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Opting-Out: The financial dangers of staying home with your kids

In Salon this week, essayist Katy Read offers a provocative piece called, “Regrets of a Stay At Home Mom,” in which she fondly remembers her years spent out of the paid workforce,  while at the same time pondering whether because of that decision to stay at home with her kids, she is now totally screwed financially. She recounts her story of how she gave up a successful career as a full-time newspaper reporter to be at home with her young sons, and work part time as a freelance writer  - as mothering permitted.  Now, post-divorce, with two adolescent sons to care for, no job, no job prospects and a seriously dated resume that looks less-than-stellar in the middle of a recession, she’s realizing that “opting out” might not have been such a good idea.

Reading Read’s piece, I experience a sense of powerful deja vu. Why? Because I wrote pretty much the exact same essay after my divorce became final in 2004. Even many of the specific details between my story (“The Case Against Opting Out”) and Read’s are bizarrely similar – including my having given up a budding law/journalism career to stay home and freelance while mothering my kids. At the time of my divorce, I realized that I was leaving my marriage with a bucketload of great memories of time spent at the playground with my children, but without the basic financial security – health insurance, a retirement account, a home – that a woman of my age should have had. Thankfully, one detail of my story differed from Read’s; I didn’t find myself penniless and jobless in the middle of a near-depression. Instead, I was lucky enough to begin my delayed job search at a time when the economy was booming and jobs in my field were relatively plentiful. It still took months and months to find that first job, but I did get one. And that job kicked off a career trajectory that while belated (I am often 8-10 years older than my same-level professional colleagues), seems to be progressing okay. I am grateful, very grateful, even on the days when I am at work for 12 hours and don’t see my kids except to put them to bed. Their father/stepfather handles bedtime duties on those nights, and we are both okay with that, given that my paycheck pays for the roof over those beds. I have a lot of catch up to do in my career, but I pinch myself every day, feeling lucky that I have one at all. I know that I might have ended up in a very dire place if I were looking for a job today with the spotty, stay at home mom-type resume I had to offer when I was looking back in 2004.

Once the recession hit 2 years ago, I revisited the issue of women who had “opted out” of paid employment when they felt securely married and when the economy was flush. Now, many of these women – like Katy Read – were pretty desperate to opt back in, to get a job with a paycheck and health insurance.

Here’s how I ended my follow-up essay on the topic:

What would be truly revolutionary would be a real Mother’s Movement in this country, in which meaningful grassroots organizing would actually be taken to the voting floor by the women who represent us in Congress and to the boardroom by the female executives in the companies that employ us. Together, as mothers, we should be building support for the family leave, affordable health care, and child care options that would make this entire “opt out” conversation moot. We need universal, paid family leave that allows one parent sufficient time at home to care for an infant, and we need more career-track, part-time jobs with real benefits, so that women with babies and young children don’t have to make a potentially life-altering choice between immediate family needs and longterm financial security. Further, we need a well-coordinated system of public and private childcare that allows the many women who “opt out” of paying work altogether following the birth of their children – simply because they can’t find or pay for acceptable care – to make their choices based on the bigger picture.

Longterm, total (meaning no paid work of any kind over a period of years) stay-at-home parenting is a wonderful choice for many mothers, but women need to make that choice with a clear view of the longterm ramifications and risks. If I were going to stay home full time with a child at this point, and step completely out of my paying job for any period of time beyond a year or two, I would ask my partner to sign a legally binding agreement that would specifically lay out how my work at home would be valued in a divorce settlement, should the worst happen. Maybe that sounds crazy to some of you, but I suggest that you take a look at the statistics. Is it crazy to have car insurance, even though you are far more likely to end up divorced that you are to end up involved in a serious auto accident? I don’t think so.

So have you opted out? Or subsequently opted back in? Have you been forced to start completely over following death or divorce? Talk about the whole “Opt Out” controversy in the comments below.

Follow Katie on Twitter or Facebook, or visit her personal blog

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