To Work Or Not To Work: The Dilemma Of The Modern Working Mother

June 12, 2013
Leisha Murphy

Never has there been a time in history when women were so prevalent in the workplace. This has caused a significant shift in gender roles, identity, and expectations. Or, so we think. I recently read a poignant and captivating article in The Atlantic that compared gay marriage to straight marriage:

The article concluded that gay marriage will change the institution of marriage, perhaps for the better. The author, Liza Mundy, summarized three rules for a more perfect union, gay or straight:

Rule 1: Negotiate in advance who will empty the trash and who will clean the bathroom.

Rule 2: When it comes to parenting, a 50-50 split isn’t necessary.

Rule 3: Don’t want a divorce? Don’t marry a woman.

Rule 2 was most striking to me. Mundy referred to the economics of “specialization”; a theory put forward by Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker, whereby one parent stays at home (the “Carer”) and the other does the earning (the “Earner”). While Mundy posited specialization as economically beneficial, she also touched on one downside of specialization – the fact that the Carer perceived their choice to stay home as carrying with it a loss of prestige and stature.

Unfortunately, Mundy failed to adequately address several other downsides to specialization. Based on my experience, there are four common downsides to specialization that appear upon the dissolution of a marriage: i) loss of identity for the Carer; ii) loss of respect for the Carer by the Earner; iii)  loss of financial independence by the Carer; and iv) resentment by the Earner toward the Carer.

Not all Carers or Earners will experience these downsides. There are many couples, whether together or separated, that “specialize” and flourish in their separate roles with few or none of the downsides present. For many other couples, “specializing” is a luxury that is not financially viable. For couples who are considering specialization, consider the following non-economic factors.

Loss of Identity

Women today, on average, have their first child at 33 years of age. At this age, most women have their careers well under way. As a result, some women view choosing to stay home as “giving up” a part of their adult identity. Compared to women a generation ago (our mothers) who, on average, had their first child at 22 years of age, women today are giving up ten-plus years of building a successful career. Consequently, women who do give up their career to stay at home must re-invent themselves and their social circles. They are no longer an elite member of the group of working women breaking glass ceilings and earning a respectable income. As a result, these women who leave the workforce often experience a loss of identity.

The loss of identity may also stem from the inability of working women, turned stay at home mothers, to continue to identify with their suit-clad counterparts. As Mundy discusses in her article, working mothers often judge stay at home mothers as, what she terms, as “mommy wars”.

Loss of Respect

This is the area that Mundy touched on in her article, where the Earner is viewed as the more important part of the familial equation. When the Earner’s day job is perceived as more important than the Carer’s day job, the respect for each others’ realm can shift in favour of the Earner.

While loss of respect is often not as obvious as the other downsides, it can be the ultimate undoing of a relationship.

Loss of financial independence

There is an obvious loss of financial independence when the Carer stops working and stops earning a wage. The Carer then becomes financially dependent on the Earner. This situation in itself can be difficult for couples to navigate. However, the more insidious downside to loss of financial independence occurs long after the choice to stay home has been made. It occurs when the children no longer depend on the Carer (i.e. the children are teen-agers) and the marriage has soured.

When I see women struggle with their decision to leave the workforce, it is 10 to 20 years after the decision was made. With their marriages over, or hanging by a thread, these women are no longer required to be full-time mothers and their spouses no longer want them on the payroll as a stay at home spouse. Unfortunately for the Carer, there is no guaranteed pension as a mother. While our courts in B.C. do recognize the economic disadvantages to the Carer upon relationship breakdown in awarding spousal support and dividing family property, our court also expects, barring any disabilities, the Carer to become and remain economically self-sufficient.

Many women in these circumstances are faced with the prospect of returning to work 10 to 20 years after leaving the work force. Their skills are often out -of -date and, as a result, they are suffering from a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence coupled with the fact that the Earner may not be interested in dolling out “back pay“ for 10 years of enjoying a clean house and homemade dinners, the Carer is left in a financially precarious position, often forcing them to rely on their lawyer to broker a good deal or the court to decide in their favour.

Resentment by the Earner

At the same time the Carer may be struggling to find their way, the Earner may have unwittingly created a dependent spouse that they now must continue financially supporting for some considerable time into the future. As noted above, our courts recognize that when the Earner benefitted from the Carer staying home to care for the children or look after the home, the Earner may have to compensate the Carer through spousal support payments or unequal property division.

The resentment towards the Carer usually occurs when the relationship is breaking down. The Earner no longer wants to financially provide for the Carer and may resent the fact that the Carer has stayed at home for a number of years. Unfortunately for the Earner, nothing is free in life; financial support for the Carer does not typically end when the relationship ends.


Specialization may be economically beneficial at the outset, but the hidden emotional consequences of specialization must be considered carefully as well. The long-term economic downsides to specialization should also be weighed in light of the fact that once a spouse has left the workforce for a number of years, it can be difficult for that person to re-enter the workforce in a meaningful way. Though specialization may make economic sense, you cannot put a price on feeling confident and financially independent.

Leisha Murphy
Leisha Murphy
Partner (Vancouver)
Connect Family Law

Leisha takes a heart-forward approach to her practice. Providing clients with guidance and education, she takes a “big picture” view , assessing the long-term impacts of decisions to ensure the best possible outcome for you and your family.