Monday, December 04, 2006

They're Only Young Once

Today during Genevieve's morning nap, Julia and I made Christmas cookies. Sugar cookies, to be exact, the kind you cut out with cookie cutters and sprinkle with red and green sugar. OK, so I bought a tube of the pre-made dough from the store instead of mixing up a recipe from scratch like MY mom used to do when I was small, but it's better than getting that pre-shaped stuff that comes already cut into miniature trees and stars! Julia helped me press the cutters into the dough and then poured colored sugar all over them. We listened to Christmas music while we did it, and discussed the merits of Frosty the Snowman vs. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We're planning on giving these cookies away as gifts, but also "saving some for us to eat!", as Julia enthusiastically reminded me. OK, so she's only two, but it was still a lot of fun to do this little holiday project together. I love stuff like that, and the fact that my own mom developed traditions like this to do with my sisters and me when we were little is surely a big part of why I am so thrilled to institute holiday rituals for my girls now.

But this morning's Christmasy project was especially poignant given what's been on my mind the last couple of days. I'm deep in a thicket of money stress right now, which is only new in the sense that rather than a sort of theoretical "can we really afford for me to be home full-time with the babies?", the issue now takes the form of a very real "don't spend any more money before the end of the month, and by the way, these groceries have to last three weeks" type of scenario. Over the weekend, after Christopher got his paycheck, he subtracted from our online checking register all the set monthly bills to be paid in December--mortgage, utilities, car payment, and the like--and told me what was leftover. Let's just say the number was small enough to cause a mild case of nausea that lasted the rest of the day and kept me up that night. It's the beginning of the month. To only have this small amount of disposable income leftover to get us through four more weeks--for diapers, for gas in the car, for doctor co-pays and Genevieve's ridiculously expensive medicine, for my Visa bill with the Christmas presents on it--was shocking.

Yes, I knew it would be tough. I knew the day would come when we'd be watching every penny. And money's been tight for months, not just now. But it's certainly worse now that my business is five months gone, and to be faced with the reality of our finances so suddenly in black-and-white, during the holidays no less, is depressing. I found myself giving thanks for a little recent unexpected donation from my parents, and wondering if we really should have bought that (much-needed) new mattress last month after all. I found myself weighing the $132 due for Julia's winter/spring session of two educational toddler classes vs. the fee for an online writing class I was hoping to sign up for in January, and deciding that Julia's classes are more important.

I started thinking about ways to earn money, and imagining the equation of income minus daycare costs. And then getting really, really sad about it, picturing Julia being left with (at first) a stranger all day, and how that would just crush her little heart. (OK, I know all parents probably feel that way at first, and I know she'd survive. But if you are doubting my dramatic choice of words, you probably don't know Julia very well.) Picturing Genevieve's little baby face and imagining only seeing her a couple of hours a day, between work and bedtime. I wouldn't be leisurely making Christmas cookies with Julia on a weekday morning, and making the memories attendant with such an activity. I would miss my girls so much. It would kill me.

It is true that, until Julia turned two, I did work part-time and managed to avoid daycare, by working in my own business during hours I could set for myself, choosing evenings after Christopher came home from work. But the truth is, were I to open a practice again in our new town, with no contacts, no network, no one who knows my work who could refer to me, it would take a year or more (probably more) to break even, let alone make a profit. It takes a long time to build up a practice from scratch. And the other work options potentially imminently open to me (the college counseling center seems to always need people, and a friend of a friend is looking to open a new clinic down this way and has been asking about hiring me) are daytime ones, with the number of work hours per week unknown to me right now. And daycare for two is EXPENSIVE. And I can't help but wonder: so am I just a bratty member of the overly-entitled Generation X, because I simply insist that I be able to stay home with my kids because that is how I want to raise them? Because I refuse to believe that it's not possible for me to give up work and afford to do so?

I'm not friends with many rich people--though there are a few--so I'm not trying to paint myself as worse off than everyone else. Many families we know are struggling these days, in one way or another, so it usually feels pointless to compare or complain. At the same time, though, these current tight purse-strings make me really miss living in a working-class neighborhood (in Minneapolis), where no one had a whole lot and therefore no one felt strange (at least, they didn't seem to). It makes me miss having my friend Rachel just down the block, because she was worse off than I, money-wise, yet had chosen to be home with her baby for the same reasons I had, and we could sit and play with our kids and talk about the best way to save money on groceries and not feel weird with each other.

