Stay at Home Moms – Is it Too Risky to Leave the Workforce?

I just got a job. I think. I filled out official tax paperwork and had orientation but I haven’t heard about my training schedule and so I keep fearing that they’re going to rescind the offer and I’ll have just my self-employed job again. I didn’t even know how to fill out my tax forms – the withholdings confounded me and I had to text Zachary, my almost ex-husband, for clarification. Was I supposed to check married? How many dependents did I need to claim?

Thirteen. That’s the number of applications and resumes I submitted to various employers before I had an offer. The position is very part time and pays $10 an hour. The guy who had orientation at the same time is fifteen years younger than me.

My college degree from my expensive private university doesn’t seem terribly relevant or useful right now, and I wonder what the job market is like for those who haven’t graduated from college or even high school.

You see, ten years ago, I exited the official realm of paychecks and bosses to await the arrival of my first child. Then three more came. In between the parenting I volunteered and started my own business which has doubled its sales every year, but that experience was hardly enough to even get me a second look from employers. In their minds, they must think I’m as inexperienced as a recent graduate, yet not quite as fresh or eager.

When you marry, you don’t expect to get divorced. Women don’t exit the workforce to stay home with their children thinking their marriages will fail. It’s a leap of faith, my sister explained to me one day as I was on the verge of regretting ever thinking it was wise to halt my professional life entirely. Before we even married, I followed Zachary to two states as he pursued his career, stunting my own in the process. But I did it for us and I stayed home with the kids because I felt it was right for our family. I just didn’t know that Zachary and I wouldn’t see eye to eye on the length of that agreement. I assumed it was something we’d revisit, that someday he’d support my goals for a career the way I’d supported his, but it turned out he thought a mother’s place was in the home and no where else.

So now I am free to work on a career, yet that freedom comes at a very high price. I’m entering the workforce as a recently retired stay at home mom (my self-employment not withstanding), yes, but most other women in my position do so with their husbands’ support, both emotional and financial, as they ease back into earning a life-sustaining income.

I spoke with a very good friend on the phone yesterday who has been a stay at home mom for a short while, due mostly to a relocation. She has two adorable boys and did enjoy some nice time off before going back to work after their births, but otherwise has been earning her own paychecks pretty much from college to this point, almost fourteen years (I really cannot believe it’s been that long since we graduated from college, pardon me while I take a brief moment to cry). And even she said she’s worried about the effect staying home with her children for a while will have on her career when it comes time to go back to the working world.

Ten years away. Ten years since I had a boss, since I had a paycheck that arrived with regularity and not written from my own bank account. As I told my friend, I know that I was so fortunate to stay home with my children, and it was the right choice for our family at the time, emotionally speaking, but I hate feeling now that it was the wrong choice for me, professionally. Zachary benefited from me staying home because I could do more laundry, do all the grocery shopping, buy all the kids’ clothes and take them to play dates and preschool and plan parties, make most of the meals. My role was House Manager, and because I kept the mental list going every day of what needed to be done, Zachary could go to work and focus on that and not worry about the long list of tasks relating to the running of our home.

The kids benefited because they had a consistent caretaker who loved them more than the Earth itself and I could hug them when they cried and take them to the doctor and the zoo and to visit friends and they could be home in their pajamas all day if they wanted. We made cookies and watched movies and went to parks and they got to go to half day preschool programs. I benefited because I got to spend time with the four most important people in my life and watch them grow and not have to miss then when I was away at an office. But now I’m suffering the consequences of departing the workforce before I had a chance to build up an actual career.

So who is safe to stay home? No one is safe from divorce, I’ve learned – you can enter your marriage thinking nothing will break those bonds but then they break and you’re left staring at the pieces, wondering when the first crack occurred.

In this economy, I think I can say that as an English major who took ten years off to be with my children, things don’t look so hot for my prospects. Thirteen applications to get one part time job that I don’t even need a high school diploma to work. Would finding a job be easier for me if I’d worked in the same industry for three years before becoming a stay at home mom? Five years? Ten years? If I had a degree in marketing or an MBA? Who can afford the sacrifice to stay home with the kids, when there’s this unexpected chance the family breadwinner will one day not be in the picture?

I look at young, new moms now and hear they stay home and instead of being happy for them I worry for them. They will love the time they spend with their children but what if their husbands die or leave them or they simply want to go back to work because, yes, some mothers want to work even if they don’t need the money. I was one of them. I wanted a career I could take pride in and work hard at, I wanted a career to set an example for my children, to make sure my daughter would know that if she has children someday, she doesn’t have to stay home with her kids if that’s not the right choice for her. That she’d have options. Now I wonder if I should ever encourage her to stay home with her kids. I’ll support any choice she eventually makes, but I think I’d have to caution her about the risks associated with being unemployed, by choice, for so long.

Though I think most of us can agree that it’s wonderful women have the choice to stay home with their kids or go back to work, I don’t know that it always really works out to be a choice. After a certain number of kids, I almost had to stay home because of daycare costs. Some women feel their careers would suffer too much and don’t feel secure enough to leave for more than their 6 weeks of maternity leave. It’s sad that something that should be so positive and rewarding for a family – having a mother who is happy to stay home with her children – can result in a feeling of regret when that mother realizes she’s nearly unemployable years later.

