For women, child care isn't a cost -- it's an investment

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(MoneyWatch) Child care costs are high, but they're how you invest in yourself.

Every woman is aghast at the cost of child care, and every article I've ever read about women's careers agonizes over it. If all your salary goes to paying for child care, the argument runs, what's the point?

When I had my first child, I too nearly fainted at the cost of child care, but it never occurred to me to consider staying home instead. Why? Because even if my work brought in net zero income to our family, I knew that that would not be true forever. Yes, for a few years -- quite a few in fact -- I probably operated at a loss. But as my career advanced, I slowly but surely became a profit center, as it were. And, much more important, by the time I didn't need child care any more, my career had advanced significantly and had momentum. I hadn't taken the "off ramp," I didn't need to catch up on new technologies and job searching tactics, and as a family we had developed some healthy, thrifty habits.

What helped me? Perhaps the greatest influence was my father. He would have been appalled at the idea that I would not invest in myself. How could I expect anyone else to invest in me if I didn't do so myself? That would have been his question. Those years I was a net loss, he would have seen those as an investment. Child care costs were the price I paid for learning, growing, getting more experience and opportunities. If it had been called tuition, no one would have blinked.

My father also believed passionately in the financial independence of women. It's one reason why he was so supportive when my mother started her first company -- and so jubilant when she succeeded. He knew that paying your own way isn't just financially helpful; it's psychologically transformative. And he really liked strong, confident women.

I'm struck that men don't seem to think twice about investing in themselves -- in classes, qualifications, conferences and clubs. They don't seem to have any qualms about spending time and money on their professional development. I think we can learn a lot from this.

But I also think that men, as well as women, need to see child care costs as a shared investment in their family's future. The value of a parent isn't measured in their salary but in their ability to do together what puts the entire family in a stronger position.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that full-time childcare and full-time work is for everyone, but it was for me. And most women have little choice; the family needs the income, however little that may seem at first. Even when going back to work seems to make little financial sense, however, it keeps you in the game, growing and learning.

I don't think presume to tell women what they ought to do. Every woman makes her own decisions, which are never easy but always deserving of support. But viewing child care costs as an investment may make them feel less painful and keep eyes on the prize of professional development and financial freedom.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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