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The High Cost of Stay At Home Motherhood

Stay at home moms are economically vulnerable

A few months after her controversial Salon article, Regrets Of A Stay At Home Mom, was published, Katy Read hasn’t changed her tune. She was on NPR today telling Robin Young of Here & Now that she’d warn any young woman contemplating becoming a stay-at-home mom to rethink her position.

Katy’s reasoning is primarily financial. She quotes Ann Crittenden saying that having a child costs the average college-educated woman a million dollars in lifetime income. Those tender afternoons at the playground may seem priceless, but is staying home with your kid really worth a million dollars?

About 5 million moms (and 150,000 dads) have decided that being a stay-at-home parent is worth the costs. But do they know what those costs really are? Katy says no, and I think she’s right.

Like Katy, I left my newspaper job to be a stay-at-home mom. Like her, I’ve built a career for myself freelancing part-time. Most days, I think of this as a pretty idyllic life: I get to do what I love in the comfort of my home, while always being there for my kids. I never miss their school plays; I get to volunteer in their classrooms. I’m well aware of the incredible privileges I enjoyed as a stay-at-home parent. I’m grateful for my awesome deal as a work-at-home parent now.

I rarely think about the costs. Yes, I realize that my husband is the only person in this family earning any meaningful social security benefits. I’m aware that without he’s job, we’d have no health insurance, no retirement savings and no way to pay most of our bills. I’ve become an expert at the careful budgeting we needed to survive on just his salary. Now that I have an income, too, I’m careful not to depend on it too much. Freelance money varies a lot, and my first priority is always my kids.

They’re worth it. Right?

Day to day, of course they are. But looking at that million dollar price tag makes me a little queasy. I wouldn’t sell my children for a million bucks, of course. But I could buy some very fine therapy for them to work out their attachment issues later in life. If they even had any. While some parenting experts believe its essential to care for children at home with a parent for at least the first three years, other studies show kids in day care do just fine.

Even if day care kids do have some slight disadvantage in learning or behavioral development, is sparing a child that extra hurdle worth a million dollars of the mother’s lifetime income?

Framed that way, the answer is probably no for most women. A rational decision would be to earn the money and use some of it to overcome the disadvantages to the child. By paying for the best childcare, by providing tutors and therapists, whatever the appropriate tools were. That would be the economically efficient thing to do.

The thing is, motherhood isn’t just about being rational and efficient. When I left my newspaper job, I did it because I felt like I had to. The long workdays were brutal on my toddler daughter, and I’d come home so exhausted by the end that I was useless as a housekeeper, wife or mom. I’d put the baby to bed and collapse. Worse, I was terrible at my job, too. I’d show up late, tired, distracted. I’d leave in the middle of the day unexpectedly at a call from daycare. I was never available for overtime, couldn’t respond to breaking stories that happened after hours.

Eventually it seemed clear that being a news reporter and having a young child were mutually exclusive, at least for me. I couldn’t exactly quit motherhood, so I quit my job.

The formative years with my girls really were priceless. We’ve baked hundreds of batches of cookies, spent countless hours on the swings. I’ve loved it, loathed it, found it fascinating and boring and every emotion in between. Being a stay-at-home mom has been my whole life for five years, and it’s shaped the people my children have become. While I can make an imagined economic case for paying professionals to fill gaps left by more distant parenting, I can’t really imagine that anything could replace the time and energy I’ve put into my kids. Unlike Katy, I can’t regret it, even looking at the costs.

Of course, I’m still married, to a man with a stable job. Katy is recently divorced, and staring in the face the stark reality of post-divorce finances. Stay-at-home parenthood has transformed to unemployment for her. The economic vulnerability of my personal situation feels much less immediate than hers. I was raised by a single mom, though. I remember what it felt like to have Mom working long hours for never enough money. If somehow my kids and I ended up in that situation, we’d weather it the best we could. Thinking back on those years with my own mom, I imagine it would make me treasure all the more the years I’ve had to indulge in being home with them.

Photo: wsilver

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