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Plan B(aby): a case for stay-at-home parents; some at-home parents gladly trade off money for time.

You have a job. You have a baby After your parental leave is up, you find day care for your baby so you can go back to your job. That's "Plan A" and it's what everyone does, right? Well, not exactly In the current cultural climate of two-earner families, overscheduled children, and anxiety about balancing work and family life, Plan B(aby)--staying at home with your child--remains a viable choice for many families.

A few years ago, I saw a full-page ad for a brokerage firm picturing a young mother holding her infant. The tag line read: You are the CEO of your life.

Maybe it's an ironic image. After all, what greater dilemma does many a modern woman face than whether to continue her career or stay home to raise her child? Still, I think the analogy grabs attention in an audience starving for a sense of control over time and priorities. While the brokerage firm's intent was, I imagine, to convey to the young married/new parent demographic the benefits of investing early and often in that company's accounts, I saw more. To me the real privilege of being the CEO of your life means you're in charge of something money can't buy: time.

Staying home to raise children is a choice fraught with financial and emotional implications, to be sure. Living on less is hard, no matter how good the cause. The isolation and the pace of life with children can be, well, just plain no fan some days. And a CEO of her own life is accountable to some pretty important shareholders, who may not dress for success (unless diapers count as board room attire these days) but who have extremely high performance standards and want you on call 24/7.

When my first baby was born 13 years ago, my husband and I agreed that we wanted to have a parent at home. He was dedicated to his then-career as a teacher, and I was a new, breastfeeding mom with a gut-level desire to learn every single thing I could about being a good mother. I couldn't imagine juggling my new baby and a job, and doing both well.

Time in a bottle

I'm apparently not alone in being willing to sacrifice the rewards of the workplace for the benefits of being at home: According to a poll conducted in August 2003 by the Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org), more than haft (52 percent) of Americans would be willing to trade a day off for a day's pay each week; 21 percent said that extra day off would allow them to spend more time with their families, while 19 percent said it would help them to feel less stress and pressure. Eighty-three percent of Americans said they wished they had more time to spend with family, while three in five respondents say they feel pressure to work too much--and 73 percent said they feel pressure to spend too much.

Who thinks staying home with kids is the best investment in human capital a parent could make? Well, the traditional scenario of stay-at-home mom is still a choice for many families: In fact, a 2001 Census Bureau report indicated a five percent increase in the number of mothers with infants who were not in the workforce (the number decreased from 59 percent to 55 percent between 1998 and 2000). This trend was fueled by college-educated, married women--probably those who had more financial resources available through savings or a college-educated spouse's income.

Today's two-parent families are also exploring alternatives to the full-time stay-at-home mom. Dads are staying home in some families; especially when mom earns more money or has a more promising career. In other families, both parents work flexible schedules so that the children are nearly always in one or the other parent's care. Some parents of preteens are opting out of the workforce to reconnect with their young adolescents. And working at home is the Holy Grail for an increasing number of parents.

Money matters

I've interviewed dozens of stay-at-home parents and had informal conversations with many more. The key factors in deciding whether or not to stay at home are the affordability, quality and parents' comfort level with day-care options; the personality of the stay-at-home parent; family dynamics including the division of household labor and expectations of support from the partner working outside the home; the potential career detour for the parent at home, and, topping almost everyone's list, money matters.

It's hard to deliberately choose to earn less money. It usually means changes like fewer dinners out, more macaroni-and-cheese; no Disneyworld, more camping; the lived-in Ford rather than the shiny Saab. Some parents who want to stay home are relocating to their home towns where relatives will be glad to pitch in, or to smaller cities where the cost of living is lower. A few are downsizing to smaller homes or choosing less trendy or prestigious neighborhoods in exchange for more affordable mortgages.

Families with two earners and a couple of kids in day care often find that once they run the numbers--cost of child care and such work expenses as commuting, work wardrobe, convenience foods or meals out, and perhaps being in a higher tax bracket--they find they're bringing home only a few thousand dollars more a year than if they had one earner, one parent at home, and a slightly leaner budget. Many decide a two-income family isn't worth the extra hassle of getting kids to day care, commuting to work, fitting errands and family time in on weekends and feeling more pressure to be Superman or Wonder Woman.

On the other hand, parents who step away from employment even for a few years may sacrifice career continuity, long-term financial security, and medical benefits. Access to health insurance drives a lot of decision-making about family and work. Clearly the need to pay the rent and keep food on the table is why many parents work. But many other moderate-income families find ways to make ends meet when they decide they want to have a parent stay home.

"Staying home is much harder than you can ever imagine," said Jane, a Denver mom working part-time evenings and weekends when her husband is home with their two children, "but it's so rewarding. Some people think only people with money can stay home with their kids. That's not true. It costs money to go to work every day. There are alternatives."

