Which Parent Should Stay Home With the Kids?

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:

  1. Most households need two incomes, and
  2. Instability in the job market has led to dual incomes as a necessary component of family income security.

Which Parent Should Stay Home With the Kids?
Which Parent Should Stay Home With the Kids?
Each reason is compelling by itself?but I think that the second one has become the more important of the two, at least in the past few years. It?s easier to lose a job than it has been in at least 60 years, and harder to replace one for all the same reasons.

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.

The considerations

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?

( Photo from Flickr by Kai Hendry )

19 Responses to Which Parent Should Stay Home With the Kids?

  1. I have been the one to stay home over the years. This was true for many reasons:
    1. Nursing (no explanation needed there)
    2. I wanted to stay home
    3. My husband was at a better place in his career
    4. My son was a sickly little kid and I was way more comfortable handling the medical stuff.

    I do think people could get by with one income if they can forego much of what is available for purchase these days. Many families survived just fine in a 1400 square foot ranch years ago. Heck, I grew up in a 720 foot bungalow without a basement and there were 5 of us. Life is about tradeoffs. Many people today buy their homes based on two incomes and then kids come later. That really can put you in a bad predicament if one parent does want to stay home.

    It is a very individual decision with individual circumstances. I think it is especially hard today because it isn’t like you can just say ‘I will sell my big house and move to a smaller one so I can stay home’. Many homes are underwater and that just isn’t an option.

  2. Hi Kris–I agree with you that many of us lived on far less when we were younger, I know I did! Still I think everything is complicated by the fact that nearly everything is more expensive today. For example, houses, healthcare, education and utilities have all grown in price at a level that far outpaced salary increases over the years. The other point is that we have standards today, ie, everyone has healh insurance, cellphones, car insurance, college education funds–a few decades ago not everyone had all of these and it wasn’t considered neglectful. Today…?

    We’re forced to be more creative in all that we do in order to strike a balance between cost cutting and maintaining what’s absolutely necessary.

  3. Sounds like a rational decision, considered and well-taken. In our house, it’s been the Mrs. that has stayed home with the kiddos. That started as a function of living overseas, where career prospects for her just weren’t there. The situation continued when we moved back the U.S. So far (16 yrs and counting) it’s worked just fine.

  4. Hi Andrew–I think it’ll be different for everyone and you really have to handle it in the way that’s best in your individual situation. For us, the work-at-home option was there, so it took on the greatest importance. Not everyone has that option, but if you do it should be a big part of the decision.

    I think that even if work at home isn’t an option at the time the decision of who stays home is made, it’s worth pursuing later, especially as the kids get older and the stay at home parent begins to gain some control of his or her time.

  5. What you also want to consider FIRST: Have you set yourself up for expenses that are too tough to manage on one (regular) paycheck? Downsizing the house, maintaining used cars instead of new, and so on. If you’re living at the limits of two incomes and you want to go to one .. you need the expenses of a single income.

  6. Hi JS–That’s an outstanding point. Often the need for two incomes disappears when you cut back on basic living expenses. I wrote a post on that topic (Micro Frugality VS. Macro Frugality). The combination of having an a work at home situation plus lower basic living expenses might even more than offset the absence of two full time incomes. And you may need that for the expenses for the kids!

  7. This article is particularly timely for me. My wife is 6 months pregnant and we’ve been talking about becoming a one-income family. The choice as to who would stay home was easy as my salary and benefits package is much better. Plus, my wife (a preschool teacher) has a masters in early childhood and loves little kids would be a much better caregiver. We live in NYC where I have friends who pay $1500 a month for daycare and that is AFTER the child is potty trained (more expensive otherwise). My wife wants to continue working at some point, and we’ve talked about starting a daycare ourselves or babysitting to make up some income. I don’t know…I guess we’ll see…

  8. Hi Andrew–When you factor $1500 childcare plus commuting expenses, and gross them up for taxes, you’d have to make a very healthy income to overcome the benefits of your wife staying home with the baby. If she can find some way of making at least a small income from home, you might even come out ahead.

    Has she thought about starting a blog about early childhood? As a new mother she’d have plenty to write about and potentially a wide following.

  9. well the $1500 was for midtown Manhattan, it would be slightly cheaper in Queens, but expensive nonetheless. My wife is definitely looking into doing something to help supplement our income. I mentioned the early childhood blog for her and she said she’ll think about it.
    P.S: I saw one of your posts regarding BYPU 101 and may look into it…it seems like it would be helpful to teach a beginner how to start a blog. Its harder than I thought, I have so much to learn. Hopefully, if I can get the hang of it, I can get my wife to start one too.

  10. That’s an excellent idea. It will help you break the bloggin barrier, and once you do opportunities will open up all over the place. There’s SO MUCH you can do with a blog! My freelance writing career has come as a result of blogging.

