the myth of the parent that NEEDS to work

My wife is an extremely intelligent woman who decided to quit her professional career as a management-tracked analyst with a huge investment bank in order to be a stay-at-home parent when our son arrived. I would have willingly stayed home in her place but being older and further along in my career I was making twice as much as she so it would not have made sense. She has now been at home for almost two years and I have noticed that there is a subtle campaign against her choice, and it makes me angry. Despite all of the talk about mothers making the ‘tough choice’ to go back to work, I think the tough choice is staying home.

First of all, I know there are single mothers and poorer families who have no choice! I would maintain this is a very small proportion of the population, though. Single mothers definitely have no choice as the primary breadwinner, of course. Some families may have special circumstances that require both parents to work – health care costs spring to mind. I wonder, though, how many times the choice to work is the choice to support owning a second television, or keeping the premium movie channels, owning the house with the extra two rooms, or leasing a nice car – versus staying home with a child.

My family took a big hit to our finances when my wife quit work. We went from two people living in a two-bedroom apartment on two salaries to three people living in a three-bedroom house on one salary. We did it by making huge changes in our spending, and after a couple of years those changes have – surprise – become fairly routine. We understood that we could not afford as many luxury vacations or idle purchases of gadgets and jewelry and so on. The reward was that our son has been able to stay at home with his mother and be in a safe, healthy, fun environment.

This setup has not come without cost.
My wife misses adult companionship and the sense of validation that you get from a professional position. We miss having the second salary, which for a while was all being plowed into savings and made for a relatively large down payment on our home. And of course my wife worries about her future job prospects once Little Buddy starts school and doesn’t need a stay-at-home mom. But the worst thing, recently, has been the assault on her decision by other women.

Bubelah relays conversations to me from her friends and ex-colleagues and so on where the subject is inevitably "when are you going to get back to work?" Aside from the obvious insult that caring for a child is not "work", this has a very negative effect on her state of mind. She usually laughs it off, but the simple fact is that she doesn’t really interact on a daily basis with anyone but me who supports her decision to make child care a full-time job. We don’t feel that the trade-off of getting another salary is worth having our son in day-care 10 hours a day before he’s even 2 years old, but that’s what we’re being told we need to do.

However, we don’t need the money, frankly. We may not be able to spend freely like our friends do (particularly since we also don’t take on any debt) but we really don’t NEED any more money to meet our current expenses. If Bubelah got a second job a lot of her salary would go to paying for day care, nannies and babysitters. I understand that sometimes both parents want to work. That is fine, but just be honest about that choice. Many people claim to be "forced" to work two jobs to make ends meet, but is it really "making ends meet" when you drive a new car and have premium movie channels and take a vacation to Aruba every year?

72 comments

  • Great article.

    This all goes back to people not actually asking the why, instead they assume what everyone else does and they go around like sheep just saying it for the sake of saying. It is usually nothing meaningful, or just a way for your to conform to their reality.

  • As a person with no children, can I comment on this?

    I had two working parents. I am so thankful that I did. I would quite honestly recommend to any of my friends that they stay in the work force, and here's why:

    1. My caretaker for the first two years was my grandmother, an incredible woman who worked while she had children though it was frowned upon in her time. She was an excellent role model, and great person who helped shape my values.
    2. I went to preschool at age three, which developed my love of learning and helped me learn to make friends. I am a firm believer that children need socialization, so even if parents stay home, a play group of some kind is necessary.
    3. When my sisters were born, my parents hired an in home care taker, and she and her family have become part of ours. It was also nice to be able to build relationships with adults other than my parents.
    4. By the time I was a teenager, I would occasionally come home to an empty house. I learned to fend for myself, become independent, and be responsible when left alone.
    5. My mothers ability to do it all convinced me that I can too someday, and despite the fact that I absolutely will work full time until I retire, it is possible to have a family, and no, I'm not a bad person for wanting both.
    6. My parents used the extra income to do things that enriched us; Girl Scouts, dance lessons, educational trips and family vacations. Were they necessary? No. Were they memorable and awesome? Yes.
    7. If either of my parents were home all day, as a teenager, I would probably have died of smothering.
    8. Being away all day reminded my parents to take an active interest in what I was up to. I still tell them everything. And family dinner together was important as well.

    So there, from a “latchkey” kid you have a convincing argument to work. My point is, don't fall prey to any pressure. Don't let anyone say you are hurting your child by working if you want to, and don't let anyone say you should be if you don't. We kids are resilient and elastic creatures. A good dose of values over the dinner table will be plenty to turn us into good people.

  • Next age to stay at home? High school! It is worth every missed paycheck.

  • Next age to stay at home? High school! It is worth every missed paycheck.

  • This is an excellent post. I have been a stay at home wife/ mother ever since I got married 21 years ago. It is a lot of work taking care of children and a home. I don't understand why people think it is a problem.
    If your wife wanted to go back to work after your son starts school, perhaps she could find something to do from home. Even when a child is in school, there is still so much to do and they often get sick and need to stay at home.
    Blessings
    Mrs. White

  • We both work in my family but I would much rather take on the more important job of staying home with my toddler. We don't have cable tv or eat out or even buy magazines. if it were not for my husbands child support payments (for a child we keep three days a week) we would be able to get buy on one salary.

    Tell your wife that I think it is honorable that she would give her time to her son. There could be nothing better.

  • My mother stayed home with my older siblings, but when my sister and I came along, she went back to school for a nursing degree and then worked nights until we were in middle school or so. This enabled my family to have a comfortable middle class lifestyle growing up.

    But what does she regret? Not being home with all of us. I don't know if, financially, my parents could have swung a single income, but I know they would have tried if possible.

