Motherhood is an amazing (if labor-intensive) job, but it sure doesn’t pay well. In fact, the unpaid work of motherhood can cost you at your paying job—which is a big problem if you’ve got student loans to pay back.
The latest U.S. Census data reveals that America’s gender wage gap (which is largely a motherhood gap) is growing, and the pandemic is making it worse: Experts worry the economic fallout from COVID-19 could set women back by a decade. An analysis from Pew’s Stateline reveals mothers with kids 12 years old and younger lost nearly 2.2 million jobs between February and August.
This is deeply concerning because mothers are more likely than fathers to hold student loan debt and the combination of the pre-pandemic wage gap, disproportionate job losses in 2020 and insufficient paid leave policies are setting women up for financial disaster. Right now millions of mothers are worrying about how they make their student loan payments when the odds are stacked against them, and lawmakers need to be worried, too.
The average student loan repayment is nearly $400 a month according to Credit.com, but motherhood can make paying that back feel impossible. And it means moms pay more interest and pay loans for longer than fathers do.
Not only are mothers more likely than fathers to have lost work during the pandemic (three times more likely, according to Pew) but they’re also much more likely to take parental leave after a birth or adoption. If they’re lucky enough to get maternity leave at all (which is very much not a guarantee in the U.S.), most are still expected to keep making their monthly student loan payment.
There’s no pause to account for the fact that the vast majority of women have no money coming in—and interest just keeps on accruing.
As moms recover from the physical ordeal of childbirth and care for their infant, they also have to worry about scraping together the money to make their payment.
Anna Helhoski, a student loans expert at NerdWallet.com, says when women with student loans go on to become mothers, they face what she calls a double burden. “Women already take longer to repay their student loan debt compared with men because they’re typically paid less,” she says. “Tack on taking time out from the workforce to take care of children and it can be an even bigger challenge for moms.”
Luckily, however, there may be things you can do to make the financial logistics a little easier.
“You can talk to your federal student loan servicer about entering into an income-driven repayment plan. It won’t help you pay off your debt faster, but it will lower the amount you have to pay each month to be commensurate with income. If you’re not working for a short period of time—during maternity leave, for example—your payment would be zero,” Helhoski explains. “Moms with private student debt should contact their lender to find out what type of temporary payment reduction or payment pause is available.”
That, of course, is just a stop-gap measure. The much larger problem is that getting a college education still leaves millions of Americans saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Maggie Germano, a financial coach for women, says student loans can be so onerous that they force some women to put off motherhood.
“This debt burden can prevent people, but especially women, from achieving their other goals, like buying a home, starting a family, or just generally flourishing in life.” Germano says the country needs a policy solution. “I would love to see student loan debt canceled,” she explains. “We’ve reached an impasse where the cost of college is sky-high and people hold more student debt than ever before… We need to recreate the system and make college more affordable.”
Germano also says we need more transparency around the student loan process.
An 18-year-old young woman hoping to go to college likely isn’t thinking about how her student loans might someday impact her family-planning choices, or her child-care options. And she shouldn’t have to think about that.
“It’s incredibly important for people to understand what they are actually agreeing to when they sign up for student loans when they start college,” Germano says. “Many people have no idea how long this debt burden will follow them when they sign up for it.”
For women, it can add up to decades of financial struggles and its time for lawmakers to recognize the problem—and come up with a solution before this double burden sets working mother back decades.