The term “motherhood penalty” is back in the headlines, a phrase coined by sociologists Dr. Paula England and Michelle J. Budig to describe the financial impact children have on female earning power and upward career mobility.

Claudia Goldin, 77, is at the center of the story these days. That’s because just last Monday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for tracking and analyzing the “gender wage gap.”

For the past 34 years, Dr. Goldin has been a member of Harvard University’s Economics Department, most recently holding the title of “Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences.”

Reflecting on her career of tracking women in the workplace, Dr. Goldin told reporters the history has been encumbered by the way the United States census asked questions.

“The census would ask, ‘What is your gainful occupation?’” she said. “And women would say, ‘Well, I’m a housewife.’ You couldn’t say two things.”

Over the years, Dr. Goldin pioneered creative ways to gather information, and her findings have confirmed a general assumption as well as set the record straight on another important point.

It’s true that women have historically earned less than men in the workplace. However, the award-winning researcher has made clear over the years that it’s not necessarily due to discrimination – but in many cases, motherhood. 

We all know very talented and gifted women who have voluntarily stepped away from the workforce to have a baby. In some instances, it’s a temporary pause in their career – upwards of three months or so. Still others walk away from paid employment altogether and pour themselves into the work of fulltime mothering and homemaking.

Whether twelve weeks or twelve or twenty-one years, the mother who makes the move does so out of either necessity or a conviction that her decision is in the best interest of her child and family.

At the same time, Professor Goldin’s research finds that men who become fathers actually enjoy a bump in pay over time. The thinking here is that having a family to provide for incentivizes and inspires the dad to work even harder.

But that’s not the end of the story or the debate.

In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Dr. Goldin suggests, “We’re never going to have gender equality until we also have couple equity.”

Translation: Mothers shouldn’t have to bear all the burden in the home. In other words, why should mothers be the ones who step away from their careers? Might not fathers shoulder some of the responsibilities mothers traditionally take on?

Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, rightly urges caution:

“I believe this is a matter of Christian conviction based upon a biblical worldview, but I also believe it’s just irrefutable based upon, say, biology and human experience: mothers can do things fathers can’t do. God has equipped mothers to do something that’s absolutely essential, not just something, but many things, that are absolutely essential, especially in the youngest years of a child’s life.”

Dr. Mohler isn’t referring to the sharing of household duties like shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Wise and thoughtful husbands partner in those essential tasks, as do children doing age appropriate chores. He’s talking about those innate motherly qualities, like acceptance, empathy, tenderness, and kindness. Dads may and should possess versions of those characteristics, but they don’t employ them in the same manner.

Mothers and fathers are equal in value – but they’ll never be interchangeable. In fact, both are indispensable.

Perhaps most disconcerting, though, is connecting the word “motherhood” to “penalty” – a term that carries the connotation of a punishment. In pure economic terms, children do cost money – whether in a career or throughout their lives. But most of us would agree that children are priceless. It’s about the memories, not the money. Most of us would give up every dollar we’ve ever earned – or might someday obtain – for the joy of being a mother or father.

Photo from Shutterstock.