The stay-at-home dilemma

Even though my blog is only a few weeks old,  I have already received a lot of terrific feedback from women about my book project. I want to share one email with you because it raises an issue that that I’ve thought about deeply since becoming a mom and it’s a topic that I intend to address in depth in my book.

P. from Toronto wrote the following:

“I don’t have a good ‘wish I had known’ story, but I thought I might share two recurrent conversations that I seem to be having with women friends. The first one is about what to do about going back to work (or not) when your youngest is now in full day school. For some friends, they had just finished PhDs or had jobs they didn’t like so there is no career to which to return. In other cases, they feel a bit stuck because in the time that has passed since they started staying home, their entire family ecosystem has evolved so that the mom does all of the house stuff including getting kids to activities etc. So her possible return to work has logistical, social and emotional impacts in addition to the basic and large impact of needing extra help. Perhaps there is a ‘I wish I had known’ discussion in there?

The other conversation many of us keep having is about our desire for a ‘wife’ (the old-fashioned kind), a ‘secretary’ (same) or a rent-a-grandparent. I’m not sure what the ‘I wish I had known’ story is in there but that topic sure resonates with 40ish moms in my group of friends.”

The situations that P. describes above are central to some of the recommendations that I personally want to pass along to women. In my case, I gave up a PhD to help my late husband Malcolm run the business that he had started just one year before and which provided his only source of income. Malcolm’s cancer had just come back and it was clear that he needed help. He was far too ill to do it on his own. I took a one year leave of absence from a fully funded PhD in order to help carry on the business and to give Malcolm time to get better.

Malcolm clearly still needed help one year later so I persisted. By the time he died I was in a real bind. My PhD research was too dated for me to go back and by then I had less interest in the topic. I was dealing with cancer on a daily basis as well as running a business; my previous academic work seemed far less compelling.

When Malcolm died I was in the process of applying for an Executive MBA but without a business to pay for the $65,000+ price tag, I couldn’t realistically pursue it. Why wasn’t there a business all of a sudden you might ask? Because our business depended on Malcolm for its existence. We ran a wholesale and retail business based on products that Malcolm conceived and created. I worked with Malcolm to develop the ideas and occasionally I gave him an idea that he developed into a product, but I couldn’t possibly replace the creative and artistic component that he provided. Nor could I hire that out; it was his original work. I was sunk. There was no obvious way for me to continue the business, which meant that my income was about to disappear.

Just as P. describes above, I had no career to go back to and no obvious path ahead. I was capable and had business experience but I didn’t have an easily definable skill (i.e. accountant, engineer, etc).

The underlying problem

In retrospect, my problem was obvious: I had allowed myself to become entirely dependent on my husband for my living. Thankfully I did not have any children at that point or I would have been in much bigger trouble.

It took me more than two years to sort out the mess after Malcolm died. Years ago, when I made the choice to stay in the business with Malcolm, I wish I had thought to ask, “What will I do if he dies? Where will my income come from?” I was so busy helping him stay afloat that I never took the time to step back and look critically at our situation.

It concerns me when I see women set themselves up to be dependent on their partner’s income while managing mostly unpaid family work. I get it: I’m a mom and I do most of the running around, planning and so on for our family. I see how the dependence on mom for structural support develops and how difficult it is to re balance. A child comes along and you take the first year off. Then perhaps you decide to stay at home because you want two anyway and you want to spend the early years with your kids. Then you look into childcare for two kids and decide that with the cost and hassle, you don’t end up making that much money going back to work so why not stay at home, save yourself the stress and take the opportunity to get fully involved in your children’s lives. Then the activities start and first thing you know you’ve become the CEO of home central. You can’t imagine how on earth you’d ever replace yourself, physically and financially. If you paid someone to do what you’re doing, it would cost a fortune, right?

But my question to all moms is this: If your husband disappeared tomorrow morning, what position would you be in? Consider the following:

1. Where would the money to live on come from? Would there be enough?

2. Would it cover your current life-style: house, kids’ activities and so on?

3. If you have no job to go back to, what will you do? What are your options?

4. If your husband died, would you have enough insurance money to cover all of your debts and tide you over while you reinvent yourself? If you’re divorcing, there is no insurance to help out.

5. Would you have enough money to hire the help that you would doubtless need to take care of the unpaid work that you used to do?

