Thursday, March 05, 2009

Being A Stay-At-Home Mom in a Get-to-Work World

All this talk of economic difficulties and cash-strapped households has really got me thinking. In reading my friend Mnmom's recent post about her all-American family's slide from typical middle class into financial crisis (it's a must-read, by the way--a perfect example of all that is going wrong for the middle class in this country today), and in considering the comments to my own post the other day about my family's current money worries, it occurred to me that sometimes there's very little one can do about certain situations. Or, rather, one can do a whole heck of a lot, and still have problems.

Because, in all honesty, there isn't much fat for Christopher and me to cut out of our family budget, now that he's lost his second job. We live frugally, as I've written about before (to mild controversy). We do without many small luxuries that plenty of families consider the norm (second car, most electronics, eating at restaurants, take-out dinners, vacations, movies, babysitters, unattached housing, occasional manicures, new toys on any other occasion besides birthdays or Christmas, most new clothes).

Sure, there are always places we could still cut back: we could give up our basic cable, but we only subscribe because, due to where our house is situated, without it we don't get ANY television channels at all--not even PBS. I could give up my admittedly somewhat extravagant four-times-yearly hair appointments at the salon I frequented before I had children (but which are one of the few things that make me feel pretty as a harried, busy, full-time mom). I could stop running, since as any avid runner will tell you, good running shoes cost $80-100 a pair, and because I have arthritis, I have to replace mine twice a year without fail. But running keeps me healthy and sane, and is one of my greatest joys. Christopher could give up his hobby of participating in skiing and running races (all of which have an entry fee). But honestly? Most of us can't cut out every single penny of discretionary spending to get by and still have a life that feels worth living. Could you?

So what it comes down to, it seems to me, is this: I am a stay-at-home mom in a family that--for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons relating to our educational histories (two Ph.D.s = massive student loan payments), professional/career choices (fields that require Ph.D.s do not pay well: who knew?), and, in Christopher's case, an expensive hearing-loss condition--can't really afford to have a stay-at-home mom. We're a family with values that include parent-care for our children, but we can't truly afford that value. (Or, maybe I should say, we can't afford that value without a lot of struggle and stress, and an acceptance of insecure finances.)

But how can you put a price on a deeply-held value?

What do you all think, fellow at-home moms? Do you sacrifice to stay home with your children? Have you had to give up that dream in order to earn money for your family?


Mom said...

I suspect you will find a way to manage until Genna is in school full days. Before that, you would be handing over the majority of your earnings to your daycare provider, and a large share of your sanity to the stresses of a demanding job on top of a family that also has its share of demands.

Elise said...

Well, and in your family, it's not just parent-care that's the priority, right? It's MOM-care. I mean, technically, your earning potential far exceeds Christopher's, so from a purely financial perspective, if the top priority is parent care, he could stay home while you worked. But since that's not an arrangement that would make either of you happy (I'm guessing), you compromise and find work-arounds. Which, as of course you know, is what EVERYONE is doing, stay-at-home or work-away. I sometimes think that's what parenting really is, more than anything else - it's compromise. Of your ideals, your goals, your plans, your time, your sense of self, your career, the works. Not always or necessarily a bad thing, but something that doesn't get emphasized much when you're thinking about it pre-kids!

Mom and Kiddo said...

I read your article and can really relate. We live in a small apartment in a neighborhood populated with multi-million dollar brownstones. When I say I am from Park Slope, people assume that we have way more money than we have.
We do without a lot of things, like preschool, a car, and furniture that is not hideous (although that is a bonus with kids as you don't care if they spill, barf or draw on it). The thing I miss most though, is travel. Now we can only take vacations which are heavily subsidized by family members.

Shan said...

Ooh, Elise hits the nail on the head about parenting meaning compromise above all else--in every area of life. And also about how you don't hear much about that, really, before having kids.

Just to be clear, our family prioritizes mom-care as our form of parent-care not because I don't think Christopher (Daddy) could parent as well as I do--he does it all the time, on weekends and evenings and also the rare times I am gone--but because my previous career was stressful and did not mesh well (for me, anyway) with parenting. I didn't do well shouldering responsibility for things like suicidal 13-year-olds on my client load while also caring for my own babies.

