Another hidden cost of modern parenting–the Mom Commute

Before I had kids, I used to look around at the fatigued SAHMs and working mothers around me and I thought (if I thought about it at all) that a lot of the things they did were optional and not really necessary to the kid-raising life.

Well, I was wrong.

The Mom commute has a long history in American society, but it wasn’t as broadly required in the first half of the 20th century. And there were still ways to avoid the worst of it in the second half via carpooling and roping in still-available neighbors, relatives and friends. And also, for a short window of time, nannies. During peak working mother, around the late 1980s and early 1990s, the first wave of amnestied Hispanic women made a labor pool for domestic work that included doing a lot of the driving. And contrary to the story about them, during that window of time, the wages they were paid were decent and many received real benefits as well. Minimum wage was very low and so (for that brief window of time), paying twice minimum wage was hard, but not completely brutalizing the old finances and the freshly amnestied immigrants were happy to get comparatively generous wages for the work. Things changed with the dotcom era, of course, but a roughly ten year window of being able to pay generously for childcare and still have a lot of money left over distorted perspective later.

Anyway, while a bit of a digression, the point is that now in the 21st century, all the social bonds and stuff have corroded and the mom commute is pretty much a requirement for all moms, even pretty rural ones. It’s not even about the dreaded activities, it’s that getting your kids around other kids and getting them the educational resources they’re supposed to have, even if they’re public schooled involves a lot of commuting (even if you can pop them on the bus in theory).

This is a pretty major fertility shredder and it’s also a reason a lot of married households want two very comfortable cars. They also need them because the Mom Commute tends to not be in the same directions as the Work Commute. The schools and kid stuff are in one part of the city/metro area/county, but the jobs (including mom’s if she works outside the home too) tend to be somewhere else. That includes teachers, who used to be able to easily work in the district their kids were in and now rarely can.

Giving up the Mom Commute really does mean for most married mothers agreeing to a truly astonishing level of isolation and dependence on mass media and social media for themselves and their children and hard limits on physical activity as well. But you never really hear about it, even though that much driving is health-damaging and poorly compatible with keeping the old figure in tiptop shape.


17 thoughts on “Another hidden cost of modern parenting–the Mom Commute

      • I used to believe that but it just doesn’t hold water. People choose sprawl over livable, affordable neighborhoods in small cities. They do it over and over again. I think Lasch gets closest to correct about why – people have learned to desire a particular kind of privacy and lack of community involvement, and suburban sprawl provides that while urban neighborhoods don’t.


  1. Now that I think of it, if we didn’t do any “unnecessary” stuff, our kids literally wouldn’t see any children their age outside of our family from the end of May when school ends until late August when school starts up again.

    It looks unnecessary, until you connect those dots.

    Life is much simpler during the summer for us as a family of three than for most families of 3 with a 4-year-old, because my husband is an academic and Big Girl has gotten very big, so it isn’t true that the three kids and I need to go everywhere like a chain gang all summer long. Today, however, we had the following dilemma because my husband had a meeting that looked like it was going to conflict with Big Girl’s first opportunity to see her classmates since school got out a month ago.

    We were faced with

    a) skipping the Big Girl social opportunity

    b) me driving to the Wrong Side of Town with the three kids and Big Girl do-gooding for an hour in the park with her classmates while Middle Kid and Baby Girl tried to play for a full hour at the park in TX at mid-day (and probably needing to deal with a gross public park restroom) and then doing the second half of the outing, which is a visit to a favorite teen girl watering hole. I would need to do something with the littler kids while Big Girl socialized and either keep the little kids longer than they wanted or Big Girl shorter than she wanted or probably both. Oh my goodness! You will notice the bad ratio between Big Girl fun/enrichment/moral improvement and physical suffering by multiple other family members.

    Happily, husband’s meeting was cancelled and husband was able to take Big Girl by himself and work or read, greatly improving the fun-for-Big Girl/suffering-for-other-family-members ratio

    This was an extreme example, but with the larger the family gets, the worse the ratios get.

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  2. You are right about the income of immigrant domestics during that area. My mom was one such person and did indeed get good benefits, including a car–granted, a Ford that burst into flames, forging my hatred for that company from an early age.

    Of course, her babysitting rich kids meant that I was semi-neglected*, so this solution is kicking the childcare can down the street (or rather down the socioeconomic ladder).

    *One way this was solved was by having me come along during those babysitting sessions. The older of the two boys became a solid friend for as long as lived in NorCal.


  3. People forget this is also a regional thing. There are suburban areas close enough to urban areas where they could become walkable and more community-centered, but the people who’ve lived there for 50+ years and moved there to experience the idyllic suburbs don’t want it to become walkable. I live by those kinds of cities, which are chock full of elderly retired people who revolt at the prospect of sidewalks (because they don’t want to shovel, despite the city offering to pay), they don’t want to see the kind of community discussed here, and they don’t want to change their commutes out for reliable public transportation because the blacks and browns might show up. Then all the rich people who live there put up signs protesting, because they moved there to enjoy the lake and making it more walkable means bringing in dirty people who’ll ruin it for them.

    A lot of these suburban governments want to be walkable and community-centered to attract Millennials, but the long-timers don’t want it because it’s “too much city.” It’ll be another generation before anything starts to change.


    • Oh yeah.

      My city in TX has a 1920s neighborhood near downtown that apparently used to have more sidewalks, but then they got pulled out. It makes it a pain to walk through, but that’s the idea.

      Likewise, our old neighborhood in DC is legendary for having successfully fought metro access. Hence, despite being one of the most popular parts of the city to visit, we had two metro stations a 30 minute walk away. It was like being marooned (as we didn’t have a car and taking the bus with kids is a pain). According to legend, the idea was to keep out the riffraff. It has to be very inconvenient for legit residents, too, as driving anywhere across town in DC is terrible.


      • The marooning thing requiring a car is a way to separate class. Since there isn’t much of a respectable poor class going, people would rather not live in the walkable neighborhoods with a mix of classes. The decent walkable neighborhoods left are for wealthier people, but those leave out a lot of the middle class. My parents live in a suburb that sprawls, with few sidewalks, but they did that on purpose because they didn’t want to see the riffraff.

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    • It’s interesting how reversed it all is in Canada where I live. Sidewalks are everywhere, no exceptions. Urban areas are richer and whiter than average, not ghetto (around Toronto you don’t see much ghetto at all except the infamous Jane&Finch area), rich suburbs are pretty welcoming to walk in. I’m a humble apartment dweller with no car, I walk in posh lakeshore neighborhoods almost daily, and people smile and say hi. We’re so lucky.


  4. For data purposes, our district in SoCal has been too broke to bus anyone to school (minus the SpEd kids, because there’s a law) for 15 years or so. That means that EVERY family has to figure out the Mom commute. And there are minimum day Wednesdays through Jr. High. I have no idea how anyone does a two-parent full-time work schedule. They do, of course. And I see 6yo walking themselves home. You wanted an anti-parent policy? There you go.

    IME, it seems like all your best buddies (once you are out of a PS elementary) end up living on the opposite side of town. Murphy’s Law. Having to do formal play-dates in HS is ridiculous – but it’s a thing.


    • There are a lot of no-transportation districts. DC is like that, too, and it’s HARD to get across DC.

      ” Having to do formal play-dates in HS is ridiculous – but it’s a thing.”



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