6. Would you have enough to help out with your kids’ education?

Difficult decisions

Going back to work or discovering another career might cause short term pain but I would argue that the pain is worth it in some circumstances. Each family’s situation is unique so there is no single answer for everyone. Asking “what if” simply serves as a powerful tool to look beyond the assumptions we’ve made about our lives. Few widows expect to become widows. Every divorcee I’ve spoken to and/or know went into her marriage thinking it would last forever.

My goal is to encourage women to ask uncomfortable questions and to set up some buffers right now while they have the time and emotional resources to do it. If your reply is that you’re insanely busy at the moment, just try handling your current work load while dealing with death or divorce and the myriad emotions (all of them terribly negative) that go along with that. We never know just how easy we had it until somebody pulls the rug out from under us.

If your response is that you can’t afford to re balance the situation at home, then you are in an even more precarious position. Perhaps consider putting your creativity to work and ask, “How could I afford to have someone else do more of the work at home?” or “How can I protect myself financially? What would it take?” Creativity works its magic once we give it time and space. If you really enjoy being at home and can’t stomach the thought of leaving, then explore some work-at-home options. If you disliked your previous work, as I did, then take the opportunity to explore the sorts of things that bring you joy and make you passionate.

If you don’t know what your passions are, then you might find the following book helpful: The Passion Test, by Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood. The latter helped me to refocus my energies on the things that really matter to me. This book project is for me the result of a long process of identifying my passions.

In the end, what I have learned is that everything we do in life involves a choice. Sadly, most of our choices are made unconsciously. We find ourselves moving along a path without really knowing how we ended up there. Whether we like it or not, that’s still a choice. What I’m hoping you’ll do is expose some of those choices to the light and ask “Is this the best choice for me and my family? Am I happy and protected?”

Regarding P.’s second conversation with her friends, I have joked with my husband Mark that my next husband will be a wife.


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9 Responses

  1. Doris, this is great advice. As the breadwinner in our family, with a stay-at-home husband managing our home and children’s activities, I have a few other pieces of advice for stay-at-home parents and their spouses:
    – insurance! I have upped both my and my husband’s insurance. Should something happen to him, I would need to hire full-time care; if something were to happen to me, he would need a substantial cushion before embarking on paid employment;
    – make sure you have wills and have discussed your wishes with the person (or persons) you identify as guardians and executors;
    – check that any RRSPs and bank accounts are accessible to a surviving spouse — this is not automatic!

    Thanks for the posts Doris — they are now required reading for me! Kathryn

    1. Hi Kathryn,

      Those are great contributions. Thank you! Yes, insurance is critical. It comes up in most of my interviews as an issue. So does the importance of wills. I really appreciate your feedback. Keep it coming!

  2. When I had my first child, ten years ago, it was not hard to make my decision to stay at home. It had been my plan from the start and in my mind, I was the only one who could take care of my kids. I did go back to work for a period of four months while I was pregnant with my second child. I had a lot of difficulty leaving my son at the daycare, but I knew it would be short lived. I stayed home until my daughter was ready to go to school.

    I was happy to go back to work but after being off for four years it was hard to find a job since I didn’t have recent experience. Luckily, I was able to find a few jobs thanks to some of my contacts. I worked as an assistant researcher and then as a secretary in a Montessori school. These jobs were nice but not gratifying. While working at the school, I found out I was pregnant with my third child. It was exciting but at the same time I worried about my career. I decided to stay home for another four years to take care of my new baby girl since I had done the same with my two other children.

    It is during this time that I questioned my decisions. My husband had been working for the past ten years and had been successful in his job. He was now a manager, had a social circle and lots of stimulation. I was becoming resentful of having forgotten myself in this process. My husband was always appreciative of his home wife and fortunately finances were evenly split. It was nice to have this equality, but at the same time I didn’t feel gratified. What had happened to my career? I had studied in psychology more than a decade ago, but it was such a vague domain. Where was I going to go? I could do an administration job, but was that what I really wanted to do?

    After much reflection, I decided to apply in education. Since I wasn’t up to date in any field and didn’t want to work at just any job, I decided that it was best to go back to school and to specialize in a career of my choice. To my surprise, I was accepted and will start my new journey in September. It is very exciting, but at the same time it is nerve racking to go back with three kids. It will be a busy year for sure. I am looking forward to meeting new people and making my mind work. It will be gratifying. Having stayed home for many years, I have missed a lot on my career and social life. Do I regret my decision to stay at home? It was nice to see my kids grow up, but if I had to do it again I would think about my career too. In today’s society there are private day cares and my kids would have been fine in this kind of environment. In my younger years I thought that I was the only one who could do this job. At forty, I see things differently. I envy my husband for his career. If something were to happen to me, he would still have the stability of his career and social circle. I do not have this because I put my career on the sideline and ten years is a long time to do that. What will my retirement look like?