Because wouldn't it feel better, sometimes, if our own finances weren't such a taboo subject, and we could support each other now and then by commiserating about how hard it is to give up an income to stay home with one's children, those of us who are doing it, and not doing it easily? How come no one ever talks about this with each other? Wouldn't it feel less hopeless, wouldn't we feel less alone as the ones without the college fund, without a respectable investment portfolio, without a reserve of emergency savings?

Is anyone out there going through this too?


Elise said...

Uh, YEAH. But you knew that already. Shit, Chad just got a $13,000 raise and we're STILL not at all sure we can keep living on one income. (This is partly because he was earning crap before the raise. But still.) If it weren't for the freelance work he gets, and the extremely occasional freelance work I can scrape up, there'd be absolutely no way. And there still might not be. It's a month-to-month question. But I feel the same way - unless I were going to a job that I'd absolutely love (i.e. a teaching job) I just couldn't bear not being at home with Ellie. I think a lot of it IS having had a stay-at-home-mom myself, and having that be such a big part of my childhood memories. It's also the discovery that I like and am good at being a SAHM - something you never know until you try, right? And yet at the same time, I'm so aware that there are so many people I know who'd love to be stay-at-home parents and can't ... like you said, comparisons are odious. But it sucks to be worried about money all the time, that's for damn sure. And when the choice is being worried about money all the time, or being depressed and forlorn at not being able to stay home with the kids ... well, nobody wins, do they? Wish I had more words of wisdom. Personally, I'm trying to work the freelance writing thing as hard as I can. Is that an option for you? What about online teaching? There are lots of online Psych programs - I bet you'd be a shoe-in for a teaching slot. Hope it eases up soon.

Shan said...

I agree--part of why it's important for me to be home with my kids is that my mom was home with us, too. And I also agree that I, too, love and am good at it. I'm way happier doing this than I was doing other things. And I believe I'm way better at it than I would be at juggling the stresses of both office work AND parenting and running a household!

As for freelance writing, you and I need to talk. I'm desperately trying to find out about freelance writing opportunities, but don't really know where to look. Online teaching is something I always forget about and don't know if I'd hate or not, but I'd be willing to explore it if it meant being able to stay home longer. Thanks for the reminder.

Heidi (big sis opening her big mouth!) said...

Don't know what to tell ya, except that, yeah, we're in a similar boat. It's been a LITTLE easier this past year w/ Greg working full time (albeit at pitiful wages for his skill set), but he just--JUST!--as in TONIGHT!--as in, this is not public knowledge around these parts yet--got hired for a new job that will actually start at 3/5 time but hopefully build up to more. And the wages are the same. But the clincher is, he will have a lot more support from his boss, a bit more room to be creative, and--we hope--a lot more job satisfaction than where he's at now. So, whether you work as a SAHM, or something else, I put job satisfaction/happiness WAY at the top of the list. You CAN forego the writing class AND the toddler classes if you need to. Get together with your playdate groups and let Julia tumble around there. A toddler tumbling class (or whatever) would be AWESOME if it's affordable, but NOT a great loss if it's not. If it's between the toddler CLASS and making cookies with MOM, what do you THINK she's going to remember when she grows up? The same thing YOU do!

Now, IF you could ever find a daycare provider willing to take kids, say, just one day a week (not likely, but if...), you could maybe really USE that day for some sort of outside work, and it would be good socialization for the girls too, even if it were hard at first (and you'd probably need to start with a higher frequency than just 1x/wk to get them used to it). Or maybe you could arrange a co-op type of thing w/ the other moms who have kids the same age as J. & G.: a round robin sort of thing, where mom x takes mom y's kids one day and mom y takes mom z's kids another day and mom z takes mom x's kids a 3rd day---no $ exchanged, but freedom to do a day's work.

Otherwise, I'd say just hang in there for a couple more yrs until J. is in school and G. is in preschool and just give up every non-essential you possibly can stand to do. Treat yourself on *occasion* but really consider whether you NEED a certain outfit or hair salon or latte or whatever. Maybe you just need a half hr. of reading w/ the 2-yr-old and a snuggle w/ the baby.