Beyond the bank account

The emotional and physical needs of children during the youngest years are evident. But parents of older children continue to feel the tug of two strong forces on their psyches. In our culture, a job often is not just what pays the grocery bill, but also what defines us in shorthand for other people and what gives us a sense of purpose in life. It's natural for any adult to want to get out there, mix it up with other adults, and make an impact on the marketplace. Some parents who've been at home during their children's early years find that the way their kids need them changes as the kids grow older, but the need for parental presence remains. At the very least, they need you for your driver's license.

School-age children and teenagers can care for themselves physically in many ways: They can fix their own snacks and meals, do household chores, get themselves safely to and from school, even stay home alone for a while. But they also have needs that may not be immediately evident: to talk at the drop of a hat, to be with people who love them unconditionally, to revert to being children after a day of trying to hold it all together in front of teachers and peers. Even as the school years mean freedom to many at-home parents, for others this period is a call to pay closer attention and be even more intentional about family time, communication and a low-stress home life. For some families, their children's adolescence is the time they choose to be home, or at least to work part time instead of full bore.

Sacrifice--or sacrament

Being the CEO of my life isn't always rosy. I've had days when jumping from a plane with a parachute, golden or otherwise, would have been an acceptable escape hatch. Especially in the early years, I often felt desperately that I'd thrown away my potential for making an important contribution to the world in exchange for a life of endlessly monitoring what goes in one end and out the other of a few small human beings.

Yet, like most at-home parents I've asked, I don't regret my decision for a minute. In retrospect there are many lesser choices I'd have made differently: I'd have been better informed and more deliberate about money and budgeting. I'd have felt much less conflicted about making time for myself. I'd have been more intentional about household organization. But given the chance, I would make the same big choice--to be a room at home--in a heartbeat.

I've been baptized and confirmed by the cumulative experience of the years I've put into being my kids' mom and creating a home. And I continue to experience the incomparable grace of many moments of growth and love and transformation through tears, laughter, questions and hugs.

One mother, a former corporate vice president who left her job to be home with her two preteens, said, "Don't just make a pragmatic list of the pros and cons and financials and the nitty-gritty stuff. Ask yourself bigger questions, like what you're going to want your life to look like in retrospect. If you ask yourself those questions. you'll figure out how to make work whatever you want to work."

In other words, go ahead and make Plan A, but don't forget that Plan B(aby) works, too.

RELATED ARTICLE: The conversation stopper.

Just about every at-home parent I've ever talked to has some version of this story: You're at a party, and someone asks, "So, what do you do?" You answer, "I'm a stay-at-home mom (or dad)." Conversation screeches to a halt, and you're guaranteed one of two responses. The person either turns away without another word or practically pats you on the head with a patronizing reply.

"Oh, you must be so busy!" the person gushes. You want to scream, "You have no idea!" Or the person says, "Good for you. I could never do that," as if you clean toilets with a toothbrush for a living. Or you're branded as an "earth mother," which is how I once overheard a well-paid professional mom dismissively describe at-home moms. Or the person suddenly sees you as an ambitionless throwback, a loser mooching off your partner--though he or she won't tell you this to your face.

Counting the cost

Everything from what you wear to where you lunch changes radically when you decide to be an at-home parent. The persona you've built through years of daily work outside the home can evaporate faster than ammonia from a diaper pail. "1 feel a little counter-cultural," says one at-home father, "not because I'm a stay-at-home dad, but because we have a stay-at-home parent at all. Sometimes I feel I'm on the outside looking in."

Emotionally speaking, it costs a lot to be a good parent. Putting your wants and sometimes even your basic needs on hold is par for the course. If you're a stay-at-home parent, you've probably given up a job and a paycheck. You may not be using many of your non-parental skills and talents. And no matter how much you like being home with your child or how secure you are in your choice, you're bound to feel one or more of the following:

* A deep sense of loss for your pre-parent identity;

* Isolation from other adults;

* Exhaustion due to the incessant physical and mental demands made of you as a caregiver, especially by infants and young children;

* Boredom with the repetition of a home-centered daily life.

Still, you may find yourself thinking the same words spoken by one at-home mom of three kids ages 6 and younger: "Just because it's hard doesn't mean I shouldn't be doing it!" If you're determined to "do it," despite the common frustrations, you must learn how to cope with them. Looking them full in the face is the first step.

Excerpt from Strategies for Stay-at-Home Parents By Kristine Berggren (Meadowbrook Press, 2003)
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Title Annotation:Family Life
Author:Berggren, Kris
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 14, 2003
Words:2083
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