Do Stay at Home Moms Give Up Too Much?

Sasha Brown-Worsham
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There is no one right way to raise a family, even though "experts" (and commenters on websites) will tell you differently. Every family is different and every mother makes different choices.

There are a few constants, of course. Children need love and supervision, and mommy needs some time both with and away from her children. Beyond that, we can all make different choices and, like we said in "Working Moms Finally Get an Edge on the Stay at Homes," we can all be correct at the same time and it will be OK.

For the first 3.5 years of my children's lives, I was a stay at home mom. I had some freelance work, but by and large, my days were spent catering to my babies, nursing them, taking them to museums and classes, and generally making them my world. They are still my world now. Only now I also have a full-time job. And a recent piece that ran in Salon reminded me of why. Says writer Katy Read:

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.

Having had my feet in both worlds for so long, I would never say one choice is superior to another. Both have their good points and bad points, and in the end, all things being equal, it's really up to you what makes you happiest. That said, I do prefer being a working mother. And this article reminds me just why and how much.

There are many times I second guess my decision to rejoin the full-time workforce. It was not an easy decision and not one my husband initially supported. Our original plan had been for me to stay home until both of our children (now 4 and 2.5 years old) were in school full-time. But I became itchy and antsy, and as the economy tanked and my freelance opportunities dried up, I started to miss the working world.

And then a job -- one I could do completely from home with a salary and benefits -- fell into my lap. It didn't work out. But the next one did and it has enriched my life in ways I never could've imagined. Even though my salary is largely eaten up by the costs of our quality (but expensive) preschool and our sitter, the double options for health insurance and the retirement savings that I now contribute are worth it. Should my husband ever lose his job, we will be covered.

Also, much as I adore my husband -- and I do -- when I was at home with the children, there was always the nagging feeling that he called all the financial shots and that if he left me, I would have nothing. This is something Katy Read addresses in her piece:

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'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.

"A safety net." Is it depressing to talk about our marriages like they may crumble beneath us at any moment? Absolutely. But it's also the truth. No one goes into a marriage thinking they will divorce. But 50 percent of marriages do end and then women who gave it all up for babies can find themselves at a scary crossroads.

In this economy, many moms are getting the message, too.

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. 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.

It's sad, but it's true, and for me, working is a necessary part of my personal happiness equation. I know I am lucky to be home while working and have a flexible job. These are the kinds of perks that could end this dilemma for many women. It allowed me to nurse my toddler as long as he wanted while also maintaining my career. It allows me to see my kids play in the middle of the day at school or fix her lunch before her nap while she is at home with the sitter. I don't pretend to know what it's like for a lawyer mom who works 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. each day and can barely make it home before bed most nights.

But I do know that women need more options than just work like that or stay at home, and that if we don't talk about these things and acknowledge what can happen financially to stay at home moms, then we aren't really being honest. I don't regret the time I spent home solely focused on my children. But I'm glad it ended when it did.

Most of the time, anyway.

How do you feel about your decision to stay home (or not stay home)?

 

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