I'm sounding like I have all the answers and I don't mean to. These are just my rambling thoughts, and things we've dealt with too. Oh, and BTW, WE don't have a respectable retirement acct. either and our college funds will get the boys thru about their first week of school, at this point. I think they'll have to take out loans and apply for scholarships just like we did... and maybe take care of us in our old age, too!! Payback for all those cookie-making sessions!!! LOL

Shan said...

You make a lot of good points (and congrats to Greg!). We could forego the toddler class(es) and Julia would be fine, of course, although I do find that these classes (ECFE) have helped her tremendously with being less timid, able to meet and play with other kids and adults, etc. (the classes have a separation component where the moms leave the kids with teachers to play). And I really want her to have the tumbling class because she refuses to do anything active at home and she needs physical exercise (plus it's a cheap one). But, I hear what you're saying. Obviously if it came down to giving up classes or me going back to work, I'd give up the classes. But as it is, since they are on a sliding scale according to income, and they give Julia so much benefit (and me too! I get to discuss parenting issues with other stay-at-home moms!), they seem like the last thing to give up.

I don't know about the daycare thing. I know from a friend that part-time daycare is just about impossible to find. And the round-robin thing is a nice idea, but in practice to find a family with the same sort of goals/schedule/etc. for it to be reliable enough to use as daycare for work....I don't know how likely that is. The girls do get good socialization at our playgroup, but that's not daycare, all the moms are there too. It's as much for the moms' sanity--if not more, ha ha!--than it is for the kids to play.

We are definitely trying to give up as many non-essentials as possible. I think we have done so a great deal already. But I have to admit that I refuse to give up my haircuts at my old hairdresser's, which cost way more than, say Great Clips. Being well-groomed and looking good, and feeling good about it, is definitely worth the money when compared to the many crappy haircuts I've gotten in my lean student years at bad places like that. I'd never give up my hair appointments with Shauna. I'd rather eat PB&J for a week! ;)
Other than that, though I have to say, we don't splurge on much, if anything. Occasionally we go out for coffee with friends or with ourselves, but mostly we make our lattes at home. We order a pizza every couple of months, but we don't eat out anymore. It's all worth it, as I've said before, but man is it depressing sometimes too!

Having said all that, you are definitely right that what Julia and Genevieve will remember is the time with Mama, the special things we did together. I know all that, but even so, I don't know how long we can do it.

Donna said...

I'm so sorry to hear that you guys are in this situation. Sucks sucks sucks. Oh, and did I mention that it sucks? Bottom line, kids are EXPENSIVE (and worth every penny).

I have to completely agree with Heidi. Happiness - at work as well as at home - is important. It's finding the balance that is the hard part. But I don't need to tell you any of this.

I like Heidi's idea of the round-robin. It might not work out to be able to count on someone for work, but maybe to do some short-term consulting or on-call kind of work? How about tapping into the college kids in your area? Do you think they could do some babysitting so you can take on some work (need not be out of the office, but maybe to give you some time to write quietly in another room)... Since college kids have their class schedule, you could set up a schedule each term... I don't know how that factors into affordability, but maybe you could barter with them... Or if nothing else, you could write them a letter of recommendation for grad school - might be especially helpful for the education and psych majors. Or you can offer to be a character reference for a job.. I like to have character refernences when I interview potential employees.

I wish I had more suggestions for you. I just hope for you all that you can find a way to make it work. I know how important it is for you to be able to be home with the girls. Good luck and keep us posted!!

Heidi said...

Yes, as Donna said, I was thinking of the round-robin not so much for a steady set-day kind of job, but more so you could write or something like that. The college-kids idea is a great one! They always appreciate a little extra cash, and the chance to get off campus---maybe even barter for a home-cooked meal now and then!

Berry said...

Hey Shan:
Right now is the time to get it under control and make the adjustments.

And don't stress out- you'll be OK.

I want you to try building what is called a Three Piece Plan... go to and register-- but when you get to the payment page just click next and skip it.... Once you are logged in you'll see how to set it up.

Basically a Three Piece Plan is a way to budget without having to keep track of all of your receipts, etc.

For just keeping track of cash without having to set up Quicken go to -- it's free anyway.

You can contact me on the site if you have any questions.

Enjoy your Christmas but do start getting a grip on the finances... otherwise six months from now your credit cards will be stacked up.

Shan said...

Nice try, Berry. Are you a lurker or what? I don't need your site, thanks anyway. We don't use credit cards on a regular basis and have stellar credit scores. Credit cards are NOT what I am worried about.