In the so-called mommy wars, the rhetoric often pits two sides against each other: wealthy women who opt to stay at home with their children versus middle-class moms forced to balance work and child duties.
But while there are certainly members of the "opt-out" generation staying at home -- more affluent, educated female high-achievers -- the recent jump in the number of stay-at-home moms is much more complicated than those generalizations. It's also much more depressing.
Almost one-third of mothers are now stay-at-home parents, up from a 45-year low of 23 percent in 1999, the Pew Research Center recently found. For many of those parents, the choice isn't based on parenting beliefs, but rather is rooted in stark household economics: In 31 states, college tuition is cheaper than paying for daycare.
"Looking at my options, staying at home just worked out better for us," Sarah Davey, a stay-at-home mom, told CBS station WDJT-TV. "I would have been working just for him to be in daycare. I don't know how else I would have paid the bills if my check just went to daycare."
Davey gave up a hospital job she had held for nine years to stay at home with her son, Silas, who is now 11 months old.
Davey isn't alone in choosing to give her career because of childcare costs. For middle-class families, there's often not much room for debate, given the stagnant wages for the overwhelming number of Americans. About half of stay-at-homes have a high school diploma or less schooling, while one-third live in poverty.
Childcare costs have jumped almost 70 percent since the mid-1980s, based on constant 2011 dollars, the Census Bureau reported last year. As a result, for many middle-class and lower-middle-class families, paying for childcare may be increasingly out of reach.
Parents in Massachusetts, for instance, face an annual cost of $16,430 for full-time infant care in a legally operating childcare center, Pew found. While that's the most expensive in the nation, other states aren't far off. New York parents pay an average of almost $15,000, while for Minnesota parents the tab runs about $14,000.
In Davey's home state of Wisconsin, daycare costs an average of almost $10,000 per year. That compares with in-state college tuition of about $8,600. Of course, parents can help pay for childcare costs through a flexible spending account, but the plan is capped at $5,000 per year.
The financial repercussions for stay-at-home moms often continue when they hit retirement age. Annual median retirement income for women older than 65 is $11,000 less than men, partially because they take time to take care of children and other dependents, according to a recent report issued by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D.-Minn.
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