Many of you may have seen the Salon.com article this past week titled “Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom.” Writer Katy Read is a recently-divorced mother of two, who has worked part-time for many years and is now finding it impossible to find a job—and not just a high-paying job, just any job at all. It has generated a lot of comments and responses (as was expected), many of them in the vein of this one from A Blogger and a Father. But there are also comments thanking Read for “having the courage to say these unpleasant truths out loud” and stating these painful facts.
I just wrote recently about being a stay-at-home dad, which is both less common and probably less career-killing than being a stay-at-home mom. (I mentioned myself that there’s an unfair double standard when it comes to working parents: dads are seen as better job candidates and moms are seen as worse.) There’s definitely some truths to what Read says and it’s food for thought for anyone considering full-time parenthood. However, I think her comment about the upsides of staying home are just a little bit of lip service after a lengthy complaint—if I were her child, I don’t know that I’d really believe she was “deeply thankful” to have me.
So I’m trying to strike a balance here, something that’s not just a knee-jerk “oh, you’re so wrong” article but also doesn’t agree with Read completely (or perhaps much at all).
You know what? Being a parent involves sacrifice. Whether you work full-time or part-time, outside the home or from home, or have no paying job at all, becoming a parent involves a lot of trade-offs. Going out on a date with your spouse gets much more expensive, either because you have to pay for a babysitter or because you take the kids along and make it a family thing—which is its own sort of trade-off. If you work outside the home, you have to pay for childcare and shuttle your kids there on the way to work. If you choose to stay home, you give up having co-workers, interactions with other adults and a paycheck. Staying at home with kids certainly isn’t going to help you on any sort of career track.
But there’s a reason it’s called a “trade-off.” You get something in exchange. If you stay home, you don’t have to put up with co-workers, sitting in meetings, or figuring out what “business casual” means. Instead, you get to see your kids take their first steps, hear their first words. You get to be there for the big milestones in their life—and perhaps more importantly, for all the little moments that aren’t milestones but accumulate over time into memories and experiences that you can play back any time because you were there, not watching it on video.
Staying at home costs you. I won’t deny that at all—if you’re considering it for yourself, whether you’re a man or a woman, you should take the time to count the costs before you jump in. Read seems to be of the opinion that nobody should do it, that any woman who’s considering staying at home is bound for disappointment. While I think there’s probably a significant number of those five million stay-at-home moms (and 150,000 dads) who regret their decision, I hardly think that’s reason to warn everyone off the idea entirely.
My mother stayed at home and raised three kids—and she had an MBA and a career when my older sister was born. I know that it was a hard decision for her to stay home: in fact, she was reluctant to do so and intended to go back to work as soon as possible. Two more kids later, and she resigned herself to the fact that she should stay home. It wasn’t until we were in high school that she started working part-time again—but she’ll never have the same level of income as she could have if she’d never quit her job. The difference, though, is that even though she wasn’t ready to stay at home at first, she didn’t complain about us. I never got the feeling that she was resentful or felt she made a mistake—in fact, I never even knew staying at home wasn’t her plan to begin with until I was an adult and about to become a parent myself. Regardless of how angry or resentful Read is at herself, her ex-husband or her children, I think it’s a poor decision to air her grievances in that way. Does she think her teenage sons won’t find out what their mom has been writing about them?
Another story comes to mind as well. I have an old farmer friend who was divorced when his girls were young. He often tells me stories about raising his kids himself. After all, farming is not one of those things you can do part time. It doesn’t have flexible hours. He gave up raising hogs when he realized that it just wasn’t compatible with having little kids, but I know his kids spent a lot of time riding in the tractor and combine with Dad. When he sees me with my two little girls (and especially when he knows I’ve had a rough day) he just grins and offers encouragement and talks about how glad he was that he got to spend so much time with his kids. And though he doesn’t say so, I know that he had a much harder time of it than I do now and that gives me a sense of perspective. I know that he would never discourage somebody from becoming a stay-at-home parent.
I also know that I’m incredibly blessed to have the life I have now. Parenting is almost never easy, but I know my circumstances are enviable to some and I’m certainly not complaining. I also strive to be the sort of person who likes my own life, whatever I happen to be doing or wherever I happen to be living. That said, here’s why I’m not anxious about my own life turning into Read’s situation.
At this point in my life, I (like Read) don’t picture myself needing to go back to work in a decade. Of course, you can’t predict the future, but you can take precautions. I’m sure when Read decided to cut back her hours she had no intentions of getting divorced. And while it’s foolish to dismiss divorce as “something that would never happen to me,” there are things you and your spouse can do to actively decrease your risk for divorce. There’s a difference between not planning to divorce and planning not to divorce. Check out Tara Pope-Parker’s book For Better, written after her own divorce, for lessons she’s learned from science about improving and strengthening your marriage. If things are rough, get counseling, find somebody to talk to who will support your marriage and not just tear down your spouse. Better yet, start building a support network long before you hit a rough patch so you’ll be more prepared if it happens.
Of course, even apart from divorce, there’s always a possibility that you could lose your spouse in an accident, or to disease, or worse. While I certainly hope that won’t happen, hoping only gets you so far. My wife and I both have life insurance policies—more on her policy since she’s the breadwinner, but enough on my policy as well to pay for childcare and help around the house if she needed it in case I died. The life insurance won’t pay for everything and won’t cover the grief at the loss of a spouse, but it will at least prevent me from having to rush out and find a job right away.
We’ve started college funds for our daughters. Granted, we’ve got a long ways to go before we’ll have enough and we’re not counting on them getting sports scholarships based on their current levels of coordination and athleticism. But we have some time and we started early. If you’ve got kids and don’t have a college savings fund started, consider getting one now. Check the College Savings Plan Network to look up 529 plans in your state. As with retirement savings, it’s never too early to start. (And speaking of retirement savings—that’s not a bad idea either. Since I don’t have a pension plan to put money into, I have a Roth IRA and I try to contribute every year if I’m able.)
Read asks, “But who had time for long-term financial planning amid the daily demands of two small boys?” You know, we talk about how we can have it all: we can be super parents and excellent employees; we can volunteer in our communities and raise our kids and change the world. But if you don’t do a little long-term planning, financial and otherwise, you’re just not using your time well. Better to let a few other things slide a little and be prepared for the future.
Unlike Read’s “most mothers,” I don’t have mixed feelings about my choices. It took time to figure it out, but now I’m certain I made the right decision for myself and my wife and my kids. I feel compelled to note the downsides because I don’t want somebody complaining that I’ve sold them a bill of goods. If some young mom or dad asked me about staying home to take care of their new baby, I would tell them how much I’ve loved being with my kids. I would tell them about all the little moments that they’ll miss if their kids are in somebody else’s care all day. I would tell them that it’s expensive, and hard, and trying, and frustrating. But I wouldn’t tell them not to do it—I’d just try to help them be prepared.
I also wouldn’t try to scare them by saying that choosing not to stay home is going to ruin their child—most likely, it won’t. Honestly, it’ll probably be harder for the parents when their kids are graduating from high school than it will be for the kids. One commenter on Read’s article said that if she’d stayed at work she’d probably be writing an article now about how she regrets missing her kids’ childhood. I’m inclined to agree—count the costs, make your decision and live your life.
Whatever your decision, don’t think of it as “opting out.” You opt in to full-time work, or you opt in to staying home with your kids. Stop staring over the fence—the grass is greener where you tend it.