The Cost of a Working Mom's Summer Non-Vacation

The Cost of a Working Mom's Summer Non-Vacation
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There are some bills you make an effort never to add up. The annual cost of your daily latte habit. The difference between what your health insurance covers now and what it used to before you had to switch carriers. And how much you're spending on childcare so you can keep working during your kids' summer vacation.

Here's my weekly bill: $1,390. We have three daughters, ages 2 to 12, who need to be occupied outside the house so I can work on my new book and on various articles at home. The nanny who takes care of my two-year-old daughter gets $540 for a four-day week; I take Fridays off so that she and I can spend them together. The seven-year-old is currently at a swim and tennis camp that costs $375. That's the discounted group rate; if I hadn't gone in with a bunch of other moms from school it would be more. And our oldest is a counselor-in-training at a horse camp. That means I don't have to pay for mornings--Olivia is saving us a fair bit of money. Afternoons are a mere $475. Thus it costs nearly $1,400 a week for me to work.

I probably don't have to tell you that I don't make nearly enough money to justify this kind of expenditure. Nor do my husband and I make little enough to qualify our family for summer programs that cost significantly less. We are well-off people--it may be a strain to pay so much to send our kids to camps where they learn to swim and ride and hit a tennis ball, but not such a strain that we can't handle it. My ability to work is a luxury. We can more or less afford it.

But why do I have to use all those words to describe my work life? Why is it a luxury? Why should we have to afford it? The need for two paychecks is a fact of life for countless couples across the country. According to government statistics, more than twice as many parents are dual-career couples than not--about two-thirds. And yet the school calendar is still designed to make sure our kids can help us tend the corn. How many American families make their living as farmers these days? Not two-thirds, I imagine.

And yet here I am, paying thousands of dollars a month so I can keep working while my children take a three-month break from school not to help on the farm. And to what effect? Yesterday Good Morning America reported that kids suffer a catastrophic "brain drain" over the summer, losing some 60% of what they learn during the school year. Did you catch that? In just three months they forget more than they retain from nine.

If I continue my accounting of the annual bill for my working summer, I can't omit one number that begins to explain why my work can't possibly cover the costs of the childcare that makes it possible: government statistics say that mothers like me have to stomach a 7% hourly wage penalty per child. I have three kids. That's 21%. Ouch. The survey cites the usual reasons--loss of job experience; employer discrimination against women with children; and the one I'm most interested in for the sake of this argument--a tendency to seek lower-paying, mother-friendly jobs. I have to be in a flex job, working freelance from home instead of full-time in my old office at Fortune magazine. How else am I going to stop at four o'clock to pick up all these kids from all these camps?

I fail to understand why, as a nation, we persist in structuring the year this way. We say we're afraid that our students can't keep up with those from abroad. But our kids aren't studying a thing from June to September. We acknowledge that most mothers need to work and that it's harder for them to advance in their jobs than working fathers, but we insist on throwing this annual 12-week roadblock in their path. Not to say that we should make this easier only for mothers who "have" to work. I don't "have" to work, and given the figures above, it's costing my husband and me a pretty penny for the privilege. But since when is the "privilege" of doing work you adore reserved for women without children or mothers who married well? (And please don't flame me with commentary about how if I had all those children the least I can do is stay home and raise them. I do raise them. And I have yet to hear anyone say that to my husband, or to any man, for that matter.)

My husband and I did find a way to cut down on the bills from my summer of self-indulgent work. We're going on vacation--it's cheaper. I'm taking three weeks off and we're swapping houses with a family who lives in Bishop, California, a little town in the Eastern Sierra. My husband will commute from Bishop to our home in San Francisco, where he can sleep in our ground-floor apartment while the house-swap family uses the two floors above. It would be nice if he could take those three weeks off and spend them with us. But we can't afford it.

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