In the U.S., 25 percent of working mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth — with the financial math of staying home just not adding up. In her piece for Wealthsimple, Karen Russell explores the constant calculations she is making as both a writer and a mother, where “every minute with her kids is work lost, and each minute writing subtracts from precious, un-price-able joy.” With no universal health or child care, many new mothers feel a “low ceiling of dread” around balancing the necessity of work with having children. The result is that the luxuries of time and creativity are often lost: “If you’re afraid that you can’t pay rent, or buy groceries for your family, there is no surplus energy to burn inside a dream.”
On a daycare morning, like this one, I think about my toddler son near constantly. I worry that my writing days have an emotional cost to him that I sometimes project to be very high, and always pray will be offset by what he gains, also incalculable at this early hour, by attending a good daycare. What I can tally to the penny is the actual dollar cost to our family: $1,200 a month, $300 a week, $100 a day. When I fixate on this math, I begin to have the panicked sense that I gave up time with my son to delete three paragraphs; suddenly writing badly feels like stealing from him. This is obviously not a healthy way to approach creative work, or a pressure that yields good fiction, at least in my case.
One of my best friends is an acclaimed journalist and recently-divorced mother of a four-year-old son. As a contributing writer for the New York Times, she makes $50,000 a year and receives no benefits. Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,800 a month; the cheapest childcare she could find costs $1,200 a month. “My son is eating Doritos and watching cartoons in a basement right now,” she told me. “That’s the best I can do for him.” Her father, a machinist in Fort Lauderdale, sends her his social security checks. She is struggling to make ends meet despite writing for the most prestigious paper in the world, and is actively looking for a second job.