Yesterday, I had a precious few moments on my elliptical at the gym to catch a broadcast of The Takeaway on NPR. One of the topics covered that day was part of an on-going series regarding work-family balance, specifically speaking to women who have chosen to stay home with their children. The main issue explored during this conversation was how other women view those of us who have left the workforce to stay at home and how we deal with those that refer to us as “just a mom.” Although a relevant topic and one that will be revisited for years to come, I felt that time should have been spent exploring the idea of “choosing” to stay home with the children.
For some women, it truly is a choice, and for others, there is not another option. I think my situation falls somewhere in the middle. To be fair, I, and my readers, must remember that I am speaking of my experience as a women of relative privilege. No, I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered wealthy, but both sides of my family are exceedingly supportive (financially and otherwise) and both my husband and I are college educated. Because of these things, I have much more flexibility in “choice” than many other stay-at-home or working mothers.
Now, back to “choice.” Did I “choose” to stay home with my children? Not at first. When I became pregnant the first time, I was working full-time at a homeless youth shelter as a direct service worker, program developer, and supervisor. I had spent 7 years in the field and had no intention of ceasing my climb in the realm of human services. However, it soon became clear to me that the pay rate of my current position and the scheduling concerns of a 24-hour facility were not conducive to raising a family. Thus began my job search. I can’t remember now how many applications I submitted or interviews I went on, but as my pregnancy progressed I realized that time was running out for finding more gainful employment. This is when I sat down to crunch the numbers. I spent hours and days working on this dilemma and quickly realized that if I remained where I was, I would be working a very grueling job simply to pay for childcare. My take-home pay after childcare was taken into consideration was less than $100 a month. It was at that point that I realized that working and trying to raise my family in a way that was congruent with my values, was not going to happen.
My next step was to figure out how we could afford to live on just my husband’s pay. That was A LOT of work. I had to figure out how to make some bills disappear and how to shrink others, it was incredibly stressful, but I finally did it. I will admit that one bill disappeared because a family member paid it and now we are able to repay that debt as extra money occurs in the budget. If I had not had that support, I’m not sure how we would have made it work. During all of this number crunching was the often very stressed conversations that my husband and I would have about the appropriate course of action. My husband liked the idea of having me home to care for the family, but was obviously very concerned about the financial issue. The other part of this was the immense amount of stress that comes with being the sole breadwinner of the family. Not the “primary”, but the “sole.” That is a lot of pressure for anyone, especially in an economy when you never know if your job will be there tomorrow. After much discussion, and assurance on my part that all would be well, we made the plunge and I put my notice in at work. Holy crap. I hadn’t been out of work since I was 16 years old and I had no idea what to expect. I was prepared for the challenge, but I was pretty shook up, despite the strong, and courageous face I put on for my husband.
As it turns out, I was right, all is well. It is still tough with money, but we do fine.
When I consider my “choice” to stay at home, I often do not consider it a true choice. Sure, I did “choose” to have children, but whether or not to stay home with them is another story. My choice to stay home had much more to do with what our finances could handle than a true choice of which path I would more like to follow. I think at this point in my parenting journey, I could now choose to return to work. I have more time for a job search and could potentially find something that would pay well enough to cover childcare and move our family forward financially. However, now that I have experienced full-time motherhood, I’m not sure I want so much of my children’s formative years to occur at the daycare center. After a long journey, I can honestly say, I am “choosing” to stay home with my children. But it did not necessarily start out that way.
Another topic for another day might be why is it so important for people to understand the “choice” to stay home. It’s really no one’s business other than the family being affected. I am very lucky, very lucky to be able to stay at home because I know of so many people that have to have both parents in the workforce and the complications that come with that. I miss the tough work I used to do and the intellectual stimulation that came from it, but I know that my “choice” will result in the life I want my family to experience.
What choice did you make? Do you feel you really had a choice?