According to writer Katy Read — who blogs at What I Should Be Doing Instead — being a stay-at-home mother isn’t all roses. Here, she describes the highs and lows and offers some advice for any women considering a similar choice.
Q: Why did you decide to be a stay-at-home mother?
A: I have not been the classic full-time stay-at-home mother. I always worked part time, as a freelance writer. Because I worked out of my home and had flexible hours, it’s the kind of job that a lot of mothers would consider ideal. So did I, in many ways. My decision was motivated by an intense mixture of internal and external pressures, similar to those that many women encounter when they have children. When I was still working full time, I really missed my children, wanted to be with them, and worried about how being in daycare for 40-plus hours a week would affect them. Externally, I was getting all of these messages about what I needed to do to be a good mother.
Meanwhile, my home life was chaotic and my work life was squeezed by parenting demands. My husband and I were both newspaper reporters, and a reporter’s day doesn’t neatly end at the dot of 6 p.m., when our day-care center closed. Going part-time at the newspaper wasn’t an option. [When] my husband [was] hired by a paper in a different city, that was my chance to start freelancing part-time. I made a small fraction of what I’d been making at my full-time job and had no benefits, but was able to spend a lot of time with my kids.
Q: How did the actual experience differ from your expectations?
A: I didn’t know exactly what to expect, because I’d never done anything like it before. But it was difficult for a while. My sons were a handful — they’re two very high-energy, strong-willed boys, 17 months apart — and I probably underestimated how hard it can be to keep any two small children entertained and happy through a long, cold Minnesota winter. That was probably the biggest surprise, because at the time, books and TV shows commonly portrayed daily life with small children as almost always enjoyable and pleasant. Since then, the media portrayals have become more frank. The message that I think most stay-at-home parents get now is that it can be fun and rewarding, but it can also be difficult and isolating.
Q: In what ways did being a stay-at-home mother make you happy? How did it (or has it) made you unhappy?
A: To answer your second question first, staying home with small children often felt lonely, frustrating and tedious. The interests of small children and adults simply don’t always mesh. At the time, we happened to live in a neighborhood with very few small children. So most days, unless I could arrange a mom-kid play date with a friend who had children, it would be just my two small sons and me. And there were long afternoons when I would crave a break and adult interaction. I would leap up with delight when the phone rang. Even a conversation with a telemarketer could be a nice momentary distraction from sitting on the floor playing with plastic action figures.
But of course the three of us had some wonderful times, too. Very often, we would be at the playground or beach or somewhere, and I would consciously pause to notice how great it was to be with my kids, outdoors, enjoying the afternoon. I knew that our time to do that was limited. And we did a lot of fun things: making Christmas gifts, playing word games, venturing out to playgrounds and parks we’d never visited before. I helped my older son invent a cookie recipe, bake a batch, and enter it in a state fair baking contest. Overall, I am glad I had the experience of spending as much time with my sons as I did. Now that they’re teenagers, their younger years seem to have rushed by very quickly. All three of us, I think, can look back on great memories and know we made the most of those years while we could.
Q: What advice would you give any woman contemplating being a stay-at-home mom?
A: I avoid giving anyone advice about what they should do with their lives or how they should raise their kids. That said, I would urge people who are considering quitting their jobs to carefully examine the financial consequences, looking beyond the immediate repercussions and considering the future and its various possibilities. The problem is, when you leave a job you’re forgoing more than just your current paycheck and a few nice things. You’re losing out on future raises, promotions, retirement benefits. You’re taking a risk, because in many professions, once you leave it can be very difficult to get back in. Studies show mothers who exit the workforce pay lifetime income penalties. Those who are placing themselves in a position of economic dependence on their partners should consider what they would do if something happened to that income due to divorce, death, disability or job loss. Some people might ultimately decide that, even if they’re spending as much on daycare as they’re earning, it’s worth it in order to keep the job, the earning power, the chance for promotions. Because the daycare bills only go on for a handful of years — at the very least, they’re reduced once the child enters school — whereas a career goes on for much longer. I know all too well how hard to can be, when you’re gazing down at your baby, to see that far ahead.