Regrets of a stay-at-home mom

Consider this a warning to new mothers: Fourteen years ago, I "opted out" to focus on my family. Now I'm broke

Published January 6, 2011 2:01AM (EST)

We had wonderful times together, my sons and I. The parks. The beaches. The swing set moments when I would realize, watching the boys swoop back and forth, that someday these afternoons would seem to have rushed past in nanoseconds, and I would pause, mid-push, to savor the experience while it lasted.

Now I lie awake at 3 a.m., terrified that as a result I am permanently financially screwed.

As of my divorce last year, I'm the single mother of two almost-men whose taste for playgrounds has been replaced by one for high-end consumer products and who will be, in a few more nanoseconds, ready for college. My income -- freelance writing, child support, a couple of menial part-time jobs -- doesn't cover my current expenses, let alone my retirement or the kids' tuition. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.

My attempt to find work could hardly be more ill-timed, with unemployment near 10 percent, with the newspaper industry that once employed me seemingly going the way of blacksmithing. And though I have tried to scrub age-revealing details from my résumé, let's just say my work history is long enough to be a liability, making me simultaneously overqualified and underqualified.

But my biggest handicap may be my history of spending daylight hours in the company of my own kids.

Just having them is bad enough. Research shows that mothers earn 4 to 15 percent less than non-mothers with comparable jobs and qualifications, that as job candidates, mothers are perceived as less competent and committed than non-mothers (fathers, in contrast, rate higher than men without kids). Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, told me last year that the outlook for an at-home mother returning to work in this economy "kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit." I know the feeling.

When Paul Krugman warns that many of the currently jobless "will never work again," I am petrified -- hello, 3 a.m.! -- that he means me. I long ago lost track of how many jobs I have applied for, including some I wouldn't have looked twice at in my 20s, but I can count the resulting interviews and have fingers left to twiddle idly. Before I left full-time work in 1996, my then-husband and I, both reporters at the same newspaper, earned the exact same salary. Now my ex, still a reporter, is making $30,000 a year more than that, while I have been passed over for jobs paying $20,000 less.

As I wander the ghost-town job boards, e-mailing my résumé into oblivion, I tamp down panic with soothing thoughts: I have a comfortable house, for now, some money in the bank, for now, a 9-year-old Mazda that rattles alarmingly but runs, for now. Millions of people are hanging by far thinner threads, and I am genuinely grateful for what good fortune I have.

So this is not a plea for sympathy. More like a warning from the front lines.

The recession has already shifted habits and attitudes and will likely usher in long-term cultural changes about which economists, sociologists and political strategists are churning out predictions as we speak. Here's mine: The economic crisis will erode women's interest in "opting out" to care for children, heightening awareness that giving up financial independence -- quitting work altogether or even, as I did, going part-time -- leaves one frighteningly vulnerable. However emotionally rewarding it may be for all involved, staying home with children exacts a serious, enduring vocational toll that largely explains the lingering pay gap between men and women as well as women's higher rate of poverty. With the recession having raised the stakes, fewer mothers may be willing to take the risk. If it's not yet the twilight of the stay-at-home mother, it could be her late afternoon. Certainly it is long past nap time.

Statistics suggest mothers are reaching that conclusion. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of stay-at-home mothers fell from 5.3 million to 5 million. (Stay-at-home dads held steady at around 150,000.) Who knows how many others are frantically sending out résumés? Whether they have paying jobs or not, mothers still handle most of the country’s child care, but that "feels like the last gasp of a dying age," journalist Hanna Rosin wrote last year in Atlantic Monthly. She quotes Boushey noting that "the idealized family -- he works, she stays home -- hardly exists anymore." The image of a mother pushing a stroller down the street at midday may come to seem as quaint as that of a 1950s housewife pushing a vacuum in stockings and pumps.

Stay-at-home mothers obsolete? Those among the 5 million who are alive and well and reading this may already be clicking indignantly to the comments section to defend their choices. Go ahead and vent, stay-at-home mothers. I get it. Fourteen years ago, I struggled with my own decision amid a tangle of internal and external messages. Some still seem valid and others now less so, but the difference was hard to tell amid the hormone-saturated, sleep-deprived, advice-swamped bewilderment of new parenthood.

I became a mother during a moment in history when women faced unprecedented career opportunities yet were expected to maintain a level of interaction with their children that would have made my own mother's eyes roll practically out of their sockets. I was a busy reporter and naive new mom, two jobs that I was led to believe could not, for all practical purposes, be performed adequately and simultaneously. Oh, and while one was commendable, the other was morally imperative.

Like I needed the extra pressure. I already felt responsible for giving my sons childhoods -- those fleeting years that would forever loom large in their lives -- full of adventure and learning and treasured memories. If I could have enriched their experience by moving to a farm or hitting the road in an Airstream, I would have considered it. But according to the parenting manuals I dutifully consulted, what my boys required was constant engagement with a loving, omnipresent figure, sort of like if God engaged in daily floor time. The parenting experts never said exactly how children like mine, overseen by an ever-shifting cast of underpaid near-strangers in a commercial daycare center, would be damaged. But I got the impression I might as well have gone through pregnancy throwing back shots of tequila.

