Goodbye suits, hello sweats: the decision to stay-at-home

I have twenty-two jobs, and not one of them pays a dime. Welcome to the world of the stay-at-home parent.

I know there are many moms-to-be (and a few dads) out there considering the stay-at-home option. I remember when I was expecting, and I wondered what staying home would be like. At that point in my life financially it wasn’t an option, but later, after I had my second child, it was. I do remember being mighty grateful for President Clinton’s Family and Medical Leave Act which allowed me to stay home with my firstborn a full twelve weeks instead of the usual three or four. That extended leave convinced me that I wanted to find a way to stay home with my children full-time.

I will say that the job is not for everyone. To anyone who has ever asked me my advice, I have always said, wait as long as you can to make the decision. Definitely wait until after the baby comes if at all possible. Why, you ask? I advise waiting because the yet-to-be parent can never fully know what it will be like to be a parent until the baby decides it is time to arrive. You notice I phrase this in terms of the baby’s choice, because most times, that is what birth is, the time the baby decides is right to join the outside world. This fact alone can be difficult for a fully functioning adult to grasp, that some portion of her or his decision-making ability henceforth will be dictated by someone who won’t vote for twenty-one years.

What are you waiting for, you ask? You are waiting to see what it feels like to be home with a baby twenty-four hours a day, to see whether it suits your temperament, and to decide whether stay-at-home parenting is the right choice for you and your new family. I have known many women who planned to return to work they loved after their agreed-upon leave and couldn’t do it when the time came; I know a woman who planned to stay home, did it for six months, and begged for her job back. I know a woman, a mother of three, who returned to work after two weeks of leave with each of her children. I know a man who begged his wife to adopt when they couldn’t conceive and has been happily at home for the last five years. I know a woman with five children and counting who considers those children her mission in life and has even home-schooled them for periods of time. It is hard to know where you will fall upon this spectrum until Little So-and-so has begun to fit into the little unit you call family.

What is it like being home all day with children? First of all being a stay-at-home parent is about much more than the children. Despite the perception that it means hours of munching bonbons and catching up on the soaps, this job demands fine-tuned skills and multi-tasking ability worthy of any CEO. But remember, unlike CEO’s, in a culture like ours where money garners respect, stay-at-home parents get no respect.

Are you wondering what I do all day? Okay, here goes. In an average week here is a list of hats I wear in no particular order: cook, chauffeur, tutor, artist, event planner, classroom aide, gardener, interior decorator, nurse, childcare provider, personal shopper, EMT, singer, maintenance engineer, carpenter, dancer, laundress, house cleaner, dishwasher, accountant, hairdresser, and mechanic. I say no particular order, since I never know in what order or how often my hats will be required. These are all jobs, you’ll notice, that out in the world would pay at least a living wage. Talk to the average working-outside-the-home parent as I have, and you will likely find that he or she pays for at least one of these services, if not several, in order to allow the working-outside-the-home to continue without said home self-destructing.

I can hear the clamor from here: stay-at-home moms (or dads) are a luxury class I can’t afford to join, they’re a thing of the past, or they’re miserable and wasting themselves. Okay, I’ll take one argument at a time. When I worked full-time teaching seventh grade English, my son went to daycare. After I had my daughter, I figured out I’d be bringing home fifty dollars a week after I paid for daycare for the two of them, taxes, commuting costs, and professional expenses. True, if I was a lawyer or doctor or something else that paid better than teaching, the accounting would have been a little different, but I am who I am. If I were a single mother, obviously the equation would need to work differently as well, but luckily for me I am happily married. And for me the math just didn’t compute to going back to work.

As for stay-at-homing being a thing of the past, it seems to depend on whom you ask. I’ve read studies that chronicle the exit of women from the home and into the marketplace in ever-increasing numbers; I’ve read studies that say women are staying home in increasing numbers in recent years, even for a limited number of years, for the wellbeing of the children in the home. On that, the wellbeing of the children, the studies don’t disagree; there is no childcare worker alive who will love your individual child as much as you do. But I digress. By and large we are talking about women here. I do know men who have made the choice to stay home with their children while their wives bring home the paycheck, and for those families, it looks to be working quite well. But just ask these men; they know how few their numbers are.

