My Case Against Stay-at-Home Parenting

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With just three months left until we welcome our first child, my husband and I have naturally been discussing how to best manage our future family, in terms of child care. As the breadwinner in my marriage, I’ve pondered what life might be like with a stay-at-home husband and dad. Financially, we could afford to live off my income alone, eliminate the need to outsource child care and designate my husband as the primary caretaker. And from an emotional standpoint, it’s comforting to imagine our child being cared for by a parent rather than a hired caregiver.

But we’ve ultimately decided no matter how wide our income disparity and no matter who is bringing home the smaller paycheck, entirely opting out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home parent is far too risky. The cons outweigh the pros.

I didn’t always think like this. The single breadwinner model used to be the accepted norm in our country, and in some circles, during the turn of the century, it was considered an aspiration — a luxury practiced by the “elite, successful women who can afford real choice,” according to Lisa Belkin’s 2003 New York Times piece.

But times have changed. The economy has changed. We now know some of the struggles that surfaced for the aforementioned opt-out generation. And after spending the better part of the last two years examining the lives of couples and their financial choices and pouring over loads of research on the topic for my upcoming book “When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women,” I’ve come to the conclusion that stay-at-home parenting just isn’t worth it.

Bottom line: If the strength of your marriage and your finances is important to you, it’s best to keep working — at the very least, for the following three reasons.

You’ll have more financial stability and freedom.

While two incomes can certainly lead to more expenses, such as more vacations, nicer cars and outsourced help, when the money’s managed properly and households save well and spend conservatively, it can result in increased financial stability for everyone. If one partner gets laid off, not all is lost. There is the financial support of the other spouse — and hopefully some savings — to help keep the lights on while a new job materializes. As this academic summary from Hope College and Cornell University points out, “Not only are two wages often necessary to adequately provide for the needs of most families, dual-earner couples are less economically vulnerable than single-earner families, for whom a layoff can mean financial collapse.”

But perhaps my biggest fear for any stay-at-home parent is the loss of one’s individual financial independence. Financial autonomy is critical to any marriage. It reduces conflict over money matters and provides each partner with more freedom and flexibility to make choices, especially if the marriage fails and he or she needs to self-support. You don’t need to earn an equal amount or more money than your partner. You just need to earn enough so if you had to solely support yourself one day, you could. In practice, this could mean working part time and caring for your children part time, but unless you have a major inheritance parked somewhere, it can’t realistically mean departing from the workforce altogether.

You’ll enjoy greater career success. 

When kids enter our lives, many of us will be at pivotal points in our careers or, at least, still have promising trajectories ahead. A major and costly tradeoff to becoming a stay-at-home parent is losing that momentum you’ve worked so hard to establish. Can you really afford this in the long run? Sure, the math may tell you it’s more economical to quit your job and be the primary caregiver today, but what about five or 10 years from now? If you have hopes of ever returning to your old post and picking up where you left off once your children are in school, it may not be so easy.

I’ll never forget what I learned from one working mom of two children profiled in my book. She said it’s much more feasible to have your kids taken care of when they are young and you’re climbing the corporate ladder or investing in your career than it is to be missing in action when they are in grade school and need more parental guidance.

She preached the importance of continuing to work when your children are young so that you can go on to earn the seniority that’s often necessary to call the shots and create a better work/life balance as your kids grow older and demand more of your time. And as Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book, “Lean In”: “Women’s average annual earnings decrease by 20 percent if they are out of the workforce for just one year … 30 percent after two or three years, which is the average amount of time professional women off-ramp from the workforce.”

I suspect the same — maybe even worse — is true for men who leave the corporate world and try to regain their professional status after being a stay-at-home father — due to the social stigma. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that dads who left work for even a short period of time to tend to family matters received lower evaluations and suffered more negative performance ratings at work than women who opted out.

Your risk of divorce is lower.

Economists at Boston University found that dual-income marriages are more secure, and couples are less likely to split than those in marriages with only one working spouse. Further, according to the book “Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have it All,” marriages in which there is a sole breadwinner get divorced at a rate 14 percent above average, the highest of any income split. And if income and housework is divided evenly, the risk of divorce is 48 percent lower than average. Why? The authors say it’s got a lot to do with the fact that dual-income marriages have more financial stability. Being a sole breadwinner carries a tremendous amount of stress, and having a partner to share the weight can lead to more harmony and compatibility.

Now, you may be wondering, what about the children? Let’s not forget the most important people in our lives. Aren’t children better off when raised by a stay-at-home parent than a babysitter or daycare attendant? Conventional wisdom may lead one to think so, but from an academic standpoint, new research finds this to be false. After evaluating the grade point averages of 135,000 Danish 15 year olds whose mothers worked and whose mothers stayed at home, a research team led by Cornell University concluded that, ”maternal employment has a positive effect on children’s academic performance.” The authors believe that when both parents work, a bigger pool of money provides parents the ability to spend more on education enrichment like tutoring, music and sports.

Okay, but are kids happier with a parent at home? As sociologist Kathleen Gerson, author of the “Unfinished Revolution,” told me, the most important thing for your children to witness is that you have a healthy relationship with your work and your money. If they sense that you hate your job, it won’t matter how much you’re bringing in. They won’t appreciate it.

So the key here is not to just work for the sake of working and to defy stay-at-home parenting with just any job. If you want to make the most of this tradeoff, best to find work that actually feels fulfilling to you — and the kids will be alright.

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