Meanwhile, my work/life balance … wasn't. My husband and I kept erratic hours, handing off babies like batons. At work, I lost choice assignments as I dashed out before the stroke of 6, when the daycare began charging a dollar a minute. My editors, probably well-meaning, set me on what suspiciously resembled a mommy track. While an intern handled the tragic late-breaking news of an honor student murdered by her mother's crack dealer, I yawned through meetings where citizens complained about potholes. (Though who knew how fabulous a steady-paying pothole gig would look to my underemployed future self?)

And the emotional turbulence! I drove to work with spit-up-stained shirt and tear-streaked face, cried at baby-food commercials featuring mothers and infants bonding in what looked like a weekday-afternoon glow. I felt the time flying past. My firstborn wasn't yet crawling when I began gazing nostalgically at newborns in the park, with their impossibly delicate fingers and mewing cries. Over at the playground, hulking 4-year-olds hoisted themselves around with huge, capable hands, conversing in vast vocabularies. Soon my son would be one of these giants, his infancy vanished into the chaotic past.

My second son was born. Two weeks later, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sitting near my dad's bedside, I showed off the baby to my Aunt Millicent, mentioning my plans to return to my job. She shook her head sadly.

"You won't believe how fast those years go by," my aunt said. "Try not to miss them, if you can help it."

My father died two months later. That fall, my husband found a new job in a different city. And I -- feminist, ambitious journalist, daughter of a woman with a successful advertising career -- quit a full-time job at a big-city paper and began part-time freelancing work that brought in less, some years, than I'd made as a waitress in college.

I wasn't worried, frankly, about the long-term economic consequences, partly because nobody else seemed to be. Most articles and books about what came to be called "opting out" focused on the budgeting challenges of dropping to one paycheck -- belt-tightening measures shared by both parents -- while barely touching on the longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks. The difficulty of reentering the workforce after years away was underreported, the ramifications of divorce, widowhood or a partner's layoff hardly considered. It was as though at-home mothers could count on being financially supported happily ever after, as though a permanent and fully employed spouse were the new Prince Charming.

I myself witlessly contributed to the misinformation when I wrote an article about opting out for a now-defunct personal-finance magazine. Amid chirpy budgeting tips and tales of middle-class couples cheerfully scraping by, I quoted a financial advisor bluntly outlining the long-term risks. My editor wasn't pleased. "It's so … negative," she said, and over the phone I could almost hear her nose wrinkling. So I, neophyte freelancer eager to accommodate well-paying client, turned in a rewrite with a more positive spin.

Since then, a few writers have reported the financial downsides, notably Ann Crittenden, who calculated in "The Price of Motherhood" (2001) that having a child costs the average college-educated woman more than a million dollars in lifetime income. More recently , Linda Hirshman ("Get to Work," 2006) and Leslie Bennetts ("The Feminine Mistake," 2007) wrote manifestos scolding women who opt out. In 2010, Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy outlined the risks of downsizing a career on behalf of family in "Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples."

But I might not have realized such warnings even applied to me: After all, I was working. Downsizing my career seemed ideal -- research shows 60 percent of mothers would choose part-time work if they could. While my kids spent three afternoons a week in daycare, I did what the experts advised: developed my skills, undertook new challenges, expanded my professional contacts. I advanced creatively if not financially, published essays in respected literary journals that often paid (cue ominous music) in copies of the magazine.

But who had time for long-term financial planning amid the daily demands of two small boys? I took them sliding, skating, swimming and skateboarding, supervised art projects, helped with homework, conferred with teachers, drove to music lessons and dentist appointments and baseball practices. I handled all of their sick days, some involving lingering health problems that, if I'd had an office job, would have exasperated the most flexible employer. Not every moment, of course, was sunny and delightful; there was plenty of crying, screaming and slamming doors (sometimes by the kids, too, ha ha). It was harder than any paying job I've ever held.

Salary experts estimate the market value of a stay-at-home parent's labor (child care, housecleaning, cooking, laundry, driving, etc.) at about $118,000. This hollowly cheerful calculation has always struck me as patronizing, with the effect, if not the intention, of further diminishing our status. Moms -- aren't they the greatest? They should be pocketing as much as a registered pharmacist or the mayor of Chula Vista, Calif., yet they'll happily accept payment in the form of adorable gap-toothed smiles. An implied, faintly sinister coercion -- a good mom doesn't want money -- fuels a system that relies on our unpaid childcare, household chores and volunteer work but offers no safety net.

Few of the arguments for staying home seem as persuasive now as they did 14 years ago. I long ago stopped trusting most advice from so-called parenting experts. The kids I know who attended full-time daycare seem fine, and I doubt my sons would have been damaged if I had kept my job. In at least one crucial way, they'd be far better off: I'd have more money to contribute to their college educations.

Still, like most mothers, I have mixed feelings about my choices, and like most mothers writing complaining first-person essays, I feel compelled to note the upside. I am deeply thankful to have witnessed as much of my sons' childhoods as I did. I'm a procrastinator, and I can imagine myself thinking of those long playground afternoons as something I would get around to eventually, not noticing the swing set's shadow stretching ever longer across the sand.

So if some young woman with a new baby were to ask me about opting out I would tell her, as my Aunt Millicent told me 14 years ago, how quickly a child's early years zip past, how challenging but wonderful they are, how grateful I am for every single moment I was privileged to witness.

And then, unlike my aunt, I would warn her not to do it.

By Katy Read

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.


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