There was a time—only a generation or so ago—when it was considered the natural order that the wife worked until the first child came along and then promptly exited the workforce to stay home with the kids. Today however, the situation is complicated by (at least!) two major factors:
- Most households need two incomes, and
- Instability in the job market has led to dual incomes as a necessary component of family income security.
Why does either parent need to be home at all?
Despite the clear need for two incomes—and the jobs that supply them—there are equally compelling reasons for one parent to be home with the child(ren).
Savings on daycare costs. Daycare costs can easily rival an average house payment and that by itself is a major reason for one parent to be home. My kids are teenagers now, but it cost over $1,000 a month for us to have both in daycare on a full time basis when they were pre-school age—and that was over ten years ago! No, we didn’t have them in any kind of premium facilities—that was the price for a run of the mill daycare, and we live in an area (Atlanta) that hardly qualifies as high cost. I can only imagine what it would cost to have two kids in daycare in places like San Francisco, New York or Washington, DC.
Having at least one parent home with the kids. Any time you hire someone to take care of your kids you’re engaging in a compromise. Yes, someone else can take care of your kids, but let’s be honest–no one will love our kids as much as we do or will take care of them as well as we’d like. There’s a definite peace of mind that comes from being home with your kids—all other complications of the arrangement aside.
Playing “deep safety”. When you have children you quickly learn that emergencies and near-emergencies are a routine part of the parenting job. Kids get sick, they get injured, they have problems at school—when both parents work outside the home either you’re forced to ignore a lot of situations where you probably should be there, or you show up for all of them and jeopardize your job. That’s a no win choice when the stakes are high for you as a parent. At a minimum, every parent wants to be there when emergencies come up.
OK, so you decide that one parent needs to be home with the kids, but which one? This is where things get complicated. This is just my opinion, but since the family’s survival is at stake, the decision as to who stays home with the kids shouldn’t come down to something as vague as who wants to stay home more. Objective factors need to be considered, including…
Earning power. This is the traditional defining factor in the decision, and it makes abundant sense to minimize the financial fallout of one parent leaving a job. The higher earning parent continues to work, while the lower earning one comes home to be a full time parent.
Who has the stronger career prospects? In today’s employment scene that isn’t always the husband. While it may seem more “natural” for the wife to be home, many women have stronger career skills and prospects than their husbands. Even if one parent does earn more than the other, the family’s long term financial prospects may actually improve if the lower earning parent with strong prospects remains on the job.
Who has the better benefit package at work? Benefits are always important, but when you have kids, they’re that much more so. Kids mean frequent trips to the doctor or worse and you need to be prepared. A better benefit package by the lower earning parent may even offset the loss of the higher earner’s extra income.
Who has the greatest ability to create a work-at-home situation? The loss of income from a full-time job can be at least partially offset if the stay at home parent has the ability to work from home through their job, or has the type of skills that can create a work-at-home business. A family that might struggle on a single income could thrive on one-and-a-half incomes.
How my wife and I handled the choice
For my wife and I the deciding factor was the last one — who has the greatest ability to create a work-at-home situation — and that was me. (A close second was benefits—my wife always seemed to have the better package.) My wife works in banking, and that isn’t a field that translates into work-at-home. My situation was and is different.
At the time I was working as a mortgage originator (mortgage sales) with a large mortgage company, a position that lent itself well to working from home. The company, however, tended to discourage working from home so I moved to an independent mortgage brokerage company where it wasn’t a problem. Once I got that up and running, the kids came home for good.
I readily confess that I would almost certainly have made more money working a job outside the home. Yes, you can make as much or more working from home as you could working in an office, but it’s infinitely harder when you’re also the primary care taker for your children. Much of the time I was working no more than 75% of the time, and it could be as low as 50% when the kids weren’t in school. Even so, half an income is better than no income and at least some of the loss was covered by not having to pay for daycare.
Was it a perfect arrangement? No, not at all. There will always be trade-offs when you try to balance work/income with child rearing, but here are some of the things we didn’t lose as a result of deciding that the work-at-home parent would also be the stay-at-home parent:
- One of us was home as the primary care giver for our kids—in their own home—and we didn’t have to wonder what was going on with our own kids when they were being cared for by others
- I was always there for the emergency/near-emergency situations, with no delay as often happens with daycare facilities
- We were able to keep two incomes coming in, even if mine was often inadequate
- We were never without health insurance and other important benefits that my wife’s job provided
- We were able to eliminate daycare and it’s attendant costs and complications
And this one is a bonus—work-at-home has a way of growing on it’s own, and even though our kids are teenagers, I’ve continued on the work-at-home path—which has included contract work and now blogging and freelance blog writing!
It’s interesting how things work out — if you choose the right path!
Have you and your spouse been faced with who stays home with the kids and who continues working outside the house? How did you resolve it, or how do you plan to resolve it?