There is both a gender gap and a mother gap.

Modelling women’s incomes over a lifetime, the report calculated that a mid-skill woman (with qualifications at GCSE level) earns £241,000 less over her lifetime than her male counterpart. She earns £36,000 more than a woman of exactly the same skill-level, but with a child.

The long-term financial costs of having a second child are even greater. The Women’s Unit calculates that a high-skill woman loses £19,000 by having a second child, a mid-skill woman, £140,000, and a low-skill woman £269,000, or a staggering 58 per cent of her lifetime earnings. And that’s without accounting for expenditure on clothing, toys, food and childcare.

Over the course of her lifetime, a low-skill woman with two children will earn around £500,000 less than her low-skill husband. To put it another way, his lifetime earnings will be nearly double hers. At the other end of the scale, a high-skill mother of two earns £160,000 (or 14 per cent) less than her husband.

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Poor, uneducated women are hit hardest by motherhood, because they are the ones least likely to remain in any kind of paid work, and to have the lowest rates of pay when they are earning. But for mid-skill women who return to part-time work after just two years, the penalties of mothering are also very high. As Katherine Rake, lecturer in social policy at the LSE and editor of this report, points out: “Going part-time involves downshifting in the pay-scale. Part-time workers are being paid less now than in the 1980s. It’s not just a case of mothers working fewer hours; they’re also being paid less than other part-time workers for the hours they do work.”

Is it pure coincidence that as part-time work has become increasingly attractive to women seeking to combine unpaid mothering and paid work, it should have become increasingly poorly paid? Is it not strangely reminiscent of what happened with rates of pay in social work and teaching as they became feminised occupations?

The big success story of late-20th century feminism was that increasing numbers of women were returning to work after becoming mothers; by the end of the century, motherhood for most women had stopped looking like a career choice, and had become one of several things that a woman might do with her time and energy. Eighty per cent of women now carry on working in some form or other after the birth of their first child, and yet this figure is not sustained for very long after the birth of their second. With two children, traditional patterns quickly reassert themselves for all but the most highly skilled women, and the majority of mothers drop down to part-time work after having their second child, or stop work altogether. Which begins to look less like progress and more like the usual roadworks.

This “second-child effect” has received relatively little attention from social scientists until very recently, but it is fast emerging as an important new trend in women’s employment patterns.

An on-going study by psychologists at the University of Kent, looking at how women’s attitudes to work change after they become mothers, found a marked shift between the first and second child. “The majority of women intend to go back to work after their first child is born,” explains Diane Houston, “and they are carrying out that intention, even if their views and feelings about work change once the baby actually arrives. But the second child seems to precipitate a big change in a woman’s attitude to work, and crucially in her intentions. In terms of the choices women make about working outside the home, the second child is making a real difference even before it’s born.”

Childcare costs are obviously a major factor in many women’s decision-making. Often, paying someone else to look after your children while you work stops making financial sense with two.

Twenty years ago, women looked pretty much like each other in terms of employment patterns and mothering; today, they are becoming increasingly polarised along class and education lines into work-rich/child-poor on the one hand, and child-rich/work-poor on the other. This is not a sign of healthy diversification, but rather an indication of how limited the options are to individual women wherever they fall on the employment spectrum.

Despite enormous changes in the past two decades in the patterns of women’s working lives, the workplace revolution still shimmers on the horizon, as infuriatingly distant as ever. Eighty per cent of mothers may be in paid employment, but bearing children actually has a worse effect on women’s earnings now than 15 years ago.

The “choices” a woman makes about whether and how much to work after having children are informed by a complex web of factors, including her financial situation, her marital status, her age, class, education, and her partner’s occupation (and by less obvious factors too, such as how well the children sleep at night). Inflexible, long hours and low pay still stand between women with small children and paid work.

Women alone cannot make the workplace into a fairer place. What most women want is more flexibility in the workplace, and more commitment from government to encourage and enforce this. What would help women and men, (not to mention children and families) is a concerted challenge to the long-hours culture; a more positive attitude from employers towards flexible and part-time working; more recognition of a father’s needs; more support for parenting as a responsibility shared equally by fathers and mothers; and the recognition of children as a collective responsibility, rather than a private obligation.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of “Mother of Two: how your second child changes your life all over again”, to be published next year