Mother's Day: Motherhood costs women $250,000 in lost wages

Mother's Day isn't enough to make up for what motherhood costs. On average, mothers will give up nearly $250,000 in lifetime earnings by deciding to have a child. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Julie Driggs holds Carter. 13 weeks, during baby yoga in 2009. No Mother's Day gift can come close to the true cost of having a child. On average, women give up $250,000 in lifetime earnings to become mothers, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Whatever you’re planning to buy Mom for Mother’s Day, it isn’t enough.

We know the expense to raise a child has never been higher, and only looks to rise.

The cost to middle-income families to raise a child born in 2013 will be $241,080 over 18 years, according to the United States Department of Agriculture – nearly a 3% increase from 2011. Add to that the cost of college and the rising cost of daycare – which in 31 states is now higher than the price of in-state university tuition – and we progeny become pretty pricey prospects.

But that’s not the full story. What about the uncounted costs of being a mother?

Some economists have long argued that work-at-home mothers should be included in the nation’s GDP – and if so, would total between 21% and 50% of many nations’ economic output. takes an annual stab at putting a price on motherhood. If transportation, janitorial, logistical and psychological support were calculated, stay-at-home mothers would earn a “mom salary” of $118,905 a year, according to its 2014 survey.

Firmer statistical ground is found in research on total lost wages that motherhood brings. Economist Amalia Miller at the University of Virginia found in 2005 that for every year a women defers having a child equals a 10% increase in lifetime wages. More recently, a trio of researchers writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research takes it even further, looking at the average loss of wages depending on skill levels of women, using Armed Forces Qualification Test scores.

The result? For highly skilled women, the lifetime cost in lost earnings from motherhood – even if she returns to work – is estimated at $230,000. Low-scoring women lose about $49,000 of lost salary after becoming mothers.

“Our findings strongly indicate that the wage costs of childbearing are vastly higher for high-skill women, that these wage penalties persist over time, and that having children later may reduce, but will not eliminate the significant lifetime costs of childbearing for higher skill women,” write researchers Elizabeth Ty Wilde, Lily Batchelder and David T. Ellwood.

And the percentage of lost wages is much higher the more skilled the woman.

“If a low-scoring woman chooses to have children, she will give up 10 to 14% of her potential lifetime earnings. But a high scoring woman will give up nearly 21 to 33% of earnings,” they write.

Other findings: High scorers are more likely to work full-time all year prior to birth. They are more likely to be working part-time five years after birth than low-skilled women, who are more likely to leave work altogether.

Their research suggests that economic factors are increasingly influencing patterns of human propagation.

“We suspect that dramatic changes in the 1960s: the women’s movement, the pill, the expansion in work opportunities for women, and altered attitudes about maternal work and premarital sexual activity, all gave women a new ability to control fertility and potential incentives to do so,” they write. “In effect, these social and economic changes allowed economic forces to play a much stronger role in decisions about fertility.”

And men? Childbirth has no impact on the lifetime wages of fathers, no matter how skilled they are, the researchers found.

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