But also to be clear, though there are some full-time private-practice folks out there who earn a lot of money, in general my profession--in the more typical settings like outpatient clinics or schools--pays somewhat more than Christopher's, but not substantially. He currently earns almost exactly what I did at my last full-time job. So, we halved our income when I quit full-time work, but it wouldn't help us much financially if we switched places. However, there are probably more therapist jobs available in random cities around the country than there are positions for his type of work, so if he ever lost his job (god forbid), I'd probably have more luck finding work than he would.

donna said...

Elise is totally right. Parenting is a dance of compromise no matter what choices you make - be it to have a parent at home (full or part time) or to work (full or part time). Those choices go hand-in-hand with whether you are willing to sacrifice 'luxuries' (however you personally define a luxury) in order to make that work - or sacrifice time with your children - in order to "still have a life that feels worth living" (however you define that).

"But how can you put a price on a deeply-held value?" You can't. Unfortunately, real life requires us to. And that blows.

(Boy do I wish I had something more supportive to say.) Good luck to you. You have my well-wishes and support for whatever happens.

Shan said...

Yep---I just wish the reality was limited to "compromise" instead of "worry about being able to pay the bills." I'm fine with compromise; I'm not fine with running out of money before the end of the month and still having a prescription refill, snack day at school, and gas for the car to pay for. And compared to many--including my friend Mnmom--I'm one of the lucky ones! I wish all families who value parent-care could truly afford to do it--without lying awake at night wondering about the grocery bill.

Mnmom said...

OK, I'm going to stick my neck out here and tell you to stay home until Vivi is in KG.

I would never presume to tell ANY woman how to handle the parenting/working balance. We have to find our own way. In my life, I chose to stay home and yes, it cost us financially.

However, they are little for such a brief time. I know you know that, but it's really hard to have that perspective for REAL when you are in the thick of it. In three years you'll be sending the baby off to school! Three years is a very short time.

I wouldn't trade my years at home for any amount of money. Even with our current financial meltdown I wouldn't change those years for anything.

Find other ways to get by during the next three years. Shop at ALDI. Do after-school care or part time childcare for someone else's darling. Work a few evenings somewhere while Christopher is home.

Believe me, those 3 years are going to gone in a heartbeat.

Shan said...

I do believe you, Mnmom, for sure. I can hardly believe my pre-K years with Julia are almost up! Talk about gone in a heartbeat.

Question said...

I remember when my brother and his wife made the decision that she had to earn something. They just could not make it on his salary alone. So, she continues to work nights and weekends at the mall. He also has a summer job at a golf course when school is out. But, her having to work and him working early mornings on a golf course in the summer causes tremendous strain on their marriage. They are constantly battling the need to put food on the table vs. spending family time together, time as a couple, and alone time. Based on their experiences alone, if you can avoid picking up a night and weekend job, I'd recommend it.

One other thing, that I should add to your post about saving money, but I'm going to put it here. I don't know what cable channels you have, but you should be able to downgrade to just the network channels, plus a few others for about $10-$20 a month. The cable company won't tell you about this, but they have to offer it because the feds say so. We pay $8/month for it here (it is slightly less because we have high-speed internet). You'd have to give up the good stations, but it is a way to save some dough. If you do decide to go this way, you may get some push back from your cable provider, but if you insist they have a plan like this, they'll eventually give in. Also, they will probably have two plans - one for just regular versions of the channels and one for high-def.

Christopher Tassava said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Tassava said...

Okay, the intensity and frequency of these posts led to finally realize that Shannon didn't realize that I *will* resume my second job (equual parts sigh and yay) beginning in June and continuing for a year or longer. The "layoff" wasn't exactly that: it was one-term break in my teaching load, as required by my union contract with the MNSCU system. After the break, I'm back to teaching one course a term for what's likely to be another four or five terms.

In brief: in about four months, our monthly income should be back to 2008 levels.

We may still be using vinegar to clean then, though.

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