  11. Just found your blog and it has been so helpful! For my husband and me, I have the most earning potential since I have a master’s degree and currently work for the federal government. He has been unemployed for the past two years due to some medical issues and he stays home with our 3-year-old son. My mom keeps him on days my husband has appointments or errands. He has proven to be an excellent housekeeper and I honestly don’t know what the house would look like if he worked, since I’m so tired in the evenings!

    Since we have had difficulty getting him on disability, we are looking at ways he can supplement our income. We’ve slashed everything we possibly can, live in a modest home, drive used vehicles, and are still struggling to pay for groceries and utilities. He is going to look into freelance writing (we are both writers) and blogging since that’s something he can do from home on his time that won’t be a problem with his physical limitations.

  12. Hi Leann–I think you’re heading in the right direction with your husband being the at home parent. If he gets the disability claim, you’re all set. If now he can look for a work at home situation. They’re more common than ever. Even a few hundred extra dollars per month could make a difference.

    If he goes the work at home route, check out WAHM.com. They have a lot of ideas and discussions going on there.

  13. At the beginning of the article, there are two numbered “complications” stated as to why the wife doesn’t quit her job once she’s pregnant. Leaving it at that gives the impression that these are the only two reasons the wife works once she’s pregnant. That is a sexist message. Just because a woman is pregnant has nothing to do with quitting her job, because that should be treated like any medical condition (if there are problems with pregnancy or birth). Also if she breast feeds, that may interfere with her job for a while, but again, just as with any medical condition, that should not be an entitlement to stop working.

  14. Hi Sherry – From an historic perspective, up until about the 1980s, women typically did exit the workforce upon the arrival of the first baby. It wasn’t judged – it was considered the natural order that a woman would take care of the children. Please understand that however that’s viewed today, it wasn’t considered “wrong” at the time.

    Also, the ability to survive on one income made this possible, and that’s why so many woman opted to go that route. That is all the first two complications refer to. They are to highlight that we live in a more complicated world where tough choices often have to be made.

    I certainly hope that you got more out of reading this post than being offended by a perceived sexist slight at the beginning of the article.

    Understand that what we think today – including what I think – doesn’t change what happened in the past. Some things may have been wrong when judged by today’s standards, but there were different practices and beliefs at different times in history, and they were widely accepted at the time. We can’t rewrite history, no matter how much we disagree with how it turned out. It was a different time and a different place that wasn’t subject to our opinions today.

    What do you think of the post otherwise?

  15. I meant that the two numbered points make it look like the wife’s job is still less important than the husband’s. I wasn’t referring to the past. I realize that in the past the wife’s income was considered less important than the husband’s. The only acceptable reason for this goes back to when there were few if any jobs available for women. However, this lack of availability certainly must have been affected by the attitudes at that time — the ones you mentioned in your reply to my post.

    If I had lived in that earlier time, I personally would have done whatever was possible to foster jobs for wives. I would never have considered it the acceptable order, or whatever your wording was.

    Every adult should have income that I call “first level”, meaning from employment, investment, some type of “finding” such as lottery winning or finding enough of value to live on, including “living off the land”. When your resources have to come from a family member or friend, including a spouse, that income is what I call “second level”. To me it’s not much better than charity — reasons are obvious. If there were only one job available to a couple, with husband and wife equally able to be successful with the job, actually the woman should get it because there ARE differences between the genders and the woman needs the protection of a job. In a push-comes-to-shove sort of situation, the man could actually provide from living off the land, since he’s naturally endowed as being able to do this much better than the woman. I’m tired of the sexist, NON-NECESSARY gender roles, starting with men paying for dates. It usually begins right there!

  16. Hi Sherry – I think you’re reading too much into the situation. If you look at the post as a whole, it’s more than clear that I assigned no gender superiority at all. In fact, I made it clear that the decision as to who should work outside the home and who should be home should be based on the merits of each partner’s employment situation. You’re taking this in a direction it never went.

  17. I want to emphasize that the two points at the beginning of the article make it look like the reasons women need to work are because men are not able to support the family. This is NOT the case!

  18. Yes it is Sherry. In most middle class families, that’s the whole dilemma. And for what it’s worth, your comment “actually the woman should get it because there ARE differences between the genders and the woman needs the protection of a job. In a push-comes-to-shove sort of situation, the man could actually provide from living off the land, since he?s naturally endowed as being able to do this much better than the woman” is the only truly sexist comment on this page – from me or anyone else.

  19. Well,someone has to get the job and the woman needs the protection of a job in society. SHE can’t be the one to live off the land, can she???? Just being “devil’s advocate” because that’s one way to deal with the principle of something, rather than just dealing with real life situations. But actually my scenario could happen.

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