Friday, April 18, 2003

As a former full time work outside the home mother, a former unemployed full time stay at home mother, and a current part time employed, part time student, mostly-at-home mother, I really appreciated this meditation on balancing motherhood and employment from austinmama.com.

The key must be striking a balance - time with your family, time for your own pursuits, enough money to get by, enough extra for the occasional treat. But Adam and I can't ever seem to find the point where all those things come out even. Both of us working full time means plenty of money, but no time. We end up spending lots of money on convenience (i.e. take out food), missing our children, and feeling rushed and hectic all the time. One of us working full time means that we all have more time but less money, and one of us has much more time with and responsibility for the children, something we had hoped to avoid.

When we both worked full time, Adam and I tried various schemes to keep Drew out of daycare. We cobbled together a network of childcare - unpaid help from friends and family, paid help in our home, working different shifts - with varying degrees of success. The exhaustion and stress of working opposite shifts, constant solo childcare duty, and never seeing each other nearly did us in, and we admitted defeat and put Drew in a series of daycares, all of which seemed great at first, but ultimately were less than satisfactory. So when Franny was born, I quit my job and stayed home full time.

I loved having so much time for my kids and getting to be there for all their little triumphs and tragedies. The slower rhythm of our life was like heaven after the rushed speed at which we'd been living. But the lack of adult company nearly drove me insane. In retrospect, I think I was fighting post-partum depression for a good chunk of Franny's first year, and spending so much time around the non-verbal and barely verbal didn't help a bit. Also, domestic work is draining. It never ends (especially when you have little helpers going along behind you, undoing everything you do), and it's pretty thankless work. When I was employed outside the home, I got a nice paycheck every two weeks, regular pats on the back from my manager and co-workers, and once a year I got an annual review, a bonus and a raise. At home, no one stopped to say, "Wow, great work washing those poopy underwear!"

Not to mention the lack of any paycheck at all, something which significantly altered our standard of living. Most mothering and women's magazines run a regular feature - "Can You Afford to Stay at Home?" in which they argue that working is so expensive (daycare, work clothes, gas, lunches out, dry cleaning, etc.) that you'd actually be better off if you quit your job and stayed home. (Oddly, no one ever argues that the expense of men working outweighs what they bring home in a paycheck.) There is some truth to all of this, but the flip side is that those expenses don't disappear when you quit working. Yes, I cook more from scratch now and we spend less on take out food, but I also spend much more on outings and lunches with the kids than I ever did on lunches at work.

And it's important to consider the opportunity costs of not working. I haven't contributed to a 401k or retirement plan in 3 years. I feel ok with this, because I started socking away retirement money early and I intend to be in a position to contribute again at some point, but it's a fact that my retirement will be reduced by the years that I wasn't employed full time. When I rejoin the full time workforce, I know my skills will be rusty, and I won't have the on the job experience of those who've been working while I've been at home - I'll most likely have to start several rungs down the ladder from where I left. I knew all of this when I left the workforce, but Adam wanted to continue in his career and I was planning to switch fields, so it made more sense for me to take some time off and then go back to school and find a different kind of work. I don't regret the decision - I still think it was the best thing for our family, but it's been harder in some ways than I expected and I've found myself longing for something more than domestic work.

Our latest attempt at balance involves me working part time and taking a class, while I debate the merits of going back to graduate school (more on that in another entry). It’s a nice compromise in some ways – I’m bringing in some money, I’m getting some intellectual fulfillment, and I still get lots of time with my kids. In fact, that’s the biggest drawback; I’m working part time, going to school, and still providing close to full time child care. It’s becoming obvious to me that I can’t continue to wedge everything else in on top of full time care giving – I’m either going to have to carve out some space for work and / or school, or give up those endeavors. I can’t keep up this schedule with a newborn, so I’m considering what I can pare out of my life for the next year (definitely school, and maybe work as well). I’m also making peace with the idea of putting Franny and the baby in full time day care when the baby’s a year old.

But who knows what life will look like then. That’s the tricky part of this high wire act – we’re making decisions based on today’s circumstances, and by the time we’ve implemented those decisions our children have grown into the next stage and our circumstances look completely different. Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have had to think about this; our roles – the trusty breadwinner with his fedora and briefcase, the happy homemaker vacuuming the living room in pearls and waiting for hubby at the door with a martini – would have been set for us. Maybe in another fifty years, our grandchildren will have created a world where work and family commitments can be balanced without resorting to stereotypical gender roles. In the mean time, we’re making it up as we go along, and hoping for the best.

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