Over the last twenty years, I have spent time as both a working mom and a stay home mom. For as long as I can remember, my career plans were to be a mother. My mother left the workforce when I was born to be a stay home mom for me and my brothers-to-come. Nearly all of my friends while I was growing up had stay home moms. This was in the ’80s, and the poor children who didn’t have stay home parents were called latch-key kids. I haven’t heard that term in a very long time now. It seems to have become the norm rather than the exception.
When I was about 10, a family moved in across the street from us. They had a daughter about my age, and a high school aged son. Their lives were so very different. Both parents worked, leaving the children home alone after school. Their house was trucked in in two pieces and assembled on top of the basement that they built. In contrast, I remember helping my dad nail studs together to build frames for the walls of our house. Our church men came over one day for a massive roofing party after my parents spent months putting the frame together with their own two hands. The new neighbors’ house was seemingly thrown together in a single day.
The daughter and I became best frenemies (friends one day, enemies the next – typical of that age). I remember one day she came over to my house very distraught. Her brother had stayed after school for something, and she was alone. She heard a noise in her house that frightened her, and she came to my house for help. My father went over and did a quick inspection in the house for her to ensure no intruders were there. I remember being very thankful at that time that I never had to worry about something like that. My mom was always home with us (except when she was helping my father with his business, which wasn’t terribly often).
I grew up with very strong family values and rather rigid gender roles. Families always eats dinner together. The mother cooks and cleans and cares for the children and animals. The father doles out punishment when needed after he gets home from work, and does the repairs around the house. These same values and roles were mirrored in all my friends’ homes, too, except for the neighbors across the street, and my one friend who had a single mother, who obviously had to work. My church and my secular neighborhood both reinforced those roles.
From a young age, I knew that my path in life was to be a mother. I don’t believe it was just because that was the almost exclusive model I had, but because it is my nature. I have shed many of the beliefs from my childhood, but the importance of family has only grown stronger as I have gotten older. In high school, I knew that I would have six children. I was going to name my first girl Kari. I would stay home with my children while my husband worked to support us and I would create a cozy, loving home for everyone. Academically, I excelled and went to college, but only so that I could have a fall back if ever I found myself as a widow.
When I was 19, I got married and had my first daughter when I was 20. I did not name her Kari, as that name acquired quite a lot of other sentiment to me by then. My husband had a good job as a mechanic and supported us while I struggled to keep a nice home through my haze of depression. The marriage did not last long, and when my daughter was 14 months old, I left her father and got a job to try to support us. Eventually I remarried, but our finances required that I continue to work, even after we had two more children.
My children did have a parent home with them most of the time, since their father and I worked opposite shifts. They only went to a babysitter for two hours between the time their father had to leave for his second shift job, and the time I got home from my first shift job. I was miserable, though. I yearned to stay home with my children, but we needed my income.
Making the leap
When I found myself unexpectedly pregnant with my fourth child, I did a lot of soul searching and number crunching. Once the new baby was born, we would have three children under the age of five. My job paid $10/hour, and I paid $100/week for child support for my oldest, who lived primarily with her father during the school year. The babysitting costs for three children would have been more than my take-home pay. In fact, for my last week of work (which was a short week), my take home pay was $45, and our babysitting bill was $60. I was working as a temp at this point, so work was not steady.
To me, the no-brainer answer was for me to stay home. We applied for food stamps and Medicaid for the children, and easily qualified with just the one income. My husband bounced from job to job, but I carefully managed our finances and learned how to really stretch the dollar.
My kids needed me
After 11 years of marriage, I left my husband. I had five children by this point, ages 3 to 13. My oldest chose to move in with me permanently after the divorce. I did not get a job, though. I stayed home and supported our family on child support, food stamps, and Section 8 housing assistance. We were already on the assistance programs before the divorce, and had waited years for the Section 8 assistance. I feared people would know that I did not work, and was afraid of their judgement. When I was growing up, stories abounded about Welfare Queens, who allegedly kept having kids just to get more welfare. I felt that as a single mom of 5 children, everyone was judging me.
My children, however, needed me to stay home with them. We had been a homeschooling family, and with the divorce and a complete lack of support, I enrolled my children into public school. My children were traumatized. They had lost having their father live with them, despite my efforts to maintain as much contact between them as possible. They started public school towards the end of the school year (April), with little effective homeschooling (depression strikes again) to prepare them for it. I was a neurotic mess. I was in counseling, and two of my children were in counseling, and we did family counseling. All the professionals told me I needed to spend more time with my kids. Even if I had been emotionally stable enough to hold down a job, my children needed me at home. I spent my first year after the divorce getting kids on and off the bus all day. I had one in high school, one in middle school, two in elementary, and one in half-day preschool.
Re-entering the work force
Eventually, I started a new relationship. We now had what functioned as a normal(ish) two-parent household. The only problem was that my partner struggled with unemployment. Many, many people did. It was the Great Recession, and jobs were hard to come by. We muddled our way through those years, and when my preschooler started full day kindergarten, I suddenly found myself with blocks of time consisting of more than two or three hours in a row. It was time to re-enter the work force.
I got a job as a part-time bank teller, working mother’s hours. I dropped the kids off at school on my way to work, and returned home just before school got out. My husband was still unemployed, so his role was to keep things running smoothly at home while I earned us some income. It was a reversal of how I grew up. It was, however, familiar to me from my previous marriage, when my ex had long bouts of unemployment or partial employment, and it fell on me to support us.
And leaving it again
This worked financially for us, but not domestically. My children still resented my husband for his relationship with me (preventing me from reuniting with their father in their eyes), and things did not work well for us. He was miserable doing my “job”, and I was miserable doing his. When he finally found work, we switched back again, each of us taking the role that was more comfortable for us.
This is how we have thrived. My husband brings home the income, and I manage the household. Our children are happier, and we are happier. We eat dinner as a family 95% of the time. I may not be the perfect housekeeper, but we always have clean clothes, and good food to eat. My whole family feels loved. I feel a close connection with each of my children, and they are thriving. They excel academically, in sports, and have a happy social life (or as happy as teenager social drama allows). I feel good in the knowledge that my husband and I are modeling a loving relationship, and a fair distribution of the household work. This is but one model, but it works for us. The quality of our family life is well worth the sacrifice of living on one income.
I feel fulfilled in a way I never did when working outside the home. Sure, I miss the social aspect of having coworkers to befriend, and I miss having the extra money. But I have found ways to mitigate both of those aspects. I have also come to realize that no matter what decision I make, someone will think I am wrong for it. I need to listen only to my inner self. This is my calling.
Are you a stay home parent? A working parent? Are you happy with your decision? If not, what is holding you where you are?