    I am still grateful for everything I have, but it is definitely something to think about….so many obstacles can happen: divorce, sickness…. Perhaps women should have courses on life and decisions when they are in high school. We don’t always think of the consequences of our decisions…

  3. Having stayed home for almost 13 years now, I am at a crossroads of sorts. It has been an enriching (albeit sometimes frustrating/boring/lonely) experience. While I have volunteered extensively at both the kids’ schools and in the community, it had become apparent that it’s time for me to move on to something that I can call my own – and that someone will pay me actual money to do!
    I, too, lack paid work experience. I was an account manager at a bank before I had children, on my way up the ladder.
    However, when I recently began work on putting a resume together, I realized that all of the volunteering I had done had given me skills which can easily be applied to the workplace. It wasn’t clear to me then, but it looks pretty impressive on my resume!
    Funny, when my mother commented that I needed to find something rewarding that I could be proud to do, I told her, “I already do that. I just need something that will pay me a reasonable salary, so that I can continue to volunteer and be there for my kids! And maybe go on a vacation!”

    1. That’s a great point Kelly. As women we tend to underestimate the value of our contributions. Your volunteering experience may well lead you down a new and fruitful path. I wish you all the best – and great vacations.

  4. The stay-at-home dilemma vs. the stay-at-home not by choice.

    I started questioning myself, my well-being and my whole-being when I lost my job last fall. I was terminated without cause on a beautiful day in September; it was on a Monday and on top of that the day of my Mother’s birthday. What did I do? What I didn’t do? What did I say? What I didn’t say? I felt like I had been hit by a dagger to the heart for no apparent reason. I couldn’t understand what was happening, why someone would to do this me, why was I not valued and appreciated – I was purely blind-sided, I didn’t see the signs coming.
    I am hard-working, friendly, jovial and well respected person, who suddenly her world felt apart. My colleagues, my friends and my family couldn’t comprehend what was happening; it felt like someone had passed away. It did! I was told few weeks later by the counselor I was seeing that losing your job is like losing someone. You may not have lost a physical person but you lost something and in my case it was my job. I didn’t know how to get closure, I wrote a letter to my boss and to the Board of Directors expressing how I felt, and it gave me some closure. I was able to meet my boss to find out the reason, what I was told was an insignificant excuse. I attributed this as she is trying to save her herself. I finally got my power back when I told her how I felt and how I had lost my trust and self-respect. I got my own closure, I will never know the real reason of my termination, but at least I was able to move on.
    You are probably asking why this has to do with the stay-at-home dilemma, it does. Before having children, I had a wonderful career working for the Prime Minister of Canada and for the Minister of Fisheries & Oceans and Environment. I stayed home for 5 years to raise my 2 children and it was rewarding but it was also challenging at times.
    But going back to work after being home for so long was not easy, it was hard. I was out of date, older and with a lack current experience. My husband had just retired from a 32 years career with the House of Commons – Security services and I was wondering will I ever get that – a career! Yes, I am jealous and envious of the career he did and wondering will I ever get that now that I am approaching 40. Yes, I didn’t have to worry about babysitting or putting the kids on the bus, my husband was there. But you soon learner that it is a learning curve for him and for you as the role has been reverse. I don’t think either of us has adjusted to the role reversal.

    So now I am wondering if the stay-at-home vs. the stay-at-home not by choice dilemma will ever give me closure. I stayed home to raise my family and it was rewarding but now I staying home not by choice and I have to deal with it.
    Even after 8 months and going through all the stages of grievances, I still have my ups and downs day; they come lately by trigger of events and of course by having to start at number one again – it is no fun job searching and it’s not easy, as I just got notice again I was not selected for a position. Yes, I am bummed out but I guess when I least expect it sometime will come up.
    I am thankful for all that I have, but I learned that only YOU can make the changes required. I also learned that it is ok to let yourself go, to cry, to get mad, to be angry at the world, but it is also ok to ask for help, to consult, to volunteer, to take a class, to love and to enjoy life as it is too short.

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