My options are limited in the immediate future. I will work my $10 an hour job and also work harder and longer to build my business because a low-paying job is better than no job at all. At some point I may have to give up that dream but I’m not ready yet. I’d be trading the uncertainty of self-employment for an entry level position that will likely pay less than $30,000 a year. One statistic from the US Census Bureau puts the poverty threshold for a family of five in the US at $27,251. Rent for a three bedroom home will be at least $1500 a month. That’s if I squeeze all three boys in one room. Four bedrooms, I’m finding, are going to be almost impossible for me to afford. This doesn’t even begin to get into the expenses related to raising four kids, albeit 50% of the time. I can’t live in a smaller house half the time. I can’t drive a smaller car half the time. Children don’t wear less clothing because they have two homes. I won’t be buying any fewer birthday presents or holiday gifts.  My first job started at $30,000 a year and had benefits. I paid $400 a month for a studio apartment, gas was sometimes still under $1 a gallon and I lived about six blocks from where I worked. I had to feed only myself.

Where would I be now if I’d never left that job? I’d never in six million years choose to change my past if it meant I wouldn’t have my children, but what if I’d worked outside of the home all those years instead of devoting all my time to the family? By what amount would my earning potential be greater?

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Comments

  1. Wow, I might as well be writing a post like this ten years from now. I understand how you feel. I have been a wahm for almost two years yet there are moments when I yearn for the career I once had, or the possibilities of being left alone with slimmer options because I’m out of the rat race. But everytime my son’s face lights up after finding me by his school gate, it fades away somehow. But all you said – it’s all real. I guess the best thing is to carry on with a lot of faith. You’ve taken the first step and hey, life surprises us in many ways. =>

    • Thanks, yes, it’s just an odd position because of course I wanted to be home with my children, but now that I realize how damaged my marketability is due to staying home so long, it’s hard not to question if I’d have made difference choices.

  2. I’ve never thought of that side of the SAHM argument before. Thought provoking to say the least. Makes the decision to SAH a bit more dangerous, risky, on top of being many other things. It never occurred to me to stay at home to be honest. I had of a mountain of student loans that it seemed counter productive to not work until I at least paid them off (which will be a long time from now). Sorta like financing a car and then taking the bus everywhere. Not to mention my field of science changes so much over time that my learning curve upon return would have been significant.

    To think that now 2 homes need to support homes that can house, feed, clothe and care for 4 children…it’s daunting at the least and financially a nightmare.

    I’m disappointed in Zachary; that he has put you in such a position. It’s really quite selfish to ‘expect’ someone to do something that is against their long term wishes so that you can succeed. Marriage is a partnership, not a dictatorship. So sorry you have to go through this. I know many friends that are in this situation though (staying at home b/c they have to, or b/c their husbands career trumped theirs) and it has never really sat right with me and now maybe it’s all making sense as to why.

    I hope for the best for you and send you strength (and calm!).

    • It’s honestly something I didn’t consider fully before having kids. I knew I wanted to stay home with them, at least for a while, but it didn’t occur to me until much later how difficult it would be to re-enter the workforce. I don’t regret the time with the kids at all, and would never wish it away, but I wonder if I knew then what I know now, if I’d have at least tried to work part time to keep my toe in the water, so to speak.

      I have definitely gotten grief from family members for “wasting” my college education. My dad even said to me, “All that school just to be a stay at home mom. Well, at least you met Zachary there.”

  3. I think this is a dilema that has faced every mother in the US. It is such a tough decision. I am a working mother but carry a significant amount of guilt about spending such little time with my daughter. It breaks my heart that I am paying quite a lot of money for someone else to watch her — I would gladly take that job! And then I think to myself that if I REALLY wanted to stay at home full time, my husband and I could probably make it work. But then I’d have to give up my career. I work in HR and have seen the resumes of women that have taken time off to raise kids. Unfortunately, they are generally way overqualified and are former managers that are submitting resumes for receptionist positions. This is what keeps me working. I’ve fought so hard to climb the corporate ladder and get to a position that is fullfiling and I know that I couldn’t just jump back in at the same level again if I took time off. I envy my international colleagues that get extended maternity leave (10 months in Canada, a year in the UK)… I always thought that would be the perfect balance. Take one year to nuture and bond with that newborn baby, and then you are able to return to your former position. Or work part-time in the same industry so that you can continue to gain experience without missing out on too much time with the kids. But part time positions are very rare which is probably why you had a hard time finding work. If you were looking for a FT position I bet you’d have more options. So don’t let the job hunt make you discouraged!
    In your situation, I would say this: your time with your children was an absolute gift (for you and your kids). It may have made your current situation more difficult, but since you can’t change those past decisions, focus on all that you gained by those choices. There is no right answer to the question of whether or not to stay at home… we all second guess ourselves! You are a strong and amazing woman and I know things will all work out for you.

    • Thank you! I know, and it’s hard for me to say how difficult it is now, knowing I was in position other mothers wished they could have been in. And I certainly do not regret the time I had with the children, not at all, I just wish it wasn’t this either/or dilemma – it’s like you said, as mothers we kind of have to decide which part of our lives gets sacrificed a little bit. You are a great mom, I am sure of it! And your daughter will always know you love her and know that when and if SHE becomes a mother, she will also make the choices that are best for her family!

      I’m torn on the full time vs. part time job hunt, because if I go for a full time job that means I have to give up the business I grew for four years. I feel like I should give it one more year to see if I can really get it to the level where it could support me and the kids.

      Thanks for writing!

  4. What an honest, thought-provoking post. My mind is blown right now. I just turned down a job to re-enter the workforce after being mostly out for 4 years. But my kids are 4 and 2 and I don’t want to spend 40-50 hours away from them. I hear everything you are saying because I struggled so much with the decision. I’m still not sure I made the right choice, but all I can do is face what is in front of me right now. It’s damn hard to be a woman sometimes. Wishing you the best always.

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