So, women staying home, are they happy, fulfilled, living up to their potential? Once again I will only speak for myself and say yes, definitely. It’s like that Army slogan (I think it’s the Army), the toughest job you’ll ever love. I work harder, longer hours than any job I’ve ever had, but the job satisfaction is also higher. I may be Ivy-league educated, but I do not lack for stimulation, be it the intellectual, emotional, or physical kind. Get your mind out of the gutter; I am talking manual labor here. I am in better shape in all arenas of my life than I ever was at any other job. I can negotiate a contract on the phone, correct my son’s geometry homework, and cook a three-course dinner simultaneously. I can lift seventy-pound bags of yard waste that the garbage collectors (are they called sanitation engineers now?) leave at the curb as too heavy. I have a network of friends and acquaintances doing the same work with whom to talk, share war stories, swap childcare and play dates, and get advice. My children have thrived with me at home and available to them. They are happy to have the chance to have their friends over in the afternoon, to do their homework in our kitchen rather than a daycare center, and to join such activities and sports as they like without restriction of how they will get there.

I won’t deny that my staying at home has changed my life in ways that some people might consider unacceptable, and these changes are certainly issues to consider if you are thinking about making the leap to stay home. For one I dress in the morning knowing that I am likely to be considerably more dirty, actual dirt we are talking here, by the end of the day. I haven’t bought a suit, a dress (other than for my brother’s wedding), or a pair of shoes with something other than treads in years. We don’t eat out or take food out as much as we did before the kids came along, partially because that is more expensive and partially because I am tired of paying restaurant prices for food my kids mostly don’t eat. We travel less often and go primarily to places within driving distance or places that are very low-key upon arrival and thus less expensive. We don’t have a fancy house or fancy cars or fancy anything, really. If these things matter to you, you may miss them staying at home if your budget says you must pass.

I don’t mind; I think the tradeoffs are worth every lost penny. I haven’t missed a recital or had to take a bad-timing sick day in years. I am happy in my life, in this moment, and I recognize that this moment is the only moment I am sure of getting. I know that my job is necessary, challenging, and appreciated by its customers even if this appreciation isn’t shown in dollars. How many people do you know who can say that about their jobs?

I have only one peeve about the work: it isn’t perceived as real work by society. I should probably amend that to U.S. urban society, since much of the world does appear to more highly value its stay-at-home parents, but currently that is the only society I’ve got. A few times a month people ask me if am I working now, what I am doing, or what I do with my time. Most questioners appear genuinely puzzled, though some are malicious, as if they fear I am not working as hard as they are. It’s that bonbons thing again. My brother, a longtime Chinese medicine student, acupuncturist, and yoga instructor says that his teacher answers needling questions like these in this way: “I am being”. Now my brother has amended this to “I am” in order to keep people from assuming he is a nutcase. Me, though, I wonder. Have we become so consumed as a culture with the quest for the all-mighty dollar that we can’t appreciate anything that doesn’t generate dollars? We certainly all need dollars to fulfill our daily needs, but it comes down to what “needs” really are.

Our basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, protection, and fun are amply covered by my husband’s paycheck. He works reasonable hours in a job that he thinks is valuable and interesting, and he has plenty of time to spend with us. We even save. Mind you, we don’t have a big house or a second house or even a garage, but we have more than we need. And I’ll stay at home, wearing my multiple hats, as long as that meets my needs and the needs of my family, the judgments of some parts of our society be darned.


  1. Thanks for writing your essay on staying at home. I am 52 and single. I adopted my children who are now 3 and 5 years old. Their anguished cries when I went to work convinced me to take an early retirement, move from the big city to a small town in Kansas, and live simply in order to stay at home with my cherished daughters. Fancy cars, big houses, designer clothes be damned. The laughter, the beaming smiles, the "Mommy, I love you soooo much" is that for which I live.

  2. KIrsten I think every woman goes through this thought process around her mid twenties...kind of how i came across this post. btw I love your name, reminds me of an old friend.

  3. great article. i loved it. I am doing the same thing you are and I also realize that we need to treasure every moment, kids will not be little forever..


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