    • Great topic. I was just thinking many of these same things on my girls' night out last night. I go out with two ladies who have younger children than mine, a dentist and a pediatrician, who can not fathom how or why I stay home with my kids. They are not rude about it, and we are very open and honest, so there is no resentment, nastiness, blame, etc., but it is there, them not understanding my lifestyle choice and me utterly confused by theirs.

  • “But I still think that any time you choose two incomes over one you are making a choice for money over staying home. ” bripblap

    There are two different issues being discussed here. One is both spouses working, the other is whether it's truly necessary or not.

    Regarding women working, I have a Master's in Statistics and have been a stay at home Mom for almost four years and have three young children. I have heard both praise and criticism for my choice then to stay home, and my need now to return to work.

    Regarding necessity, I am only one case, but I'm sure there are many more. I am looking for work, trying to find something that will help while not hurting Mom/Family time too much. We barely squeak by on one salary, but have to be late on a bill to do so sometimes. We have no emergency fund, a 10-year old truck (no other vehicle), don't eat out, and rent our home. We have cut back as far as we can. We _do_ need a second income and it's not because of excess spending, or any other luxury. Please try not to make global statements and judgements against people for whom you may or may not know all of their circumstances.

  • I am a sahm also and I have heard it all. I have been told that I am so lucky to be home with my kids- it is not luck it is hard work making that one income stretch and we don't have brand new cars or take really expensive vacations. We have older cars in good condition and take family vacations that we save for and can afford. I have also been asked when I am going to finally go back to school so my dh can stop working so hard to support me. My dh works his regular job, which he would still do even if I went back to work. If I did go back to work then we would both have to work harder to pay for daycare costs!! All of these comments have been made by people who have huge houses, very expensive suv's, boats, campers and take at least 3 vacations a year and spend a total of 2 hrs with their kids each day. They also say they have to work!! No they want to work and if that is their decision then go for it but, don't put down my decision to stay at home. I try to respect everyones choices, I may not agree with them but, I don't have to live with their choices.

  • I only skimmed some of the comments, so maybe I missed it, but is there anyone else out there who actually comes out financially *ahead* by one parent staying home? I have a Master of Library Science, which does not pay off like a master's in another area–say, an MBA. I am planning to work very part time after our third child is born (sometime in the next month!), and we will come out a little bit ahead. Child care for three would sap literally half of my take-home pay, so we found it pointless for me to continue working full time. I don't see it as any more “wasteful” to stay home with an education than to work just to pay for childcare and student loans.

  • Even school age kids need a stay at home parent.

    I am a single mom, but it has been my goal to be with my two boys as much as possible, so I have always worked with them, as a nanny and then running an in home daycare. I work hard and long hours, but I am with my boys.

    We live very frugally, but even if I worked full time and had them in school (we homeschool) and aftercare I would not make much more money than I do now.

    I attribute all this to God, but I think since He also desires me to be with my boys He makes it work.

    We do not have any debt or car payment. We do rent, but I have some money saved so we can buy a house one day. I also have an emergency fund of about 1-2 years worth of living expenses.

    God is so good.

    I have many friends who work and they complain, but they drive new cars and go to disney once a year plus other mini vacations. So yes it can be about priorities.

    It works for us.

  • Thanks for all the new comments! One quick point: I did say “First of all, I know there are single mothers and poorer families who have no choice!” I know that there are people who have medical hardships, lower paying jobs, etc. who need two incomes. And I know many people reading this post think I'm being judgmental, and I am. Not every family NEEDS two incomes to survive. Many do, and I'm not talking about them.

    But thanks for the comments! And I do know that many stay-at-home-parents do feel “damned if they do, damned if they don't” go back to the workplace. As I said, my wife feels the same way. It's tough!

  • Michelle H.

    Hang in there – it's all worth it! I felt the same as your wife many times, but I'm so glad I could stay home with our children.Those years pass so quickly and can never be replaced. It helps if you can find even one like-minded friend.
    Blessings!

  • I know this is an old post, but I had to comment…

    The women's movement was supposed to give us the ability to choose what we wanted to do with our lives, but it really has not. My generation is expected to work and have careers. The only choice I get is either I work or I don't have a place to live. How is that empowering?

    My generation was raised with the mixed messages of “you can grow up to be whatever you want to be as long as you don't act like a girl and do traditional female things”. How is that empowering?

    I applaud you and your wife's decision to live on one income. I know that it requires sacrifice. Whatever doubts that your wife may have now will pale knowing that she was able to spend time with her child when they were young. No career and no six figure salary can compare to that reward.

    If a family can make one income work, then they should go for it if that's what they want to do.

  • I really enjoyed this post, thanks so much!

  • Thank you! It's so nice to see a personal finance article on the advantages of being a stay at home mom. Now I'm definitely a feminist and think if a mom wants to work than she should however, your wife wants to stay home. That's a perfectly valid choice! Anybody who's bitter about it is being silly. Old colleagues probably just keep bringing up work because they want her to come back. It sounds like she was a good employee, but now she's doing something much more important 🙂 Also major kudos to you for being willing to do the stay at home thing. Obviously in this case it didn't make financial sense, but not insisting that she be the one to do it makes me have a lot of respect for you.

  • Thank you! It's so nice to see a personal finance article on the advantages of being a stay at home mom. Now I'm definitely a feminist and think if a mom wants to work than she should however, your wife wants to stay home. That's a perfectly valid choice! Anybody who's bitter about it is being silly. Old colleagues probably just keep bringing up work because they want her to come back. It sounds like she was a good employee, but now she's doing something much more important 🙂 Also major kudos to you for being willing to do the stay at home thing. Obviously in this case it didn't make financial sense, but not insisting that she be the one to do it makes me have a lot of respect for you.